Politics in Punjab has undergone a sea change. A state where elections were earlier fought on the issue of Sikh identity, 1984 riots, operation bluestar, Anandpur Sahib resolution and the contentious territorial disputes is now talking about atta-dal and development.
Ironically, for the first time in the political history of the state, credited with the green revolution and making the country self reliant in food, atta-dal is a poll issue. The main political rivals, the Congress and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), are vying with each other with promises of cheap atta-dal.
In response to the SAD slogan of atta-dal for Rs 4 and Rs 20 per kg, the Congress has promised it at half the rates, albeit for the poorest of the poor (antyodya families) and has gone to the extent of redefining poverty in the state by urging the center to redefine norms of BPL families in progressive states like Punjab. If implemented, the Congress hopes to reach out to 12 lakh families against the present 4.6 lakh.
And thanks to the Congress making development as its poll plank, competitive religiosity that used to be the hallmark of Punjab polity ever since late 70s has given way to one-upmanship in promises of development. If it’s the Congress promising to make Punjab power surplus by 2012, the Akalis are talking about 24 hrs uninterrupted electricity supply within three years. And if the Congress is promising to create 20 lakh jobs by getting investments to the tune of Rs 2 lakh crores, the Akalis are matching it with the assurance of setting up a separate ministry for youth to resolve the problem of unemployment.
While one would have to wait and see for what finally happens and how many of these promises kept, the change in the agenda of the political parties is certainly a good sign. “Yes the change is for the better as political parties have for the first time set their eyes on the poor and accepted that poverty is an issue,” says Pramod Kumar Director of the Institute of Development and Communications (IDC).
Ditto says former Director General of Punjab Police KPS Gill, who has witnessed Punjab in the worst days, when people were killed in the name of religion and divisive ideology ruled the roost. "ever in Punjab’s history development has been an issue,” he says adding that it’s a welcome and a positive change.
Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh is quick to claim the credit for this change. “We have set a positive agenda. The Akalis are no longer raising religious and emotive slogans and the bogie of ‘panth nu khatra’ but chanting the mantra of development”, he says. Besides his government’s policies he credits Dr Manmohan Singh’s elevation to the top slot as one of the main reasons for this change. “With a Sikh PM, a Sikh army chief and Sikh deputy chairman of the planning commission how can Akalis or anyone else accuse the Congress for being anti-Sikhs,” he says.
Notwithstanding these positive developments, politics in Punjab continues to be personalized and personality based. Though its Congress Vs Akali-BJP combine, its all about Amarinder and Parkash Singh Badal. The bitter relations between the two, a result of Congress’ pursuit of the Akali corruption that led to Badal and his son landing in jail for the 10 days, have turned for the worse and anyone scanning the media ads in Punjab papers would know. These is nothing below the belt in these ads as both the parties through their surrogate fronts have unashamedly stooped to levels unknown in Punjab’s polity earlier.
Being the tallest Akali leader and the president of a regional party, its only natural that the Akali politics would revolve around Badal. But they way Amarinder has emerged as the main face for the Congress is worth a notice. His aggressive style of politics, witnessed in decisions like taking Badal headon and abrogating water sharing agreements with neighbouring states to end the SYL issue that put him in docks vis-à-vis his own embarrassed party high command, and personal charisma have helped him overshadow other state Congress leaders.
So in a nutshell the ensuing elections in Punjab would be fought at three levels - atta-dal, Amarinder-Badal and development.