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Polls in Punjab: Breaking the jinx

Will the 40-yr-old anti-incumbency jinx be broken? Pankaj Vohra examines.

india Updated: Feb 12, 2007 05:30 IST

The biggest question on everyone’s lips in Punjab is whether the 40-year-old jinx of anti-incumbency will be broken this time. Ever since the reorganisation of states took place in 1966, no party has held on to power in Punjab for two consecutive terms. The only exception was Pratap Singh Kairon, who was assassinated on the outskirts of Delhi in the mid-1960s.

Captain Amarinder Singh, who has been the Congress Chief Minister for the last five years, is now attempting to do what his adversary Parkash Singh Badal, a three-time CM, has not been able to achieve. There is a good chance for the erstwhile Maharaja of Patiala as it is for his party, despite the fact that he is engaged in one of the toughest electoral battles with its main rivals, the Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP combine.

The factors that seem to favour Amarinder and the Congress are far greater than those favouring the Akalis and the BJP. But then, success also depends on the capability of individual candidates to muster support and take advantage of the ground situation. The Congress, which started with a distinct advantage, did allow the Akalis to come up because of a late declaration of seats and, in many cases, giving tickets to sure losers from what were perceived to be winning seats.

The Akalis, too, feel they stand a winning chance and their desperation to win is evident from the number of surrogate advertisements in their favour. They have been successful in creating the perception in many areas, especially in Majha and Doaba regions, that they are going to form the next government. But their efforts to do so in Malwa, which accounts for 65 seats, have not borne much fruit yet. But perception and reality often differ.

The Congress had everything going for it. Amarinder’s five-year rule saw hassle-free procurements of crops. Land prices have gone up and the industrialist and the business classes are by and large happy. The Sikhs, too, have no complaints, since the CM snatched away the religious agenda from under the Akalis’ nose. The 400th anniversary of Guru Arjan Dev’s martyrdom, the 400th Parkash Utsav of Guru Granth Saheb and the 300th anniversary of Sahibzadas’ martyrdom were all celebrated with gusto all over the state.

In addition, access to gurdwaras in Pakistan, because of the close equation between Amarinder  and his Pakistani counterpart, Pervez Elahi, has made the Sikhs happy. The carrying of the golden palanquin by the Sikhs, led by Delhi Gurdwara Committee president Paramjit Singh Sarna, also contributed to the hijacking of the religious agenda from the Akalis.

The fact that Manmohan Singh is Prime Minister and General JJ Singh is the Chief of Army Staff is being touted as Congress firsts, despite the poorly attended rallies of the PM last week providing the Akalis enough fodder. The Congress fortunes have also got a boost because of the abrogation of the water treaty with neighbouring states, making the farmers of southern Punjab, in Malwa, happy. They are also satisfied with the introduction of BT cotton and seem inclined to favour the Congress.

However, Amarinder has been embarrassed by the controversies surrounding his brother-in-law, Natwar Singh, as well as by the CM’s brother Malvinder Singh’s support to an Akali candidate in Samana constituency. He is also trying to control the damage caused by poor coordination between Delhi and Chandigarh.

However, the Akalis are no pushovers and their aggressive campaign is indicative of their combative mood. While Parkash Singh Badal is being projected as the next CM, his son, Sukhbir Badal, is actually spearheading their efforts. The energetic Sukhbir has toured the state several times and does not give up a chance to attack the CM, whom he has repeatedly accused of high-handedness and leading the state towards destruction.

Many see him as a future CM. Affectionately called ‘Kakaji’, some of his followers do not rule out the possibility of him taking over this year in the eventuality of the Akalis getting more than 70 seats. The Akali effort is most charged in Majha, where the Jat Sikhs, the party’s traditional vote-bank, seem to be backing it once again. The key to Akali success also lies in the Punjabi psyche, which favours change.

An impediment in the Akali march forward is the sad plight of BJP candidates. If the Akalis fall short of majority, it will be on account of the BJP, which has failed to emerge as the party of the Hindus in the state. The Akali arithmetic last time, too, had gone wrong because of the BJP’s poor show. In fact, if the Akalis fail to grab power as a result of BJP’s poor performance, it could spell the end of their relationship.

There are other factors, too, that do not support the perception in favour of the Akalis and the BJP. The Hindu vote, especially in rural areas, has not shifted from the Congress, and the Dalit vote is not divided as post-Kanshi Ram, no one has propelled the vote to go towards the BSP. In any case, the Jat Sikh vote is getting divided.

But then, nothing can be said in elections. The price rise, which could have sunk the Congress, has not become a big issue. May the best party win on Tuesday. Between us.

Email Pankaj Vohra: pvohra@hindustantimes.com