For insights into Punjab’s political churnings, bouncing questions off students is a cerebral delight. Their arguments vary, not the worries, as one drives down from the Malwa region to Majha through parts of Doaba.
There’s an unmistakable ‘Padhta’ (Learning) Punjab in what’s projected to outsiders as the ‘Udta’ Punjab high on drugs and alcohol. It belongs to a generation engaged in higher learning in sciences, humanities and economics. Doctoral studies are underway on subjects as intrinsic to the local milieu as ‘narratives of contemporary agrarian crises’ in Punjabi literature.
They recite lines from Paash, the left-wing poet who fell to a Khalistani bullet in the 1980s, raise questions about the Punjab’s staggering Rs 60,000-crore rural debt, punch holes in the farmers’ manifesto of the AAP and are generally cynical about the political class.
What are their expectations? “Its jobs, what else,” they say, be it at Patiala’s Punjabi University or Amritsar’s Guru Nanak Dev University. The girls talk also about safety and the need to rein in roughnecks. There’s palpable urge across genders for a systemic change that the archetypal politician abhors.
In Amritsar’s GNDU, clannish loyalties broadly exist for the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), the Congress and the BJP-- exception being the students with a serious bent of mind whose numbers aren’t insignificant.
But in Patiala, one gets the sense that the youth have broken free of fraternal allegiances. The “profligate” Badal family is held in disdain for its high-handed ways and it’s stranglehold on businesses ranging from real estate to fourth estate.
But that hasn’t taken the youth to the Congress on a rebound. Not yet. Till recently, their pivot was Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP. But the dream is falling apart. Or so it seems after Sucha Singh Chhotepur exited the party and Navjot Sidhu charted his own course with his Awaaz-e-Punjab. Allegations of promiscuity of AAP activists and the “outsider” tag thrust upon their top leaders have taken the sheen off the party that until recently was perceived as a ray of hope.
“Sidhu would’ve been a force with Kejriwal,” argued Amandeep Singh, a Ph.D scholar. “They would’ve won hands down,” butted in Beant Singh, a student of Punjabi literature. Others agreed.
There seems to be consensus that as rivals, Kejriwal and Sidhu would damage each other. But the opinion is split on who would benefit: the Akalis or the Congress and whether Kejriwal can stem the party’s decline.
AAP may be in a lot of trouble but voices supportive of the party are the loudest in Malwa region that sends 67 legislators to the 117-strong House. The euphoria ebbs along the Panthic trail that cuts across parts of Doaba and Majha -- from Jalandhar to Kartarpur-Kapurthala-Tarn Taran and Amritsar. Religious sentiments in that belt can be strong and decisive. There is sporadic cognizance along the way of the Congress and the Akalis.
Aiming perhaps for the kind of late surge Prashant Kishor devised for Nitish Kumar in Bihar, the Congress isn’t clogging airwaves. But Captain Amarinder Singh’s “Halke Vich Captain” and “Coffee with Captain” outreach programmes for rural folks and city slickers are getting good response, say local journalists.
For their part the Badals - Parkash Singh and Sukhbir - are striving hard to keep intact their core vote that is now under threat from an alienated youth in Akali households. The “Proud to be an Akali” stickers they’re distributing is an attempt to place the party before self. Some also view it as an admission that the Dal’s captive voter base could crack.
(Part I of a two-part series on the political mood in Punjab)