Explainer: Punjab elections
With the Election Commission set to announce the assembly elections to five states on Saturday afternoon, HT looks at the state of play in Punjab, the main players and the issues that are set to dominate the narrative.
A dominant player in state politics for the past seven decades, the Congress, which won the 2017 assembly elections with a near two-thirds majority, has been looking to retain power. However, it is being severely hamstrung by the tug of war between chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi and its ambitious state Congress president Navjot Singh Sidhu over the chief ministerial face. The party had changed the chief minister just five months before the polls, bringing in Charanjit Singh Channi as the first Dalit CM of the state in place of Capt Amarinder Singh to ward off anti-incumbency and end infighting. Though the new CM instantly has set a scorching pace and taken a slew of populist decisions, his efforts have been derailed by infighting. If it falls short, the party will have only itself to blame.
Aam Aadmi Party
Born out of an anti-corruption movement in 2012, Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP made its first impression on the electoral landscape of Punjab in 2014 by winning four Lok Sabha seats in the state. Disturbing the till then bipolar polity, it emerged the principal opposition party in the 2017 assembly polls with 20 seats, pushing the SAD to the number three position. However, the newbie outfit was rocked by infighting and desertions when half of its legislators rebelled against the central leadership in 2019 to free the party from "Delhi leadership’s control." The AAP is now getting its act together with Kejriwal leading the party’s campaign and seeking ek mauka (one chance) with his trademark freebie strategy.
SAD & BSP
For the first time in electoral history of Punjab SAD is contesting the state polls in alliance with the BSP, has given Mayawati's party 20 seats and is contesting itself on the remaining 97. SAD had severed ties with its ally of more than two decades the BJP on the issue of the now repealed three farm laws. Fighting to stay afloat after having touched an ebb post the sacrilege incidents of 2015 when it was running the government in the state along with the BJP, SAD has made an early start this time and has announced candidate on 93 seats. Its president Sukhbir Singh Badal is campaigning hard to win over the support of electorate. Unlike the past polls SAD is focusing on the urban electorate this time.
Considered unpopular by many sections because of the farm unrest over the three controversial farm laws, stakes have suddenly become high for the BJP in Punjab after their revocation. This is for the first time since 1996, that the party will contest polls without its erstwhile and trusted alliance partner Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). The BJP has shown its might after the revocation of the farm laws by ensuring the joining of a few Sikh leaders from other parties including two sitting MLAs of the Congress. For the assembly polls, the party has an alliance with Captain Amarinder Singh’s newly formed Punjab Lok Congress and veteran Akali leader Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa’s SAD (Sanyukt). The party is hopeful of getting a strong response in the Hindu dominated urban and semi-urban belts which comprises more than 45 seats. Its biggest drawback though is the absence of strong local leadership.
Formed by former Captain Amarinder Singh in November 2021 after he parted ways with the Congress following his unceremonious removal as Chief Minister Punjab, PLC, is yet to get a pan-Punjab presence. But the way the BJP leadership, especially home minister Amit Shah, has reposed faith in Amarinder, it could play a spoilsport for the Congress as most of the leaders who have joined PLC have a Congress background
Charanjit Singh Channi, 58
The three-time MLA from Chamkaur Sahib in Rupnagar is the first Dalit CM of Punjab. He was the surprise choice for the top job after veteran leader Capt Amarinder Singh was made to resign amid fears among MLAs that the anti-incumbency arising from his (latter’s) style of working could hurt their prospects. Channi had big shoes to fill, but he quickly came into his own and got down to the task fulfilling pending promises. Accessible and modest, Channi whose style is totally different from that of his predecessor has consolidated his position faster than anyone thought.
Navjot Singh Sidhu, 58
A former Team India cricket opener, he started his political innings in 2004 by contesting the Lok Sabha elections from Amritsar on a BJP ticket. He got re-elected in 2007 and 2009 before falling out with the Badals who headed the SAD-BJP government. The BJP denied him the ticket in 2014 and nominated him to Rajya Sabha. Sidhu resigned and joined the Congress days before the 2017 state polls. Having won the Amritsar East seat, he joined the Amarinder Singh cabinet, but they didn’t get along well and he quit in July 2019. The tussle led to the two-time CM’s unceremonious exit. Considered close to the Gandhi siblings, he heads the Congress in Punjab and fancies himself as a natural claimant to the CM’s job.
Sukhbir Singh Badal, 59
The SAD president faces a tough challenge to keep the party flock together particularly after BJP has opened gates for leaders from other parties. The former deputy Chief Minister is fighting a lone battle with his father Akali patriarch and five-time CM Parkash Singh Badal (94), receding into the background.
Bhagwant Mann, 48
A two-time Lok Sabha member, the stand-up comedian-turned-politician is the state unit chief of the AAP in Punjab. Known for biting sarcasm and side-splitting jokes, particularly ‘kikli’ (a satirical speech), he entered politics in 2011 by joining the People’s Party of Punjab (PPP). Mann contested from Lehragaga in 2012, but lost. When the PPP forged an alliance with the Congress, he joined the AAP and has not looked back since. He has won from Sangrur twice in a row with hefty margins, and is the lone AAP member in Lok Sabha today. Being the most popular leader of the party in the state, he is the favourite to be named the CM-face of the party.
Capt Amarinder Singh, 79
The two time chief minister of Punjab and veteran politician Capt Amarinder Singh is still full of enthusiasm even after he was unceremoniously removed as chief minister of Punjab by the Congress. The upcoming polls will be one of his toughest challenges and a battle of existence for the maharaja of the erstwhile Patiala royal family as his new political party goes to the polls in alliance with the BJP. Congress will keenly watch his every political move as he has the strong backing of the BJP’s top leadership including Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Ashwani Sharma, 57
Holding the charge of state BJP chief for the second time, Sharma, 56, is the low profile face of the party in Punjab. He is credited with raising the flag of the party despite an unprecedented backlash for the BJP in Punjab on the issue of the farm laws in which in one incident, his own cavalcade was attacked by farmers. The former legislator from Pathankot is a hard-working loyal soldier of the party but lacks the appeal to make a strong connect with the general masses.
Malwa (69 Assembly constituencies) – The region that comprises 15 districts paves the way for any party’s entry into the state assembly. It is due to this that Malwa is the focus of all the political parties. It is considered a traditional Akali stronghold for the reason that the Badals come from this region. However in 2017 the SAD shrunk to eight seats and the Congress won on 40. The AAP won 18 in the region, a sharp majority of its overall tally of 20 in the state. In the upcoming polls, BKU (Ugrahan) which has decided to stay apolitical till now holds the key in case it decides to play an active role near polling day, as it has a support base in 1,400 villages of the region. AAP also sees support in the Mansa, Sangrur and Barnala districts of the region.
Doaba (23 Assembly constituencies) – The region has four districts and each seat has high dalit population from 25 to 75%. The region traditionally has a Congress tilted electorate. In 2017 congress won 15 seats, SAD 5 and AAP could muster victory on 2 seats. By stitching an alliance with the BSP, SAD has tried to barge into the dalit vote bank. However the move has been countered by the congress after it announced Charanjit Singh Channi, a scheduled caste, as the CM in September last year. With the BJP entering into an alliance with ex-CM Capt. Amarinder Singh’s PLC and SS Dhindsa’s SAD (Sanyukt) already having a hold in North-Doaba constituencies the poll battle dynamics are extremely complicated.
Majha (25 Assembly constituencies) – Traditionally the region with four districts has a mix of SAD and Congress support. The electorate has a liking for Amarinder and in 2017, the Congress swept 22 seats, and the SAD was marginalized to 2. AAP so far has failed to touch a chord with the electorate here, based on past evidence. In the upcoming polls an interesting contest is expected with Amarinder out of the congress, having formed a new political front and a new poll alliance.
ELECTION RESULTS OF PAST FIVE ASSEMBLY ELECTION (Number of candidates fielded and seats won by main parties & Independents, their vote share)
Congress: Fielded 117, won 77, vote share 38.5%
AAP: Fielded 112, won 20, vote share 23.7%
LIP: Fielded 5, won 2, vote share 1.2%
SAD: Fielded 94, won 15, vote share 25.2%
BJP: Fielded 23, won 3, vote share 5.4%
BSP: Fielded 111, won 0, vote share 1.52%
IND: Fielded 303, won 0, vote share 2.09%
SAD: Fielded 94, won 56, vote share 34.7%
Cong: Fielded 117, won 46, vote share 40.09%
BJP: Fielded 23, won 12, vote share 7.18%
BSP: Fielded 117, won 0, vote share 4.3%
IND: Fielded 418, won 3, vote share 6.75%
SAD: Fielded 93, won 48, vote share 37.09%
Cong: Fielded 116, won 44, vote share 40.9%
BJP: Fielded 23, won 19, vote share 8.28%
BSP: Fielded 115, won 0, vote share 4.13%
IND: Fielded 431, won 5, vote share 6.82%
Cong: Fielded 105, won 62, vote share 35.81%
SAD: Fielded 92, won 41, vote share 31.08%
BJP: Fielded 23, won 3, vote share 5.67%
CPI: Fielded 11, won 2, vote share 2.15%
BSP: Fielded 100, won 0, vote share 5.69%
IND: Fielded 274, won 9, vote share 11.27%
SAD: Fielded 92, won 75, vote share 37.64%
Cong: Fielded 105, won 14, vote share 26.38%
BJP: Fielded 22, won 18, vote share 8.33%
CPI: Fielded 15, won 2, vote share 2.86%
BSP: Fielded 67, won 1, vote share 6.37%
SAD(A): Fielded 30, won 1, vote share 3.10%
IND: Fielded 244, won 6, vote share 10.87%
ISSUES (FACTORS AT PLAY)
PM's security breach
Wednesday’s incident involving an unprecedented breach in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s security during his first visit to Punjab in two years has affected the political narrative in the state, giving the BJP a stick to beat the Congress with, ahead of the state polls. Grabbing the issue with both hands, the saffron party is trying to paint the Congress’ incumbent government and its state leadership as a set-up not capable of running the show in the sensitive border state by insinuating that even the PM is not safe here. This may resonate with its core vote bank, the urban Hindu populace, in the state where the communal fault lines are deeply etched.
Dominating the political discourse of Punjab from past decade, the drug menace issue has taken centre stage again with an FIR against former Akali Minister Bikram Majithia. There is hardly any change in the situation on the ground even as the Captain Amarinder Singh led-dispensation of the Congress government claimed that they were waging war against drugs through a Special Task Force (STF). The Channi-led dispensation is now terming the action by Amarinder's dispensation as a mere eyewash with claims that only addicts were arrested and the big fish of the trade were spared. Congress’ own Rajya Sabha member Shasher Dullo on January 3 claimed that chitta was freely available in every nook and corner of Punjab. Channi government has claimed that the FIR against Majithia is a major achievement in breaking the drug nexus in Punjab.
The issue of 2015-sacrilege of Guru Granth Sahib in Bargari that in the 2017 polls played a major role in bringing down SAD’s tally to a historical low, may hound the Congress this time. Capt Amarinder led dispensation has claimed that his government had arrested and chargesheeted Dera Sacha Sauda men involved in the sacrilege and the police officials involved in the police action on protestors in Kotkapura and Behbal Kalan. The public though is not satisfied. There were charges of no action against the Badals by some senior Congress ministers including now chief minister Channi (he was technical education minister that time) that worked against Amarinder as the major reason behind his removal as Chief Minister. The issue has been refreshed in the minds of voters again with the recent sacrilege attempt in the sanctum sanctorum of Sikh holy shrine Golden Temple in Amritsar. After Channi became CM, he also announced action against those involved in the 2015-sacrilege but nothing has happened in a 100 days with legal experts claiming that there is hardly anything the government can do at this stage because the cases are in the courts. The police officer, IG Kunwar Vijay Partap, who conducted probe in the sacrilege cases has already joined AAP and is going to fight assembly polls from Amritsar North. In April 2021, the Punjab and Haryana High Court had termed the probe conducted by him as politically motivated and has termed it ‘blemished’ and ‘manufactured’.
After having led the agitation for over a year on the borders of New Delhi against now repealed farm laws, the farm unions have turned back and are all set to take plunge in the upcoming Punjab polls. 22 farm bodies have formed Sanyukt Kisan Morcha (SSM) with polls in mind. They are seeking a complete debt waiver from the state government pegged to have crossed Rs. one lakh crore. The Channi government's has claimed that they have met all promises made to farmers including compensation for worm attacks, a national high price offered to sugarcane farmers and debts being waived off. However, farmers argue that these have only been half met, and the state government has failed to provide adequate DAP to farmers for wheat sowing.
The issue became a major poll subject for opposition parties particularly the Congress ahead of 2017 state polls when the previous SAD led government was accused of allowing illegal sand mining and supplying building material at exorbitant prices. During the four and half year tenure of Capt. Amarinder Singh, he also faced allegations of having failed to check the mafia and on taking over in September last year Charanjit Singh Channi made announcements of supplying sand at Rs. 5.5 per cubic feet. However his claims are being punctured from within the Congress party, the state unit president Navjot Sidhu and also by the opposition parties.
Punjab was among the most affluent states in the country for decades, thanks to the Green revolution, but its economic growth slipped thereafter and has been a matter of concern for successive governments. The growth rate in the state has been slower than even the national average for most part of the last decade. The primary reasons, according to economists, are a slowdown in agricultural growth and the lack of an industrial push. Though agriculture cushioned the impact of the pandemic in the past two years, the state needs to push agricultural reforms, including diversification, for better growth and manage its finances better to put its economic back on track.
When the Congress promised one job per household and undertook the registration of unemployed youths in the 2017 assembly elections, it was among the key promises that saw the party through. After nearly five years in power, the ruling party’s chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi and state chief Navjot Singh Sidhu, who got these positions five months ago, are announcing rozgaar guarantees with the state polls just a few weeks away in a sign that the promise remained unfulfilled. All other parties are luring young voters with promises ranging from employment opportunities, guarantees and quotas in both government and private sectors. Not a surprise as the state’s unemployment rate is higher than the national average.
Total number of seats – 117
Number of reserved seats – 34
Total number of voters – 21131138
Number of male voters – 11108057
Number of female voters – 10022396
Transgender voters – 685