Development card clicks as SAD returns
Into the fourth year of his government's rule, Sukhbir Singh Badal led busloads of journalists and Akali-BJP MLAs to the site of an upcoming Rs19,000-crore oil refinery in Bathinda's back of the beyond. The purpose: to showcase what he touted as the biggest project and proof of his development agenda.
Later, the SAD president remarked: "I can tell you that the project will turn around Punjab's economy. But, will this fetch us the votes?"
Cut to March 6, 2012. The Punjab voter has decisively answered Sukhbir's question. The SAD-BJP government is the first in Punjab's history to return to power for a second consecutive term - and it has done so on a development-oriented agenda.
The ruling coalition romped home resoundingly, dashing the Congress's hopes that were complacently pegged to anti-incumbency and the state's electoral history of booting out incumbent governments at every election.
Bereft of a clear wave, the electoral slugfest had largely hinged on a smart political strategy and poll management - a game in which Sukhbir outmanoeuvred the Congress in almost every quarter.
Knowing only too well that Brand Badal was still the party's best bet, the SAD president shrewdly projected his father, Parkash Singh Badal, as the chief ministerial candidate, calling it the stalwart's last election - an emotional appeal that struck a chord with the Sikh masses.
Also, the Akali-BJP juggernaut was powered by its doggedly positive campaign wrapped around its development credentials and a raft of populist promises, including such out-of-the-box ideas as free laptops for senior school students and other schemes that aligned Akali politics convincingly with the aspirational urges of Punjab.
What also clicked for SAD was Sukhbir's adroitly-executed social engineering of forging a Jat-Bania combination to broaden the party's electoral appeal beyond the Sikh constituency. For the first time in their nine-decade-old history, the Akalis fielded as many as 11 Hindus faces. And, 10 of them came out winners.
In contrast, Capt Amarinder Singh and the Congress overplayed the anti-incumbency hand, smug in a self-delusionary 'now-is-my-turn-to-rule' belief. Then, the potential spoilers - including the Manpreet Badal-led Sanjha Morcha, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Congress rebels - rocked the Congress boat.
The Punjab poll outcome has amply demonstrated that performance can pay electoral dividends. It has set a new benchmark. Having promised virtually the moon to the electorate, it is now the SAD-BJP's turn to live up to soaring expectations.