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Lok Sabha elections 2019: Congress looks to repeat bumper poll victory in Punjab

Pushed on the back foot over allegations of mishandling of religious protests, the SAD-BJP is banking on nationalism while the Congress aims to take advantage of dissidence in National Democratic Alliance camp

lok sabha elections Updated: Mar 25, 2019 10:55 IST
Navneet Sharma and Ramesh Vinayak
Navneet Sharma and Ramesh Vinayak
Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
Congress,Sukhbir Singh Badal,Narendra Modi
Punjab CM Capt Amarinder Singh and Sunil Jhakar,Punjab Congress chief at a press conference, March 16, 2019. The Congress, which won only three seats Lok Sabha seats in 2014, made a spectacular comeback three years later in the state elections, winning a two-thirds majority in the assembly and routing the ruling SAD-BJP combine.(Anil Dayal / HT Photo )

When the Narendra Modi wave swept north India in the 2014 parliamentary elections, Punjab was lukewarm in its response.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its alliance partner, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), won six of the 13 seats as the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), a rookie outfit then, made a stunning debut by securing four seats and breaking the long-standing duopoly in the state.

The Congress, which won three seats, made a spectacular comeback three years later in the state elections, winning a two-thirds majority in the assembly and routing the ruling SAD-BJP combine.

But this time around, the electoral scenario in the border state is unclear because of a sudden shift in the political narrative after the February 14 Pulwama terror strike and the emergence of a bevy of vote-splitters. In a state with a long legacy of contributing to India’s armed forces, the terrorist attack and the subsequent air strike inside Pakistan have emerged as the dominant theme of popular discourse in the past three weeks – with national security and defence drowning out contentious debates over religion and sacrilege for now.

Like elsewhere in the country, the BJP is attempting to steer the nationalism conversation to its national security record. The ruling Congress is aware of this, and chief minister Amarinder Singh, himself a former soldier, has been nimble-footed in grabbing the headlines by calling for a retaliation, hailing the air strike, and then offering to receive Indian Air Force pilot wing commander Abhinandan Varthaman at the Wagah border on his return from Pakistan. He has kept away from any speculation about the terrorist casualty figure in the Balakot air strike.

But equal, if not more, attention has been drawn by his party colleague and minister Navjot Singh Sidhu, who first hit the headlines by calling for peace and talks at a time when tensions were rising between the two countries. He then went to question the air strike, ask for proof of the casualty figure, and blame the BJP for politicising the operation, sparking controversy at each stage.

Experts say the conflicting views of the two leaders underline the confusion in the Congress about its strategy to deal with the BJP’s attempts to centre its election campaign on national security.

Guru Nanak Dev University’s political science department head Professor Jagroop Singh Sekhon says the attempts to invoke national security would not have much impact on voting behaviour of Punjabis. “They [Punjabis] suffer the most whenever there is danger of war between India and Pakistan. The BJP is a marginalised player here and will not gain at all in the upcoming elections,” he said.

The change in the poll narrative has come as a respite for the SAD, the dominant alliance partner in Punjab, and its top leaders from the Badal family who were was facing public anger over their handling of a number of cases of alleged sacrilege and desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of Sikhism, in 2015. SAD leaders, particularly president Sukhbir Singh Badal, have latched on to national security, seeking support in the name of a “strong and brave” Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “You need to vote for a PM who our enemy fears,” Sukhbir has said in meeting after meeting, giving credit for Varthaman’s return to Modi. However, the party leaders seem unsure as to how long they would be able sustain this as the state will vote in the seventh and the final phase of the Lok Sabha election on May 19.

BATTLING REBELLION

There is a sudden proliferation of splinter factions and alliances that not just has muddied political waters but also kept traditional parties on tenterhooks. The AAP and the SAD have, in recent months, been convulsed with internal squabbles and splits.

The AAP, rocked by unabated bickering since its underwhelming showing in the 2017 assembly elections, faced a revolt by seven of the 20 party legislators last July after Sukhpal Singh Khaira’s removal from the post of leader of opposition in the assembly for defying the party leadership.

The firebrand leader seemingly incurred the AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal’s wrath by publicly criticising his apology to SAD leader Bikram Singh Majithia in a drug-related defamation case. After the party suspended him, Khaira quit the primary membership of the AAP and set up his Punjabi Ekta Party (PEP), a small grouping of AAP dissidents.

The SAD has its own share of pre-poll woes. On the back foot since the Congress government-appointed Justice Ranjit Singh panel in 2018 blamed the previous Badal regime for alleged mishandling of the 2015 alleged sacrilege case of the Guru Granth Sahib, the party was jolted when a section of influential old guards rebelled against party president Sukhbir Badal’s “style of leadership” last December.

The dissidents call themselves ‘Taksalis’ (the original Akalis) and have formed the SAD (Taksali), led by Khadoor Sahib MP Ranjit Singh Brahampura. The revolt and the cracks in its core Panthic support base (a reference to the Sikh panth, or order0, are a double whammy for the Badals, who draw their political heft from their standing and influence in the Sikh community.

A flustered SAD leadership performed sewa (voluntary service) at the Golden Temple last month as penance for their “inadvertent mistakes” during the 10-year rule.

The party is contemplating to shift Sukhbir’s wife and two-time MP Harsimrat Kaur Badal from Bathinda to Ferozepur, which is seen as a safer bet this time. Bathinda is close to Bargari, the epicentre of anti-sacrilege protests, and her victory margin also dipped to 19,395 votes in 2014 from 120,948 in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.

“Though national security may appear to be dominating the pre-poll narrative, religious issues matter more than everything else in Punjab. Bargari will play an important role and Akalis are in a very tight spot,” said Ashutosh Kumar, professor of political science, Panjab University, Chandigarh.

FOURTH FRONT

The PEP is now at the forefront of an effort to cobble together an alliance - Punjab Democratic Alliance (PDA) - of disparate parties that also include the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which, despite the state’s 32% scheduled caste population, has never made a significant mark in Punjab. Styled as the fourth front, the PDA fancies itself as a challenger to the dominance of the Congress and the SAD-BJP coalition.

“The alliance will contest all 13 Lok Sabha seats. Our primary aim is to defeat the Congress and the Badals,” said Khaira. The alliance has reached a consensus on names of its candidates for nine of the 13 seats. But political observers see them more as potential spoilers than winners. “As none of the entities in the fourth front has a pan-Punjab base, they may only end up damaging the key parties,” said Pramod Kumar, a Chandigarh-based political analyst.

Both Khaira and the AAP, hamstrung by rebellion and desperate to regain lost ground, are wooing the Taksalis. Though Khaira appeared to be close to reaching understanding with the breakaway SAD faction at one stage, there were differences over two seats. The Kejriwal-led AAP and the Taksalis also held several rounds of talks for finalising an alliance, but failed to reach an agreement on the Anandpur Sahib Lok Sabha seat for which both parties have announced candidates.

AAP legislature party leader Harpal Singh Cheema is, however, dismissive of the PDA. “Disgruntled elements in different parties float such outfits overnight before the elections for short-term gains. They can’t harm the AAP,” he said. The AAP, which fared abysmally in the two assembly and Lok Sabha by-elections and panchyat polls in the past two years, is not just banking on showcasing the Delhi model, particularly the achievements of the Kejriwal government in health and education sectors, but also the failure of the Congress government in fulfilling many of its poll promises.

ADVANTAGE CONGRESS

The breakaway groups have dented the AAP and the SAD, setting the stage for multi-cornered contests that may play out to the advantage of the Congress, with grabbed 38.5% of the votes in the 2017 assembly elections. The party also won the Gurdaspur Lok Sabha and Shahkot assembly by-elections, municipal and panchayat polls by huge margins in the past two years. The Congress is counting as much on its government’s farm loan waiver and crackdown against gangsters and terror modules as its state leaders’ ability to rival Akalis on the Panthic pitch. Punjab Congress president Sunil Jakhar said the Modi government neglected Punjab by ignoring requests for settlement of Rs 31,000-crore food credit account debt or announce industrial package for border areas. “We will also focus on demonetisation and GST [Goods and Services Tax] that wrecked the MSME [micro, small and medium enterprises] sector and resulted in large-scale loss of jobs,” he added.

First Published: Mar 25, 2019 07:04 IST