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Three factors that are keeping Punjabi politicians on edge

Punjab polls have new anxieties—first 'Mandal-like' election for some, Jatt Sikh loyalty, and no more piggybacking Hindu votes.

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Punjab Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi held a special recital of the Guru Granth Sahib at his Morinda residence on Sunday morning before going on the campaign trail. He would often wipe his moist eyes during the recital. One of his staff members explained later that Channi was always devout but has become “a little more so, of late.” Understandable, of course.

Channi is not the only one seeking Waheguru’s blessings in Punjab today. Speak to any politician, and they will have a similar story to tell. After the initial, usual claims about their party’s poll prospects, there is a grudging caveat: “It’s the most unpredictable election this time.” Political scientists, think-tankers, and other poll experts, too, are circumspect. The conversations usually end up with another caveat: “Punjab is known to give clear mandates.”

There is nothing new about politicians and experts being confused about electoral trends. Remember Canadian writer Laurence Peter’s wisecrack: “An economist is an expert who will know tomorrow why the things he predicted yesterday didn’t happen today.” A student of politics may have a lesson in it, but, anyway, moving on.

Coming to the Punjab polls, there are at least three factors that are keeping everyone guessing about three weeks before the polling on 20 February.

Drawing finer lines — Dalit Hindus as the ‘new’ cause

First, die-hards among the Congress believe that it could be, what some politicians have termed, the “first Mandal-like election” in Punjab where other marginalised castes — read Dalit Hindus — would become a pivot for exploiting finer caste faultlines and gathering vote share. They are banking on the party’s first Dalit CM of Punjab to swing the election along caste lines. One out of three Punjabis are Dalits, and if Charanjit Singh Channi’s elevation were to bring Dalit Hindus and Sikhs together, it would give the Congress a big edge.

The current Punjab election seems to be multi-cornered with the well-rooted Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) being the principal challenger while the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which had emerged as the principal opposition party in 2017, aspiring to emerge as a new alternative in the largely bipolar polity of Punjab. Then there is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is seeking to set its feet on the ground in the state where it played second fiddle to the SAD for over two decades. In an alliance with Capt. Amarinder Singh’s Punjab Lok Congress (PLC), the BJP is putting its best foot forward, contesting 65 seats in the 117-member assembly, almost three times more than what it contested as the Akali’s alliance partner.

Then there is a new political outfit floated by 22 of the 32 farmers’ unions that had successfully led the farmers’ agitation against the three central farm laws for a year —Balbir Singh Rajewal-led Sanyukt Samaj Morcha (SSM), which is contesting the polls with Gurnam Singh Chaduni-led Sanyukt Sangharsh Party (SSP).

In a five-cornered contest, if every third (Dalit) Punjabi were to vote for the Congress, the party could hope to romp home easily. The problem is that the Dalits in Punjab have never voted as a homogenous unit. Their loyalty has been split among various parties. The Congress has given Punjab its first Dalit CM. But is that symbolism or tokenism good enough to result in an unprecedented Dalit consolidation? Even Congress persons aren’t ready to wager on it.

As it is, the idea of a first ‘Mandal-like’ election in Punjab remains wishful thinking of ruling party leaders. Try as they might to draw more caste lines and pull vote share, Punjab has had a largely syncretic culture despite Dalits being at the margins — economically, socially, and politically. The divisions between Dalits and non-Dalits aren’t as sharp in Punjab as one may find in, say, Bihar, or Uttar Pradesh. Whether a Dalit CM can accentuate or sharpen the Dalit-versus-non-Dalit divide in Punjab remains a million-dollar question.

A related question is whether a much-speculated Dalit mobilisation will result in a counter-mobilisation with other propertied and privileged section — Jatt Sikhs who constitute about one-fourth of the population.

Also read: Malwa, Majha, Doaba: Divided by rivers, each Punjab region has distinct political identity

Where does Jatt Sikh loyalty lie?

The second issue that everyone has been guessing about is the imponderables of the farmers’ unions contesting an election. Farmers — read Jatt Sikhs, mostly — have come back from Delhi borders victorious. While the Congress-led Punjab government had supported the farmers’ agitation, its face was then-chief minister Capt. Amarinder Singh who is now an ally of the BJP, the ruling party at the Centre that had enacted those contentious laws. The farmers may not be antagonistic to the Congress, but Singh’s shift to the BJP camp may compel them to look for a new alternative.

The AAP was a favourite alternative until the farmers’ unions themselves formed a political outfit, ruling out any alliance with it. As it is, the impact of the farmers’ agitation in this election has somehow gotten diluted, thanks to so many political claimants for their votes.

Also read: Why AAP stands to lose the most as farmers decide to go solo in Punjab polls

Where Hindu vote stands today

The third factor that’s keeping everyone guessing is the so-called Hindu vote. Hindus constitute around 38 per cent of the Punjab population, and many parties lay claim on this votebank, especially the BJP and the Congress. As Dr Pramod Kumar, Director of the Institute of Development and Communication, Chandigarh, pointed out to this writer, if there was a Hindu votebank in Punjab, it should have shown in the BJP’s vote share.

In the 1985 assembly election, the BJP contested 26 seats and secured 23.61 per cent votes. In the 1992 election, it contested 66 seats and its vote share was around 22 per cent. That was despite the fact that those were militancy days in Punjab and the Hindus were at the receiving end. It was in the 1997 election that the BJP’s vote share doubled to 48 per cent when it contested in an alliance with the Akali Dal contested. It came down to 30 per cent in the 2017 assembly election when the BJP contested 23 seats in an alliance with the SAD.

In fact, unlike in other states where the BJP rode piggyback on regional parties only to eat into their votebanks — the Janata Dal (United) in Bihar and the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, to cite a couple of instances — it worked the other way round in Punjab where the Akalis had the better of the BJP, gaining acceptability among the Hindus.

In the 2017 assembly election in which the AAP seemed to emerge as a veritable challenger to the bipolar Akali-Congress domination of the state’s polity, the Hindus had a decisive edge to the Congress, as the AAP seemed to be courting radical Sikh elements. Can the AAP win back the confidence of the Hindus? Which way will the Hindu votebank shift now? To the PLC-BJP alliance with Prime Minister Narendra Modi cancelling his rally due to ‘security lapse’ (read protests by largely Jatt Sikh farmers) and Captain Amarinder Singh harping on national security concerns? Or will it stay with the Congress even sans Amarinder Singh?

Many Congress persons in Punjab believe that senior leader Ambika Soni’s statement that only a Sikh should be the Punjab CM didn’t really help the cause. And then undermining Sunil Jakhar, the former state Congress president, made it only worse.

There are many questions and nobody in Punjab has the answers. One may ask them across the state, but the answers vary from one constituency to another, from one locality to another.

And that’s why politicians, pollsters, and experts are all at their wit’s end in Punjab. Laurence Peter would have loved these Punjab polls if he was alive and came across Punjabi expatriates in Vancouver.

DK Singh is Political Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @dksingh73. Views are personal.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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