Chandigarh: The Samyukta Samaj Morcha (SSM) — a collaboration of 22 of the 32 farmers’ unions that had participated in the year-long agitation against the now-repealed farm laws brought in by the Narendra Modi government in 2020 — has announced its intention of fighting the upcoming Punjab elections without any pre-poll tie-up with any established political party. The SSM also announced Sunday that it will be contesting all 117 assembly seats in the elections that are scheduled to be held on 14 February.
While that leaves the SSM with just over a month to prepare, experts believe the new entrant in the Punjab political race will make the elections even more of a stiff competition. And, it is likely to damage the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) prospects in the state more than those of the Congress, the Shiromani Akali Dal-BSP combine and the BJP Amarinder alliance, because of common votebanks, they said.
The SSM has claimed it had been in talks with AAP about a possible alliance in Punjab — a claim denied by AAP Punjab president Bhagwant Singh Mann — with SSM leader Balbir Singh Rajewal saying at a press conference Sunday that talks with AAP did not bear fruit because the other party was not ready to change the candidates it had already announced for the polls, and against whom SSM had reservations.
“We had objections to many of the candidates who have been chosen by AAP for considerations other than merit. Many of them have criminal backgrounds. The proof of our allegations, we have handed over to Arvind Kejriwal,” alleged Rajewal.
“They told us that they would be changing their candidates in accordance with our wishes but that did not happen and now there is no possibility of a tie-up,” he added.
Now the SSM is in talks with the Samyukta Sangharsh Party — set up by Haryana farmers’ union leader Gurnam Singh Chaduni in December — for a possible tie-up, said Rajewal Sunday. Chaduni had announced several months ago that he will be participating in the Punjab elections.
The SSM is also trying to bring together in its fold smaller farmer bodies, employees’ unions, labour unions and industry workers’ unions. “We are meeting bodies from all sections of society, not only farmers,” said Rajewal.
The party is expected to announce its candidates for the elections next week.
‘Will damage AAP’
Harjeshwar Singh, assistant professor at Chandigarh’s SGGS College, explained how the SSM’s entry would affect the AAP.
“The SSM is largely a heterogeneous organisation led by some Kisan Unions both Left and Right-leaning. It has decided to go solo and is trying to incorporate a motley of other celebrities, intellectuals, journalists and small parties. Its core support base is likely to be in rural Malwa, Majha and Doaba and Kasba (small) towns,” he said.
“The bulk of SSM votes could be from among ‘pro-change’ voters in the state, whose numbers have been consistently increasing since the advent of AAP. This vote bank should be between 30-40 per cent currently. In my view, SSM will harm AAP the most because AAP also banks upon this ‘pro-change’ vote. Moreover, the core areas of AAP and SSM also remain the same — eastern and central Malwa,” he added.
The entry of the SSM into the fray may also impact the Akali Dal, Harjeshwar Singh said.
“Apart from AAP, SSM will harm Akali Dal too, because rural Jatt Sikh and other agrarian communities have been traditional voters of the Akali Dal and also form the core of SSM leadership and supporters. Congress will also be harmed, but to a lesser degree, because Congress is not dependent upon any one vote bank in particular,” he said.
His words were echoed by Prof. Ashutosh Kumar, head of the department of political science at Chandigarh’s Panjab University, who also said there was no doubt that the farmers would eat into the AAP’s votebank.
“But there is also the winnability factor to consider. If voters believe that the SSM can come to power and form the government, they would like to vote for SSM. But if they doubt that, they might not like to waste their vote,” Kumar said.
The possibility of the SSM winning the election or actually forming government is slim, according to noted historian Prof. Chaman Lal, and something that the party itself should not harbour illusions about.
“They should take part symbolically to strengthen their already gained limited victory. Rather than contesting all 117 seats, they should choose five to seven constituencies, where they should field their best representatives and put all their strength to make them all victorious at the hustings,” said Lal.
“Also, they can support candidates from any non-BJP party or independents, who have genuinely supported and participated in the long farmers’ struggle, though such candidates will be very few,” Lal added.
Not just symbolic
Not everyone, however, sees the SSM’s entry into the elections as merely symbolic.
“Pressure groups lead to the creation of political parties. It has happened in the past. Political parties are born out of protests,” said Dr Satnam Singh Deol, professor and head of the department of political science, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar.
“The question is, are we satisfied with the traditional political elite which is representing us? If yes, then we don’t need to give somebody new a chance because we are happy with the ‘proven guilty’. But democracy is experimental and there is always space for ‘the not guilty yet’,” Deol added.
But even he said the SSM’s move could impact the AAP.
“In electoral politics there are two kinds of voters — the conservative and the assertive. While the conservative vote is pre-decided, the assertive or experimental vote is generally a vote of dissent or anti-establishment. In Punjab elections, this vote will get divided between the farmers and AAP — a party that itself was born out of a popular movement against corruption,” Deol said.
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)