Akalis on the retreat, but the field is still open

Arvind Kejriwal
Punjabis  are generally jovial, hospitable and warm-hearted. They are always open to new ideas and philosophies. They opened their hearts and pockets when the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) first came knocking at their doors in the 2014 Lok Sabha election; it was rewarded with four parliamentary seats.

The affection of the people for AAP continues in the campaign for assembly elections in Punjab. Now, people are discovering, it also has a cost.  

The voters, especially the village heads or people with influence, fear fake cases against them from the two traditional parties – the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the Congress – for supporting AAP. As a result, through the campaign they attended rallies held by all the three parties, raised slogans for them, and welcomed all candidates to their homes. They, however, refused to disclose their voting preference to neighbhours.

Travel through the state and talking to voters suggests they are desperate for change. They want to end the 10-year reign of the SAD but are clearly divided between AAP and the Congress. Their arguments are that AAP didn’t have a chief ministerial candidate and the party should not rely upon Bhagwant Mann, a comedian turned parliamentarian. Reactions to Mann range from disdain to affection. Upper caste Sikh voters will talk about his drinking and the fact that he belongs to the class of entertainers. It is exactly the opposite with the lower class, low-income people, especially in villages. They love Mann’s jokes and satire.

It is amply clear that lower castes, peasants, migrants from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and  Bengal who settled in Punjab long ago, are in favour of AAP. Punjab has a 32 per cent schedule caste (SC) population, the highest such density in the country. Much like the 2015 Delhi assembly elections, where AAP had the overwhelming support of migrants settled in the city, Muslims and the low income group, in Punjab that also seems the case. 

Sympathies of upper caste voters in Punjab seem inclined towards the Congress. Some voters thought it was wise to vote for that party as AAP would fall short of winning a full majority.

What seems to be muddying the discourse is the perception that the Congress is somehow in cahoots with the SAD. The Congress is said to have put weak candidates in seats considered SAD strongholds and the SAD to have set up weak candidates where the Congress has a chance of winning. The perception is that both want to keep AAP out of Punjab. 

The impression is strengthened by the family ties between candidates of Congress and SAD. Manpreet Badal, nephew of SAD chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, lost the 2014 Lok Sabha election from Bhatinda against Harsimrat Kaur Badal, daughter-in-law of Parkash Singh Badal and wife of Sukhbir Singh Badal. The average Sikh voter is convinced that this was deliberate - because blood is, after all, thicker than water. This time Manpreet is contesting the Assembly elections from the Bhatinda (Urban) seat.

It seems obvious that the SAD-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance, which won 68 of the 117 seats in the 2012 election, will suffer reverses because of anti-incumbency and a range of other issues such as corruption, fake cases, drugs and lawlessness. However, it is also undeniable that the SAD-BJP did some development work in the past 10 years and their cheap ration scheme has benefited many. The traditional voter of SAD has decided to stick with it and this has put its candidate in the middle of a triangular fight in most seats.

The SAD-BJP candidates also got a boost after the Dera Sacha Sauda threw its weight behind them. The Sauda has influence in at least 27 assembly segments in Malwa, stronghold of the Akalis in the previous elections. Dera politics plays an important role in Punjab elections. There are four or five big Deras in the state and they support different parties. This has made the Punjab elections more interesting. It is hard to say who is heading for certain victory.

Note: Others won three seats, two were Hindu-dominated and one had mixed population. Source: CSDS

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