Punjab has predominantly been a two-party State with both the main players, the Indian National Congress (INC) and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), entering into alliances with various partners in its history. The most sustainable such alliance has been between the SAD and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). However, Punjab has also had the presence of other parties, albeit not very strong, and at no point in history have alternatives to the Congress and the SAD been able to emerge.
Looking at the parliamentary elections from 1952, barring the Congress and the SAD, all other parties, including the BJP, the Communist Parties of India (CPI), the Communist Party of India - Marxist [CPI-M)], and Independents, have won just 4.5 per cent of seats 1 . Of these, the Independents have managed only 0.09 per cent seats over time. Both the INC and the SAD have oscillated in alliances with the communists, the BJP, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and variants of the Akali Dal.
Interestingly, Punjab has the highest percentage to total population of Scheduled Castes. Yet, the major Indian pro-Dalit party, the BSP, has not been in any major reckoning and it has also led to the fragmentation of the Dalit vote. The deras [religious sects] have become significant vote banks as they swing the Dalit votes for either the Congress or the SAD. Hence, deras are actively pursued and courted by all in Punjab.
Some developments in the political scenario in Punjab since 2012 make the current general election a watershed moment. First, in the 2012 assembly election in Punjab, the People’s Party of Punjab (PPP) was formed and received unprecedented pre-poll enthusiasm from both the people of the State and the media. Second, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has made an entry into Punjab and for the second time in the past couple of years, an apparent third front is in the picture.
The PPP was formed by Manpreet Singh Badal, a former Punjab Finance Minister belonging to the SAD, who is also the nephew of the incumbent Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal. The reasons for the formation were ostensibly the pervasive corruption and vacuum in policy making in the governance of Punjab. However, the elevation of Sukhbir Singh Badal, the Chief Minister’s son, as the deputy CM and hence heir apparent, acted as the catalyst for Manpreet Badal’s resignation from the SAD and led to him form the PPP. This party, in alliance with the communists, formed a front called ‘Sanjha Morcha’ (United Front) and contested all the 117 assembly seats with disastrous results.
The PPP couldn’t open its seat tally even though Manpreet Badal contested from two places (he was the only candidate doing so in the 2012 assembly election), one of which was his traditional seat, Gidderbaha, (the other being Maur), from where he had won four times previously. He lost both seats and his father, Gurdev Singh Badal, who fought against his brother, Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, lost his deposit. Only nine PPP candidates (9.7 per cent) could save their deposits. The vote share of the PPP was 5.16 per cent. The SAD-BJP combine was able to come back to power, breaking a record in Punjab. Since its reorganisation in 1966, no incumbent government has been able to come back for a second term. The presence of the PPP in the assembly elections proved counter-intuitive for both the PPP and the Congress. Coupled with some astute strategies by the ruling SAD, it paved the way for the victory of the incumbent government.
Now that the AAP is also in the fray, what possible alignments of parties can we look forward to? More importantly, can the AAP succeed where the PPP failed in 2012? The PPP and the AAP seem like natural partners and a few months ago there were talks of an alliance between both these parties. However, post the government formation in New Delhi, the AAP’s stock rose even further and there were rumours that it would have preferred the PPP to merge with it. This alliance did not work out. Curiously, the PPP went into an alliance with the Congress party in Punjab and now after Manpreet Badal has agreed to fight on the Congress symbol from Bathinda constituency it has lost its identity in all but in name.
One of the other significant features of the Punjab parliamentary election is that it has often had a higher turnout than the national average. In the 2012 assembly election, the voter turnout exceeded 70 per cent. Traditionally, this is associated with an anti-incumbency wave. However, this time the incumbent government was voted in.
The data on Punjab elections does seem to suggest a difficult terrain for a third front to find its way in the space dominated overwhelmingly by the SAD and the Congress. However, I will argue that Punjab is ripe for an alternative front and the reasons for the failure of the PPP-led third front in 2012 should not be taken as a lost cause for an alternative front. The failure of the third front was due to bad planning and strategising.
The left front and the BSP have all but ceased to be of any significance in Punjab politics. Their performance and organisation has been going from one low to another. The gradual withering away of the left and the BSP has consolidated the vote bank of both the SAD and the Congress. The lack of viable candidates and an inability to match up the might and reach of the two main parties has led to them being reduced to non-players. The PPP was projected as the best alternative in the 2012 elections. One of the logical things for the PPP to do would have been to have a pre-poll alliance with the BSP. This could have proved to be a game changer. After that, it could have managed a tacit understanding with the Congress over the number of seats to maximise gains. The PPP’s failure to do this and Sukhbir Badal’s strategy to have the BSP contest all the 117 seats put paid to any chances that it had.
If the PPP, the Congress, the BSP and independents could have come to any sort of understanding, it would have affected the outcome in 35 assembly constituencies. It is interesting to note that 25 candidates won the elections with a margin of less than 3,000 votes and 17 of them belonged to the SAD-BJP combine (14-SAD, 3-BJP), with 7 SAD candidates winning with less than 1,000 votes. Only 8 out of 117 candidates (6.8 per cent) fielded by the BSP could save their deposits. This, combined with 9.7 per cent of the PPP’s non-forfeited candidates, surely makes a case for a better strategy to have been followed by the Congress and the PPP. Further, the PPP could not convince its voters whether it was fighting corruption or nepotism. The speeches of Manpreet Badal suggested more of a veiled attack on Sukhbir Badal and a direct attack on dynastic politics or the policies followed by the SAD-BJP government. However, he himself has been a beneficiary of that system and his attack on corruption also failed to hold any weight, as he himself was part of the government for the same party, heading the finance ministry, which rolled out all the schemes.
The data above shows a crying need for a pre-poll alliance, which could have been made, had better strategy rather than sentiments and wishful thinking been followed. The lack of strategy that the PPP followed in the assembly election in 2012 defies logic. It seems a case of hoping that their good intentions would lead them to victory. Unfortunately for the PPP, the Congress was also riding high on the belief of anti-incumbency and it miscalculated that the PPP would cut into the SAD share; it happened the other way around. The Congress doesn’t seem to have learnt anything from this debacle, and committed the same mistake in the Delhi elections, when it thought that the AAP would eat into the vote share of the BJP.
The SAD combine, on the other hand, followed a strategy and planned well ahead of time. It did all the groundwork and followed a well-crafted poll strategy. It capitalised on the ‘rebel factor’ in the Congress and the BSP fighting all the 117 seats. Sukhbir Badal played a proactive role in capitalising on both these events. Even though the SAD didn’t have the kind of professional election set-up like the AAP, Sukhbir Badal’s approach was methodical and empirical.
The AAP has shown that it is better than many in approaching and planning an election in a way that was hitherto missing on the Indian scene. With its emphasis on methodical strategising and local mobilisation, its presence in Punjab is creating quite a stir. The CSDS [Centre for the Study of Developing Societies] tracker poll has given 14 per cent of the vote share to the AAP, and even more surprisingly, 12 per cent of the people chose AAP party leader Arvind Kejriwal as the next Prime Minister of the country, which was second only to the BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi (25 per cent). Further, the poll showed that 40 per cent of the voters are undecided about their choice. This, coupled with the fact that there are half-a-million new voters in this election, make AAP a party to watch out for in Punjab.
However, the AAP seems to be scoring a lot of self-goals here. Two candidates announced by the party withdrew, citing infighting, personal reasons and lack of support from the local units as the reason. There has been an inordinate delay in announcing the candidates, leading to speculation and a waste of precious campaign time. Its known faces are fighting prestigious and close battles across the country and might find it difficult to canvas for the candidates here. The AAP has been made synonymous with the youth in the country. Punjab also presents an interesting study as it has a large chunk of senior citizens in its electorate. Thirteen lakh of the total number of 43 lakh senior citizens are over the age of 70. New voters number 4.3 lakh and voters between 20 and 29 years are 46.66 lakh. It is fair to say that Punjab has voters on both sides of the demographic spectrum. It is interesting to note that despite the youth being one of the AAP’s central themes, while giving tickets in Punjab, most of its candidates fall in the category of ‘non-youth’. It could be a strategic ploy as candidates like Dr. Daljit Singh, who is 80 years old, is a known face for the youth of Amritsar, the constituency from where he is contesting. He is a world-renowned ophthalmologist and youth can also easily relate to him, as an iconic figurehead. In a conversation with a focus group of 30 University students (conducted by the author) in Amritsar, it emerged that the students were happy that a person of his stature is contesting the parliamentary elections. It is interesting to note that Amritsar has become a constituency of extreme significance and prestige as Arun Jaitley and Capt. Amrinder Singh are the two heavyweights who are contesting as candidates for the BJP and the Congress respectively.
The close margins of the 2012 assembly election results coupled with an interesting demographic profile make Punjab a rather interesting case study this time. The Congress seems to have learnt an important lesson from the 2012 assembly election and has gone in for formal and strategic alliances. The dissent and rebellion has been managed in a far better manner. Its choice of candidates has sprung a surprise to the ruling SAD-BJP combine, which was in the same celebratory and over-confident mode as the Congress was before the 2012 assembly election. Though a number of Congress heavyweights were reluctant to contest, once they all fell in line with the ‘high command’, the cadre has become far more enthusiastic.
Punjab is witnessing one of the most important parliamentary elections since its reorganisation. The alternatively oscillating monopoly of the SAD and the Congress would face a real challenge from the third front. This election could lead to better consolidation of the third front by the time the State lopes to the 2017 assembly election.
1 All the data in this article have been tabulated from www.eci.nic.in.