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Punjab Elections

The Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance won the recent assembly elections in Punjab because the Congress government failed to deliver and the party was plagued with infighting. More than anything, Punjab needs a government that will address the crisis in the agrarian economy and attract industrial investment.

Punjab Elections

Exploring the Verdict

The Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance won the recent assembly elections in Punjab because the Congress government failed to deliver and the party was plagued with infighting. More than anything, Punjab needs a government that will address the crisis in the agrarian economy and attract industrial investment.

ASHUTOSH KUMAR

T
he 13th assembly elections in Punjab witnessed one of the most closely fought electoral battles between the two traditional rivals, namely, the Congress and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). The intensity was reflected in the nature of electoral participation among 1.69 crore eligible voters, which at 76 per cent was exceptionally high even from the Punjab standard.1 The volatility of the electoral process in Punjab can be attributed to the interplay of the several determinants of its electoral politics like caste, kinship, region, religion, language and leadership [Kumar 2004b: 5441]. If voters came in record number on the polling date despite bad weather, it was also due to a sense of desperation among the people who are looking for political solutions to a crisis situation at a time when one form of the technological solution that went by the name of green revolution has long outlived its utility.2

In what has now become the familiar feature of electoral campaigns in the state, people were subjected to no-holds barred media war and public utterances verging on personal slandering that emanated primarily due to the personal animosity between Amrinder Singh and Prakash Singh Badal, the two chief ministerial candidates. The campaign also witnessed starfilled road shows and door-to-door campaigning in what was dubbed as the costliest election ever to take place in Punjab.

Electoral Verdict

Like the high percentage of voting, the electoral outcome that went against the ruling Congress was also along predictable lines. Post-1966 reorganised Punjab has always voted for a change and this time it was the turn of the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party (SAD-BJP) alliance to come back to power. The coalition won 68 seats in the 117-member assembly with SAD winning 49 seats in 2007 compared to 41 seats in the 2002 elections and BJP gaining an all-time high of 19 seats compared to a mere three seats in 2002. SAD had contested on 94 seats whereas BJP contested on 23 seats. In a major departure from the past, the SAD trying to become a “catch all” party gave tickets to seven Hindu candidates.

The Congress this time contested alone unlike the last elections when it had an alliance with the CPI and the CPM. It received unconditional support from the Bahujan Samaj Morcha. Congress put up a decent fight by winning 44 seats as compared to 62 in the 2002 poll. The other parties in the fray like CPI, CPM and the Lok Bhalai party, who had entered into electoral alliance or the Bahujan Samaj Party, Bharatiya Janshakti Party who had fought alone could not open their accounts nor could they play the role of “spoilers”. It held true for the splinter Akali Dals who came on a common platform in the name of panthic issues. SAD (Amritsar) led by Simranjit Singh Mann, SAD (1920) led by Ravi Inder Singh, SAD (Longowal) led by Prem Singh Chandumajra and Inder Singh Zira, Majha Akali Dal led by Raghbir Singh, Dal Khalsa and Shiromani Khalsa Panchayats who had all come together on the eve of the elections with the aim of having a three-cornered fight against the Congress and SAD-BJP alliance. Like in most of the states, the emergence of electoral bipolarity was evident in this election as the winning and the closest losing candidates in all but two seats were either from the Congress or from the SAD-BJP alliance. From Joga (Mansa) and Dhaliwal (Gurdaspur) constituencies, independents came second. The number of winning independent candidates came down from 11 to five this time (see the table).

Table: Punjab Assembly Elections

Party 2002 2007 Contested/ Per-Contested/ Per-Won centage Won centage

INC 62/105 35.81 44/116 40.9 SAD 41/92 31.08 49/93 37.09 IND 9/274 11.27 5/431 6.82 BJP 3/23 5.67 19/23 8.28 CPI 2/11 2.15 0/25 0.76 CPM 0/13 0.36 0/14 0.28 SAD(M) 0/84 4.65 0/37 0.52

117 117

Source: CSDS Data Unit.

Economic and Political Weekly June 2, 2007

What was exceptional about these elections was the very different kind of electoral verdicts in the three geographical regions of Punjab namely Malwa, Doaba and Majha. In the last two assembly elections, the winning party had taken the lead in all the three regions [Kumar 2002: 1385]. This time the Congress took notable lead over the SAD-BJP alliance in Malwa, traditionally considered the stronghold of the Akalis. In Doaba and Majha, where the Congress has had impressive victories in the last assembly elections, this time it was the SAD-BJP combine repeated its 1997 performance.

What were the possible factors that affected the electoral verdicts at the regional levels? The success of Congress in Malwa was largely due to the directive of a religious sect called Dera Sacha Sauda to its followers to vote for Congress.3 However, in all fairness to the Congress it also received a good response due to its performance in this cotton belt. It was credited with the smooth procurement of the foodgrains and the success of BT cotton. It also helped that Amrinder Singh hails from the region and was given a relatively free hand to pick the candidates; many of them new faces.

Among the factors that went against the Congress in the north-west area on the border of Majha region of Punjab were: lack of development in the border areas, illegal colonisation of the urban peripheries, inability of the government to check rampant drug addiction among the youth who are mostly unemployed or unemployable due to poor educational facilities, and rebel factions. The SAD-BJP alliance received the support of the farmers in the border region of Gurdaspur, Amritsar, and Firozepur districts. The farmers in the once militancyinfested region have been asking for easy access to their land for cultivation that falls beyond the fencing besides the resumption of monetary compensation that was stopped by the Congress government. The SAD-BJP alliance not only promised the monetary compensation to the aggrieved farmers but also agreed to give proprietary rights to the farmers who have been tilling the government land at subsidised cost. The alliance also received the support of 20 lakh members of the Rai Sikh community, mostly borderland farmers on the promise of trying to get them scheduled caste (SC) status. The candidature of Navjot Singh Sidhu from the Lok Sabha seat of Amritsar on a BJP ticket enabled the combine to garner its complementary support bases in the region.

From the Doaba region, the Congress could win only three out of 26 seats contested whereas the SAD-BJP won 20 out of 25 seats contested. In Jalandhar district that has a large dalit population in the rural belt, the combine won nine out of 10 seats in a reversal of the outcome in the 2002 elections. In the recent elections especially in 1997, the BSP had succeeded in weaning away the dalit votes at the cost of the Congress. This time, however, despite the poor performance of BSP, Congress fared badly. One reason for the success of the SAD in six constituencies was the recent attempt by it to draft support among the dalit Sikhs by including their representatives in the reconstituted political affairs committee and also by giving tickets to them this time in large numbers. Through

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Economic and Political Weekly June 2, 2007

its Kirti Samaj Wing, the SAD also mobilised the other backward castes (OBCs). The sizeable migrant farm labourers, though mostly dalits, voted in favour of Akalis under the influence of their Jat Sikh landlords in the constituencies like Ludhiana (rural). The BJP gained victories in the Hindu-dominated urban constituencies at the cost of the Congress.

The Big Picture

What went against the Congress besides the all-important anti-incumbency factor?4 Among the factors that explain the overall Congress loss, the most decisive was the apparent shift in the urban votes comprising of a sizeable number of Hindus, mostly upper caste that led to unprecedented success of the BJP in the urban/semi-urban constituencies like Jalandhar and Ludhiana. The alienation was attributed to the pro-Jat Sikh image of the Amrinder Singh government and also his attempt to dabble in gurdwara politics, something the Congress never did so openly in the past. Third, the lacklustre performance of the government led by a chief minister who remained a remote figure even for his own party men, surrounded by his loyalists that included highly controversial bureaucrats. After coming to power on an anti-corruption and good governance plank, the government launched an offensive against the Badals, completely forgetting about governance. It was also stymied by internal bickering between the groups led by Amrinder Singh and Rajinder Kaur Bhattal. It was only after the debacle in the last Lok Sabha elections that there was some serious attempt to bring forth private investmentinduced development on the agenda. For the purpose, special economic zones were proposed, most significantly in greater Mohali on the pattern of Chandigarh. The move, however, backfired as the government was accused of entering into shady business deals with big business houses to the detriment of the farmers whose lands were appropriated for the purpose without paying adequate compensation at a time when real estate prices skyrocketed. The government also failed to live up to its “pro-common man” image in the form of the high-handedness of the police against the agitating unemployed teachers, students, doctors and farmers. In the media campaign the SAD-BJP effectively used photographs showing police excesses even against women protesters. Refusal of the government to take action against the erring officials aroused popular anger. Fourth, the failure of Congress in adding to the power generation capacity during the last five years made it unpopular among the farmers critically dependent on mechanised irrigation. The non-completion of the projects like Ranjit Sagar Dam was highlighted. Underlining their pro-farmer image, they proposed to set up 600 mega watts thermal plant at Goindwal Sahib and Shahpur Kandi Project. Fifth, the recent increase in the prices of essential commodities also hit the Congress badly, as being the party ruling both at the centre and the state it could not escape the responsibility. Sixth, wrong decisions regarding the distribution of tickets also cost the Congress as many sitting ministers and MLAs lost their seats.5After initially promising to drop the non-performing sitting MLAs Congress finally gave tickets to only 32 new faces. This was primarily to check the dissident activities within the party that had cost it heavily in 2004. However, the internal bickering continued as this time it was the rivalry between Sahamsher Singh Dullo, belonging to the late Beant Singh group and Amrinder Singh that played havoc with the concerted effort of the party’s top leadership including Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh, to retain power in this crucial border state. Jagmeet Singh Brar lately joined by Bir Davinder Singh, both CWC members, was another long-standing crusader against the leadership of Amrinder Singh.

How do we explain then the fact that despite going alone and fighting antiincumbency, the Congress was able to put up a credible performance? Besides the factors mentioned above, Congress benefited from the effective implementation of the ambitious free health insurance scheme for the poor farmers under the Sanjeevini scheme that benefited 4.70 lakh BPL families. Medical treatment worth Rs 2 lakh was made available to them in about 300 hospitals in the state. The recruitment of 1,200 school teachers without any charge of corruption or favouritism, and abolition of octroi also helped the Congress as the Akalis when in power had failed on both counts. Three-phase extensive “vikas yatras” undertaken by Amrinder Singh at the fag end of his reign that was joined sporadically by senior leaders like Dullo, Bhattal and Lal Singh did help. The Congress also tried to take credit for giving the country its first Sikh prime minister. The non-performance of the earlier SAD-BJP government (1997-2002) also was a factor that must have swayed the voters. In a significant move reminiscent of the ongoing federalisation of the party system in India, the state unit of Congress had got the assembly to pass unanimously the Termination of Water Agreement Act, 2004 refusing to proceed with the Satluj Yamuna Link (SYL) project, much to the annoyance of the high command. The creation of new districts like Mohali and Fatehgarh Sahib in the name of greater development, administrative efficiency and decentralisation of power also helped the Congress as evidenced in its wins in closely contested fights in Kharar (Mohali) and Amloh (Fatehgarh Sahib). Finally, the state in any case has never witnessed massive swing in favour of a particular party like in Tamil Nadu in “normal” elections like this (1985 and 1992 elections that took place under the shadow of militancy can be dubbed as “abnormal” ones).

What were the factors that went in favour of the Akalis? The most decisive one was their new-found unity under the leadership of Prakash Singh Badal that showed in fairly early distribution of tickets without much protest. It gave the Akalis a head start in the campaign. With the demise of Gurcharan Singh Tohra and Surjit Singh Barnala, Badal senior, now the chief minister for the record fourth time, has for quite some time been the undisputed leader of the Akalis though not yet in the same league as Baba Kharak Singh, Master Tara Singh or Gyani Kartar Singh, the mass leaders of yore. During the campaign, he had the support of senior Akali leaders like Kanwaljit Singh and Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa.

The projection of Sukhbir Singh Badal as heir apparent during the campaign did not receive flak from the senior Akali leaders primarily due to his organisational hold over the party. Badal junior was also credited by the workers with showing the courage to take on the Amrinder Singh government, raising corruption charges and leading an aggressive campaign against the government at a time when the Akalis were on defensive. Then, in a deft move to placate the senior leaders their sons, popularly known as “kakas”, were preferred while distributing the party tickets. Holding promise of continuity and change, Badal junior represents the emergent post-blue star generation of the Akali leaders for whom more than the endless dharma yudh morchas in pursuit of elusive panthic agenda and indulgence in the gurdwara-based politics, the deliverance of economic push to

Economic and Political Weekly June 2, 2007 the beleaguered state is far more important. Urban-based, well educated and widely exposed, this new generation of Akali leaders closely knit by kinship ties, is trying to come out of the traditional agro-centric approach to think differently and are viewed by the Akali workers as agents of change.

Election Manifestos

There was no change, however, in one aspect. Both the Congress and the Akalis continued to compete against each other in holding out populist promises, without revealing the programmatic efforts to be taken in the event they came to power. The Akalis, who had won the elections in 1997 on the promise of free power and water scheme for the farmers, this time, took a head start by promising public distribution of flour for Rs 4 and pulses for Rs 20 to the people below the poverty line if voted back to power (the party was derisively dubbed by its critics as “Shiromani Atta Dal”). In the wake of rising prices, the promise did have mass appeal, a fact grudgingly recognised by the Congress who also promised to do the same. Among other impressive promises made by the SAD-BJP coalition in their manifesto (for the first time in English too) were: filling all government vacancies within six months of coming to power, health insurance of up to Rs 2 lakh for the farmers, free power to the dalits to be doubled from the present 200 units to 400 units, Rs 15,000 as shagun for the poor belonging to all the communities, old age pension and pension for the disabled, widows, dependent children (ranging from Rs 250 to Rs 400), “make your own policy” for trade and industry, streamlining of VAT, Rs 5 crore to be spent on 100 block level “adarsh” schools that would be set up to educate 1.3 lakh children within three years, 10 medical colleges along with 500 bed hospitals within three years, training institutes for self-employment, five flying and cabin crew training institutes, joint ventures with foreign universities to provide world class education, free education for girls up to university level, getting rid of land scams and sustainable prices for farmers, separate ministry for NRIs with representative offices in Europe, UK, Canada and US to protect their property and business interests in Punjab, single window clearance for NRI investments, an international airport at Ludhiana and an airport in Jallandhar, new urban development policies to regulate the haphazard growth besides giving the colonisers and the builders’ freedom to plan their projects, urban development with a human face; additional 5170 MW of power for Punjab by measures like reviving the Goindwal power plant and Bathinda refinery project to add 1000 MW, one-time debt settlement scheme and staggered debt transfer plan for indebted farmers, a new scheme of free health insurance cover of Rs 2 lakh for every farmer and landless labourers, grant of cooperative education loans up to Rs 10 lakh at a nominal interest to the children of the marginal farmers, farmland to be acquired only with the consent of the affected farmers who were also to be given 30 per cent displacement allowances as settled by the local sarpanch, MLA and the MP, package to the farmers for the second push to the green revolution, enhancing power generation to ensure 24-hour free supply to farmers and to weaker sections within three years, the setting up of youth development and employment generation boards.

It was no surprise that the manifesto of the Congress had a similar populist line: rice and flour at Rs 4 and pulses for Rs 20 for the poorest of poor, free power supply to the farming sector, tube well connections to small and marginal farmers within 12 months, taking landowners as partners on board any major project, continuation of MSP schemes, reforming the cooperative sector, reducing the interest on farm loan to five per cent, streamlining the private moneylenders called ‘arhitiyas’, creating three new special economic zones, one each in three regions, abolition of sales tax by 2010, reworking VAT, reduction in the turnover tax on trade to 0.25 per cent, equal distribution of water to all parts of the state (unlike SAD, it however did not mention to scrapping section 5 of the Termination of Water Agreement Act, 2004 that stipulated that Haryana and Rajasthan would continue to receive water as per their respective shares). Other promises included providing relief to the manufacturing sector from stamp duty and electricity duty and the waiver of the entertainment tax. It also promised to make Punjab an electricity surplus state by 2012, implementation of the recommendations of Fifth Pay Commission, greater thrust on development of IT and biotechnology-based industries, lump sum VAT on the brick kiln owners.

A reading of the election manifestos and public utterances once again confirmed the shift in the electoral agenda of Punjab that has witnessed three distinct phases, since its reorganisation in 1966. The first

Economic and Political Weekly June 2, 2007

years of the post-partition two-community state were dominated by the panthic agenda, expressed first in the form of the demand for communal electorate followed by the Punjabi Suba movement and then in the form of Anandpur Sahib resolutions that “inaugurated the centre-state conflict in the late 1970s, and which gave an initial boost to militancy” [Chandhoke and Priyadarshi 2006:1]. It was followed by an agenda for peace and Hindu-Sikh unity by both the Congress and Akali Dal struggling to recapture their relevance in the political domain after the cessation of militancy.6 As Punjab continues to slip in economic terms, the agenda for some years now has been for development and good governance. In the historic Moga declaration in February 1996, the SAD firmly committed itself to a more secular politics based on “Punjab, Punjabi and Punjabiat” [Kumar 2004 a: 1519]. Accused of being regional, sectarian, and at times even communal by its detractors, the party, founded on December 14, 1920, now takes pain to underline its adherence to Guru Nanak Dev’s principles of “sarbat da bhala” (welfare of all) and “manas ki jaat sabhey ek hai pehchan bo” (universality and equality of mankind) [Pandher 2007: 114].

Since the 1997 assembly elections, both the SAD and Congress, dubbed as a “Hindu party” during the days of militancy, have been asking for votes in the name of peace, harmony, and development [Kumar and Kumar 2002: 1385]. That this election was no exception becomes clear as one has a cursory look at some of the issues around whom the campaigns veered: economic growth and development, inflation and corruption, incidence of suicide among farmers, improvement in infrastructure including water and power supply, strengthening of education and healthcare systems and economic reforms.

Lopsided Polity

In Punjab dalits constitute 31 per cent of the population – the highest in the country. Besides filling up 29 reserved seats, the dalits figure nowhere in the politics of the state irrespective of the governments formed. After making an impressive start with nine seats in the 1992 elections, the BSP has managed only one seat that too way back in 1997 elections. The dismal performance can be attributed to the internal divide within the community along the lines of religion and caste, neglect of the top leadership (read Mayawati) that remains focused on UP, factionalism and refusal to enter into strategic alliances. The politics of Punjab remains lopsided in terms of gender representation also as in terms of numbers of women legislators have never reached into two digits. Election 2007 was no exception as only 54 women candidates were in the fray of whom only seven could win and the most important ones being Laxmi Kant Chawla and Upinderjit Kaur, both cabinet ministers now, from Amritsar central and Sultanpur Lodhi respectively and Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, CLP leader now, from Lehra Gaga. A notable win was that of Rajia Sultan, sitting MLA of Congress over the SAD candidate Abdul Gaffar in Maler Kotla, the lone Muslimdominated constituency of the state. In caste terms, electoral politics in post-green revolution Punjab has for long been dominated by the Jat Sikhs constituting the “rich farmers”. Being 20 per cent of the population they are numerically strong, own 60 per cent of land and are the middle peasant caste in all the three regions of the state like the kammas and reddys in Andhra Pradesh. Within the caste also, it is the kinship/family ties that determine the leadership role in the parties whether it is the Congress or the SAD. Such a closed nature of electoral politics in terms of leadership role “complements” the exclusionary nature of market economy that is being prescribed under the shadow of globalisation. It is hardly surprising then that one finds a “marked dissonance between political economy and electoral process in Punjab, with the former hardly influencing the latter” [Chandhoke and Priyadarshi 2006: 2].

Conclusion

The electoral outcome is not a positive vote in favour of the SAD-BJP alliance but rather an indictment of the non-performance compounded by the internal bickering within the Congress. In the absence of credible alternatives, the electorate in Punjab has repeatedly been forced to go for what they possibly begin to perceive as lesser evil with the passage of time. Like in the case of Congress in 2002, SAD-BJP has come back to power primarily due to the follies of their opponents rather than their own policies and programmes or lack of it. The glaring failure of the parties to focus on substantive issues like the structural crisis in the agrarian sector confronting this once widely hailed “model state/ granary of India”, does not augur well for a state where not long ago militancy was contained with the use of state coercion without a single demand of the Anandpur Sahib resolutions being met. Email: ashutosh_chd@hotmail.com

EPW

Notes

1 Voting percentage in the assembly elections in the post-1966 reorganised Punjab has been 71.18, 72.27, 68.63, 65.36, 64.33, 67.47, 23.82, 68.73, and 62.14 respectively in 1967, 1969, 1972, 1977, 1980, 1985, 1992, 1997, and 2002. The 1992 elections saw exceptionally low participation due to the boycott by the Akalis and also due to threat of militants.

2 The continuing deceleration of economic growth has particularly hit the farming sector. Successive governments have failed to deliver on promises to introduce a second green revolution by supporting crop diversification, cooperative farming, organic farming, etc. With investments in the industrial sector going to the neighbouring states, agro-centric Punjab economy growth rate during 2002-07 was just 4.8 per cent against the national average of 7 per cent.

3 Dera Sacha Sauda is a religious congregation that has its headquarters in Sirsa. Dera head Sant Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh directed supporters, estimated to be around 40 lakhs to support the Congress. Another religious sect called Radha Saomi influential in the border districts also backed Congress.

4 Anti-incumbency plays a role in Punjab as the relevant parties have had their traditional support base. Whenever there is a balance in terms of support, like in this election, then the antiincumbency factor plays a large role.

5 Besides the state party president, the prominent losers among the Congressmen were many cabinet ministers like Jagmohan Singh Kang, Chaudhary Jagjit Singh, Harnam Das Jauhar, Raghunath Sahay Puri and Avtar Henry. From among the SAD the prominent losers were senior leaders Tota Singh, Gurdev Singh Badal and Bibi Jagir Kaur.

6 In an interview given in a run-up to the elections, Badal expressed regret over tearing the copy of the constitution during the days of militancy to protest against the central government for clubbing Hindus with Sikhs under the Constitution [Pandher 2007, p 108].

References

Chandhoke, Neera, Praveen Priyadarshi (2006): ‘Electoral Politics in Post-Conflict Societies: Case of Punjab’, EPW, March 4.http:// www.epw.org.in/showarticles

Kumar, Ashutosh (2004a): ‘Electoral Politics in Punjab: A Study of the Akali Dal’,EPW, April 3.

– (2004b): ‘Punjab: In Search of New Leadership’, EPW, December 18.

Kumar, Ashutosh and Sanjay Kumar (2002): ‘Punjab Assembly Elections: Decline of Identity Politics’, EPW, April 13.

Pandher, Sarabjit (2007): ‘Great Past’, Frontline, January 12.

Punjab Development Report (2003): Planning Commission, Government of India, Delhi.

UNDP Human Development Report (2004):

Punjab, Government of Punjab, New Delhi.

Economic and Political Weekly June 2, 2007

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