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A Re-Election in Punjab and the Continuing Crisis

A more thoroughgoing management of the message of governance, the media and electoral strategies helped the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal- Bharatiya Janata Party alliance buck the anti-incumbency trend in Punjab and win assembly elections rather emphatically. The Congress' failure to connect to the people through mass movements and the continuing decline of the left parties only helped the ruling alliance even further. Despite this victory, the election manifesto of the ruling alliance suggests that it has few ideas to tackle the crisis Punjab faces today.

COMMENTARY

A Re-Election in Punjab and the Continuing Crisis subsidised “atta-dal” reaching deserving people, merit in recruitments for government jobs, and the containment of harassment faced by the people at the hands of the bureaucracy worked as an
antidote to his projected image of a
Manjit Singh grabber of state resources. Other tactics

A more thoroughgoing management of the message of governance, the media and electoral strategies helped the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance buck the anti-incumbency trend in Punjab and win assembly elections rather emphatically. The Congress’ failure to connect to the people through mass movements and the continuing decline of the left parties only helped the ruling alliance even further. Despite this victory, the election manifesto of the ruling alliance suggests that it has few ideas to tackle the crisis Punjab faces today.

Manjit Singh (manjits@pu.ac.in) is with the department of sociology, Panjab University, Chandigarh.

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
march 31, 2012

N
ever before in the political history of Punjab was the election process as openly corporatised as in the recently concluded assembly elections of 2012. It is clear that in the age of information and communication revolution the elections are now fought from the “war rooms”, employing the weaponry of money, muscle power, intoxicants and the media. The experience of Punjab elections clearly showed that the traditional factors such as political ideologies, promises in the election manifestoes and democratic structure of the parties were relegated to the margin of the electioneering campaign. Social engineering – what can be described as correct permutations/combinations of different social segments of society – had taken centre stage in the management of votes. In no other state elections was the use of media as vigorously done as in Punjab. Paid news, bribing reporters and media managements alike were also some of the other instruments used by the political parties in their electoral war. It is a well-known fact that the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) controlled c able networks and did not allow news channels to enter Punjab that were critical of the functioning of its government. After more than a month-long “gruelling campaign”, finally votes were polled on 30 January 2012 and the outcome was announced on 6 March.

Challenge for the Akalis

Certainly, winning state assembly elections was not a cakewalk for the SAD and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alliance. The father-son duo of Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal and Sukhbir Badal had strategised election management for the past two years – with the latter focusing on public service in order to expand the political support base of the party nurtured over the years by his f ather. Sukhbir Badal’s emphasis on highly

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related to “social engineering” and advance “micro planning for each constituency” also played dividends. Having said that, the election results were not insulated from national politics – issues such as corruption, price rise and foreign direct investment played an important role as well. Clearly the electorate voted for development, improvements in agriculture and in hope for a fair deal at the hands of ruling elites in the state.

Both in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, the respective father-son duo of the Yadavs and Badals worked largely on a similar pattern leading their parties to win an absolute majority in the assemblies. The leadership of the Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee might still be stunned at the defeat in the elections but it is time to make an earnest and dispassionate review rather than quibble among themselves.

The results show a sharp polarisation of voters in the assembly featuring 117 constituencies. The SAD-BJP alliance secured 68 seats (56 and 12 respectively) whereas Congress managed to win 46 seats and only three independent candidates could succeed. The newly fl oated Sanjha Morcha, constituted by the People’s Party of Punjab (PPP), Communist Party of India (CPI) and Communist Party of India (Marxist) – CPI(M), drew a blank even though the votes secured by them was about 6.15%. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) also could not make its entry into the state assembly despite securing 4.30% of the votes. The difference of votes between the SAD-BJP combine and the Congress was only 1.77%.

However this vote difference gave an edge of 22 legislators to the SAD-BJP alliance over the Congress. In fact, in terms of total vote polled, the loss of Congress votes over the previous election was only 0.79%, in contrast to the SAD-BJP alliance that lost 3.49%. The micro-management by Sukhbir Badal could contribute nine MLAs to his team who won with a margin of just about 1,000 votes over their rivals whereas

COMMENTARY

C ongress won only one seat with such a narrow margin.

The not so silent cries of a neck-toneck fight did not move the Congress leadership well in time during the campaign. The leadership was busy in dreaming about ministries rather than competing well during the elections. The SAD-BJP alliance on the other hand took the contest as a “fight to the fi nish”. The Congress kept on hoping to ride the anti-incumbency wave that never materialised. Thoroughly disappointed, the Punjab Congress is now busy in fi nding scapegoats in Sanjha Morcha, accusing them of being “game spoilers”. The pattern of voting results, however, does not support this theory emanating from the Congress Party spokespersons.

It is now clear that the single-most important tactical mistake from the Congress leadership that pushed the SAD-BJP alliance onto victory was its failure to quell the revolt from within its own ranks. Congress leader Sonia Gandhi’s half-satirical remark that the Congress lost not for want of leaders, but rather due to too many leaders (sans dedicated followers), was also far from the mark. The fact is that the Congress is in serious need of charismatic leaders who have mass appeal and, at the same time, are powerful enough to maintain order within the party.

The “remote control” from Delhi was decisive in the selection of candidates, against the wishes of the state leadership and was also responsible for their performance in the state elections. This does not mean that the state leadership of Congress could be e xonerated from its own mishandling. Unlike the SAD leadership that was seen to be accessible to the people, the Congress leadership preferred to work from within its own comfort zone guarded within palatial buildings. Their hope that the people of Punjab would continue to follow the trend of never returning incumbent ruling parties back to power made the party indifferent to the demands of the people while sitting in the opposition. The Punjab Congress has shunned its own history of struggle against the misdeeds of the party in power and their fight is now limited to the floor of the state assembly.

The Congress has also suffered from misplaced priorities. It had an opportunity to consolidate its base among the dalits when in power between 2002 and 2007, but it wasted in framing cases against the leaders of the opposition in an open display of vendetta politics that had nothing to do with the people at large. The open display of unsheathed swords and belligerent imagery from public platforms during the election campaign by the Congress president also did not fi nd much f avour with the people of the state.

Dalit Politics

Traditionally, dalits in Punjab felt secure under the aegis of Congress rule. Punjab is a state with a high dalit representation in its demography, accounting for close to 29% of the population. Dalits constitute more than 33% of the rural population of the state but they share or own only 2.34% of the area under operational (agricultural) holdings. The mechanisation of agriculture and the green revolution have usurped their employment opportunities in agriculture pushing them further to the margins. The BSP’s Punjab unit somehow failed to consolidate dalits within its own folds and could secure only 4.30% of the votes even when it contested in each and every assembly segment. Among other factors, dalits are fragmented along multiple axes, viz, religion, caste, class, rural-urban divide, and other subregional identities.

Under the given circumstances, Congress could have made efforts to consolidate its social base among the dalits through the honest implementation of development schemes pertaining to the poor. The ameliorative measures of the Congress Party are largely harnessed by the top 20% of the dalit population constituted mainly by the Addharmis, a relatively well-off caste among the dalits. Consequently, within the dalits 80% of them feel rather neglected and some of them have now been swayed by the Akalis through the “atta-dal” scheme. The bottom 20% of the dalit population of Punjab, on the scale of social disempowerment, can be compared with the dalits of Bihar. There is rampant poverty, illiteracy and child labour among them.

One survey of dalits in Punjab has shown that 58% of them are indebted and the average amount of debt is

march 31, 2012

Rs 28,048 per household which comes out to be Rs 6,165 per head. Are we waiting for them to go the farmers’ way of committing suicide before any plan is launched for their development? The Punjab Congress must learn from its loss of social base in Uttar Pradesh if not from the impact of developmental schemes of the outgoing Punjab government. It is time for introspection but much more than that the Congress, in opposition, has to come out with a clear action plan for the people before it is ready to face another electoral trial.

As far as the leadership qualities of the elected MLAs are concerned there is no break from the past. In the house of 117 members there are 19% MLAs with criminal charges belonging both to the ruling alliance as also the Congress Party in the opposition; it also includes presidents of SAD and the Pradesh Congress. Only 12% of the elected legislators were women. Only 45% of the legislators were educated up to the undergraduate level. The average value of the assets of MLAs has shot up from Rs 5.73 crore in 2007 to Rs 9.92 crore in 2012. The average value of the assets of Congress MLAs is far higher – at Rs 13.97 crore – compared to the SAD at Rs 7.93 crore.

Despite the popular praise for the role of the Election Commission in containing the free flow of liquor and cash to bribe the voters, their success was only partial. There is a demand in Punjab by various groups to carry out radical election reforms, including “right to recall” of an elected MLA if he/she fails to fulfi l election promises, and the right to reject all candidates by an electorate.

Decline of the Left

The victory or defeat of the parties apart, the results of Punjab elections are highly worrying for the people of Punjab. There was a strong history of leftist politics in the state but over the years the left parties are losing their support among the people. Besides numerous splits within their organisations, the leadership of the left has grown too “old” and unsuitable for these modern times where faster means of communication are seen as an imperative. The left leadership is trying half-heartedly to mobilise support among the people but

vol xlviI no 13

EPW
Economic & Political Weekly

COMMENTARY

many of them are as alienated from the ground reality as are the leadership of any other parliamentary party. In the face of ever-dwindling numbers among their ranks, the leaders of the left parties are often busy in securing their own leadership rather than spending time in expanding their social base. The continuous retreat of the left leadership has left the political space open to manipulation by the ruling parties. The CPI and the CPI(M) contested 14 and nine seats each in alliance with PPP led by Manpreet Badal. Though PPP could not win a single seat, it could still garner 5.17% of the total votes. These votes largely came from the youth of Punjab that Manpreet could sway through his powerful oratory invoking the imagery of Shaheed Bhagat Singh.

The CPI(M) contested nine seats and had to forfeit security deposits in every single seat. The CPI, on the other hand, could muster 1,14,211 votes for the 14 candidates in the fray with an average of 8,158 votes per contestant. Unless the leadership of the left come up with effective alternative strategies to the “war room” politics of the ruling parties it would not be possible for them to win over peoples’ trust. And these parties could very well start with the restoration of inner party democracy which, at the moment, seems to be an anathema. The ruling parties can afford to centralise decision-making and moblise people using the charisma of a single popular leader in their midst but this cannot be the case for the left who are no match to the ruling parties in terms of mobilisation of resources. Alternatively, the left leadership in Punjab could have matched the ruling elites by accumulating social and political capital.

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Conclusion

To sum up, in the absence of a massive democratic social movement in Punjab, the political power is going to shuffl e between only two powerful contenders, namely, the SAD-BJP alliance and the Congress. The Sanjha Morcha did ignite a hope, particularly for the youth, but so far people have not reposed their trust in it. If the new government does not take the poll promises seriously, the everweakening social and economic fabric of Punjab will only continue to wither. The most worrying part is that election manifestoes do not address the root cause of crisis in Punjab, namely, the failing public health and education system, restless unemployed youth, dalits who continue to be marginalised and the unsustai nable nature of agriculture as it is today.

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Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
march 31, 2012 vol xlviI no 13

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