RAJEEV KHANNA | 19 JANUARY, 2019
The BJP’s main support base of small traders shifted towards the Congress after demonetisation
CHANDIGARH: From having two traditional power houses, the Congress and the Shiromani Akali Dal–Bharatiya Janata Party combine, and a rookie Aam Aadmi Party on the threshold just before the 2014 general election, the electoral field in Punjab stands widely scattered ahead of the upcoming polls.
It is an interesting matrix, with different parties taking positions that at times overlap and elsewhere are diametrically opposed.
In this season of political marriages and separations, with many more players emerging, it will be interesting to see whether voters exercise their franchise with clarity.
One can start with the SAD-BJP combine that has seen a lot of turmoil in the last five years, and stands discredited today. The alliance won six of the state’s 13 Lok Sabha seats in 2014 but stood decimated in the 2017 assembly polls, with its tally coming down to a mere 18 from 66 in the election prior. Later it also lost the Gurdaspur parliamentary bypoll to the Congress, after the sitting BJP MP Vinod Khanna died.
But more than the losses, what is of major concern to the SAD-BJP is how it has failed to recover from these. The BJP’s main support base of small traders shifted towards the Congress after the demonetisation exercise by the Narendra Modi led government at the centre, and the shoddy implementation of the GST or goods and services tax regime.
And the Akalis, who have often claimed to be the true representatives of the Panth, stand discredited after the many instances of desecration of holy texts, and the police firing on peaceful protestors in 2015 that led to two deaths.
Former Akali chief minister Parkash Singh Badal and his son Sukhbir Singh Badal, who is also the SAD president, are in hot soup following the indictment by the Justice (Retd.) Ranjit Singh Commission which probed the instances of sacrilege and the police firing.
The father-son duo also granted an apology to the Dera Sacha Sauda chief Ram Rahim for blasphemy in 2015 from the Akal Takht and the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee. Following a public outcry this apology was later revoked.
It was on this issue that three Akali stalwarts, Ranjit Singh Brahmpura, Sewa Singh Sekhwan and Rattan Singh Ajnala, revolted and were subsequently expelled from the Akali Dal. They formed a new party last December, the Shiromani Akali Dal (Taksali).
The hardline Sikh leaders who led the six month long Bargari Morcha on the issues of sacrilege and police firing also announced that they would be launching a political outfit soon.
The main agenda of both the SAD (Taksali) and the proposed outfit of the Bargari Morcha leaders is to free the SGPC and the Akal Takht from the Badals and their Akali Dal.
But it is the saga of the Aam Aadmi Party that has been the most happening.
A rookie force that stunned everyone by winning four of 13 Lok Sabha seats in 2014, it was threatening to walk away with the winner’s crown in the 2017 assembly polls. But the hiccups started soon after, when two of its four MPs were placed under suspension for anti-party activities.
Then came the sacking of AAP’s Punjab convener Sucha Singh Chhotepur on flimsy grounds, triggering the first divide: Chhotepur launched the Apna Punjab Party or APP ahead of the assembly election.
Overambitious leaders, hobnobbing with Sikh hardliners abroad, and a lack of understanding between its units in Punjab and Delhi led to AAP’s debacle in the assembly polls.
The saga continued with the party’s national convener Arvind Kejriwal seeking an apology from Akali leader Bikram Singh Majithia for having levelled allegations of AAP’s involvement with the drug mafia. This saw a revolt in party ranks led by former Leader of Opposition Sukhpal Singh Khaira.
Things went from bad to worse, particularly on the issue of the autonomy of the Punjab unit of the party, and on January 8 Khaira launched the Punjab Ekta Party.
The Congress has been the most stable force over the last three years, apart from the internal bickering that is seen as part of its culture. In 2016 two senior leaders, Bir Devinder Singh and Jagmeet Brar, were shown the door. Now word has it that Brar might return to the party fold.
On Wednesday the Congress reportedly suspended its MLA Kulbir Singh Zira from primary membership, for indiscipline. Zira had criticised the Amarinder Singh led Congress government for the alleged connivance of police with the drug mafia, at a public function in Ferozepur on January 12.
Nevertheless, with the splits in the Akali Dal (Badal) and AAP, the Congress stands most firmly placed ahead of the Lok Sabha polls in the state.
But it will be interesting to see which way the other small political forces go. The Lok Insaf Party of the Bains brothers (Simarjit Singh and Balwinder Singh) carries some weight in Ludhiana and surrounding areas. Similarly, the once strong Bahujan Samaj Party still retains its support base in the Dalit stronghold of Doaba and pockets of the Malwa and Majha regions. The Left also has a presence in certain pockets.
A lot will depend on the alliances made by these parties’ parent units at the national level.
Dharamvira Gandhi, the suspended AAP MP from Patiala, has been talking about establishing a new political outfit named the Punjab Democratic Alliance. He has been propagating Punjab’s federal rights through his Punjab Manch which he set up a few months ago.
With multiple outfits scattered across the political spectrum, the Lok Sabha polls in Punjab are going to be an interesting affair, as their outcome in terms of vote share and gains will go a long way in deciding the state’s politics in days to come.
This spring of many parties indicates one thing for sure: there is room in the state for forces other than the Congress and the SAD-BJP combine. With AAP having failed to rise to people’s expectations, Punjab voters may well look towards others, even if only to play spoilsport.