Assembly Elections 2017

Punjab: A State of Flux

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A beleaguered ruling party is set against a slothful opposition

HE IS LUCKY to have his name in the first list. Otherwise, he would have been like scores of other “trishanku candidates” (in limbo), neither here nor there. These words of a block chief of the Congress party in Amloh constituency of Punjab sum up the state of the election campaign here: confused. The candidate in Amloh, Randeep Singh Nabha, admits things are not all rosy. “It is a tough fight here and a lot depends on our ability to ‘keep down’ other claimants to the party ticket who can affect close to 5,000 odd votes here,” he tells Open. Once he leaves to attend an election event, his supporters offer a realistic appraisal. “He can win as people are fed up with the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). But their guy is going all guns blazing on the campaign trail while our people are busy bickering for tickets.”

Amloh, a constituency that is neither urban nor fully rural, offers a good example of the interplay of factors that are making the 2017 poll campaign in Punjab a complex relay race instead of the usual 100-metre dash. Hindu voters in the constituency’s main town, Mandi Gobindgarh, are inclined towards the Congress even as they harbour a reservoir of support for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). But this time, the BJP’s main partner in the state, SAD—the traditionally dominant party of rural Punjab—is on a weak wicket. And in Punjab, as anywhere else in local elections in India, to be on the winning side is important if one is to gain something and not lose much by betting on the wrong horse. Farmers in Amloh appear divided between loyalty for the SAD and backing the ‘nice guy’, Nabha. If that were not enough, there is the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) promising the moon, when it is not fishing for trouble.

The confused state of affairs in this southeast corner of the map only reflects what is happening all over Punjab. The three main contending parties for power—AAP, the Congress and the SAD, the lead partner in a coalition that includes the BJP—are all in different stages of their campaigns. AAP, which has been in the ring for the longest, almost a year now, is seeing a flagging of energy and possibly fortunes as well.

The Congress campaign, after an initial flurry of constituency-level visits by Captain Amarinder Singh, has slowed for a while as the party finalises the names of candidates for the single-phase polls due on February 4th. Almost a month ago, the party announced a list of 61 contenders, following it up with another 16 on December 23rd. The second list—which had 25 names on it—showed the keen and somewhat bitter internal contest for candidacy in many seats. With the polling date just about three weeks away, the party is yet to announce the 40 remaining candidates as Open goes to press. In at least four constituencies, the fight among claimants is so bitter that in all likelihood the party high command will have to take a decision.

All this has taken a toll on the party’s campaign in what is otherwise a promising election for it. Amarinder Singh is caught up in all this in Delhi. Until the last 40 names are finalised, he cannot get back into the thick of things back in his state. This would have consequences. For one, a lot of time has been lost that could have been spent on the campaign trail. For another, once those 40 names go public, an inevitable mushrooming of rebels will occur. The time gap between the announcement of remaining candidates and what is ideally needed to make this rebels ‘sit down’ is perhaps too short. The danger that this will mar the Congress’ prospects is indeed real, but especially in its Doaba stronghold, a region in the heart of Punjab that accounts for 23 seats of the Assembly’s 117. With a strong presence of Dalits, it’s not a belt the party can afford to lose. In the last state elections, under similar circumstances of infighting, the party was defeated in 18 of these constituencies. The other two contenders, AAP and SAD, do not face such a quandary.

It is the SAD that faces the most uncertainty after ten years of ruling Punjab. Anti-incumbency stares at the party, especially in its bastion, Malwa

AAP, however, has its own—more difficult—problems. The longest in the fray, it is now losing steam. The party has ‘imported’ many candidates and leaders from its Delhi unit and is focusing on the Malwa region of Punjab—the state’s political centre of gravity that accounts for 69 of the 117 legislators to be elected. In many districts here, AAP is in a position to give the SAD and Congress a fight, an outcome of its long campaign for power in a state that accounts for its four MPs in the Lok Sabha (the same tally as SAD’s, incidentally). But even this may not be enough for it to send its man to the first floor in the Punjab Secretariat in Chandigarh. For one, its presence in Malwa is uneven across its districts. The party is considered especially weak in the key districts of Patiala—Captain Amarinder Singh’s bastion—and Ferozepur. Patiala alone accounts for 18 seats in the Assembly. Observers contend that AAP is on a weak footing in most of these. That leaves it to slug it out in around 50-55 seats in other parts of Malwa. It cannot win all these constituencies. If that’s not enough, the party’s presence in the two other regions of the state—Majha (Amritsar and Gurdaspur districts) and Doaba—is pretty thin, and its chances low.

“AAP did not factor the social and cultural complexities of Punjab,” argues Pramod Kumar, director of the Institute for Development and Communication (IDC), a think-tank based in Chandigarh. “Its presence across regions and demographics is askew. For example, it has some traction with the youth of the state, but because it has indulged in a strident campaign against Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it has lost support majorly among urban Hindus,” he adds.

One reason why AAP may not be able to ‘swing’ Punjab is the state’s unique religious configuration. Sikhs here consider themselves a majority, while Hindus are in a minority. But at the national level, this equation is reversed. The result is that political rhetoric that may please one aspect of a community’s identity may backfire in another place. AAP has been caught in these political crosshairs. It raised the issue of Delhi’s 1984 anti-Sikh riots in parts of India, an issue that has little traction in Punjab. Similarly, it has been unable to appeal to the state’s Hindus in an effective manner. “All major political parties tread on religious and caste issues with extra care in Punjab,” observes Kumar, “The same cannot be said about AAP.”

The Congress campaign, after a flurry of constituency-level visits by Amarinder Singh, has slowed as it struggles to finalise candidates in time for the polls

Of all the parties, however, it is the SAD that faces the most uncertainty after ten straight years of ruling Punjab. Anti-incumbency stares at the party in all parts of the state, but especially in its bastion, Malwa. A combination of factors—relative inattention to the woes of its core constituency, farmers, allegations of corruption in high places and the general harassment of ordinary people by persons affiliated to the party—has generated considerable doubt over its fate at the hustings. Even in places like Faridkot, deep in Malwa where at one time it was inconceivable that SAD would be weak, matters are in a flux. In 2015, desecration of the Sikh holy book led to protests. In the police ‘action’ that followed, two persons were killed. That rankles to this day in the area.

“[The government] never caught the persons who desecrated the Granth Sahib, but instead shot dead two innocent persons who were peacefully protesting against government inaction,” Jagroop Singh, caretaker of the local gurdwara in Bargari in Faridkot district, tells Open. “See for yourself how much support do the Akalis have in this area,” he adds, referring to SAD candidates.

In Chandigarh, Kumar concurs on what is happening on the ground. “The troubles of the Akalis are largely due to the arrogance of power. One family (the Badals) monopolised power and that has not gone down well with the electorate over time,” he says.

POLITICS, MANOEUVRING OF parties and the calculations to win seats are one matter; the political economy of the state is another. This random dance of politics is largely at variance with the abysmal state of Punjab’s economy. While all parties pay lip service to the state’s economic crisis, it’s clear that in reality they care two hoots. The manifestos released by AAP and the Congress illustrate this.

The Aam Aadmi Party which has been in the ring for the longest, almost a year now, is seeing a flagging of energy and possibly fortunes as well

At one point, in 1980s and 1990s, the state had among the highest per capita levels of income in India and its economy grew faster than many other major states. But that was in the past. A decade of terrorism and the opening of the Indian economy ensured that Punjab fell behind even as other states—better equipped in policy terms and with deeper investments in human capital—marched ahead. Today, the state is better known for its begging-bowl pleas for financial restructuring. Consider Punjab’s outstanding liabilities. On paper, it seems to be doing not so badly. Data released by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) in 2016 shows that there are many states worse off when it comes to outstanding debt. But take a closer look at these numbers and a scary picture emerges. Over the last decade—since the SAD-BJP combine took charge of the state, outstanding liabilities have more than doubled from Rs 51,000 crore in 2007 to over Rs 1.25 lakh crore estimated in 2016. Alarmingly, when compared to the size of its economic pie—as measured by the Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP)—liabilities comprised 31.4 per cent of its GSDP. Here, Punjab stands in the company of only one other state: West Bengal. It is a dubious distinction to hold.

All of this has fallen on deaf ears. On January 9th, the Congress released its election manifesto in Delhi. The 121-page document, replete with annexures, blame allotments, promises and more has the imprint of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Manpreet Badal, a former finance minister of Punjab who was once considered an economic reformer in this arch-populist state. Apart from a slew of other sops, the manifesto promises continuation of free power for the agriculture sector, waiver of farmer debts, and the establishment of a price stabilisation fund. Even if one ignores all other promises, these three are beyond the financial capacity of Punjab, unless the state wants to contract a mountain of additional debt. The Congress does not specify how it plans to raise the money to implement its programme.

If the Congress vision seems to display a gap between what is possible and what can be dreamt up, AAP’s ideas have been wholly tangential. Much like its ideas for governance in Delhi, in Punjab, too, it has promised the moon. Unlike the single document released by the Congress, AAP has released multiple ‘manifestoes’— for farmers, for Dalits, the state’s youth, and the trade and transport and industry. This plethora of documents lacks one essential ingredient: realism. The Congress, a party that has plenty of administrative experience, can be expected to prune its list of promises—it knows what can be done and what can’t—but AAP, which is supposed to be an alternative party, has not explained where it will find the resources needed to fulfil its plans. On an earlier occasion, when Open spoke with a senior leader of the party in the state, he simply said, “We will find a way.”

Perhaps the last word belongs to the state’s hardy farmers who don’t expect much from their government and politicians except being spared the trouble they encounter in government offices and at the hands of the police. In an election gathering in Fatehgarh Sahib, where a harried candidate on a sticky wicket is trying his best to convince a sceptical audience why he will be a good bet for them, one farmer gets up and asks what his party will do for them. The candidate reels of a list of impressive promises—including, of course, debt waiver. A look at their scraggy faces confirms that few of them believe this. The candidate moves on. When asked whether he believes what was promised, the reply of a farmer, well into old age, is revealing: “It is the lies that tell you what these people are up to. Had he said that ‘I will stand by you when you need me,’ I would have believed him. But he promised what he knows he cannot deliver.” It is on these dusty roads of Punjab that manifestoes and promises come crashing against reality.