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Punjab election 2017: Is the state poised to break past trend?

Continuing the trend, 2017 elections witnessed a high electoral participation, at 75 per cent, higher than the national average Photograph: (AFP)

WION Chandigarh, India Mar 09, 2017, 08.11 AM (IST) Ashutosh Kumar



Election was held in Punjab on 4 February 2017 to elect the 117 members of the Punjab Legislative Assembly. Several elements and episodes make the 2017 Punjab election the gripping talk of the nation.

There is a great amount of political speculation on whether the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) will be able to re-do its impressive performance of 2014 Lok Sabha election. If AAP succeeds, they will put an end to the 50-year-long two party dominance in the state.

This year's election is also of crucial significance to the Congress party. A victory in this state election is the party's only chance to break the cycle of repeated nationwide defeats since 2014. Among the five states that have gone for election, the party is in poor shape in Goa and Uttarakhand has exercised anti-incumbent vote against it. It is only in Uttar Pradesh wherein Congress is a junior alliance of the ruling Samajwadi party. 

In Punjab, the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), in alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Dal (BJP), has remained in power for two consecutive terms. For SAD, it is more about retaining the traditional social support base of rural Jat Sikhs so that it can hold on to their position.

In many ways, the 2017 elections was not out of ordinary for Punjab since it exhibited some long-established, state-specific trends.

The three electoral regions i.e. Malwa, Doaba and Majha have their own distinct electoral issues and voting patterns. But rather than dwelling on issues of ethnic conflict, as it did prior to the 1997 election, this year's election campaigns revolved around issues of development and governance. While SAD and BJP claimed to bring about development if elected to power, the Congress party and AAP accused the ruling combine of corruption, nepotism and non-performance.

Concerns raised by the opposition parties included the regular issues related to roads, water, electricity, and employment. Additionally, problems related to farming, such as foodgrain procurement, indebtedness, cash crops failure, minimum support price and lack of incentives to businessmen were very much part of the political discourse.

On the flip side, competitive patronage based on clientelistic politics rather than programmatic politics continued, as parties made unrealistic promises in campaigns.

Continuing with the trend, the 2017 Assembly election has witnessed huge electoral participation. At 75 per cent, the state's electoral participation is much higher than the national average.

Viewed in terms of leadership profiles, electoral politics of the state continued to remain lopsided. All prominent leaders belonged to land-owning and financially powerful Jat landed peasantry. In a state with 31.9 per cent Dalit population, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has continued to lose its ground even in the Doaba region where the Dalits constitute the majority. Its sway over the people of Punjab has waned as the BSP leadership's sole focus continues to be on Uttar Pradesh (read Mayawati) at the cost of neglecting the Punjab region.  

However, there were also important deviations, which have turned the 2017 Assembly elections in Punjab into an exceptional contest. This year's election brought to an end the long-standing bi-party electoral system in the state. At present, the Aam Admi Party has emerged as a key player along with Congress and Akali Dal. 

The AAP’s incredible electoral journey had commenced with the 2014 Lok Sabha election when it had surprised everybody by polling 24.4 per cent of the vote and winning four out of 13 constituencies. It finished third in eight constituencies (34 of the 117 Assembly segments). That performance defied received electoral wisdom, as AAP did not have a recognisable leadership, organisation, or support base. Neither did it have electoral agenda or the winnablity factor in a state, which has been witness to high level of electoral participation and contestation.

Irrespective of the number of seats AAP has won in the past, it has clearly emerged as a game changer by forcing the Congress and Akali Dal to address hitherto ignored but vital issues, such as drugs, plight of poor farmers and dynastic rule. In terms of leadership too, there was an aberration. For the first time in the electoral history of the Punjabi Suba, Arvind Kejriwal, a non-Punjabi speaking Hindu from the neighboring state of Haryana, has emerged as the face of the AAP campaign. Evidently, he has caused scare in the heart of established contenders like Parkash Singh Badal and Amarinder Singh. 

There was also a notable shift in the traditional social support base of panthic parties like SAD. The party that have always managed to gain support of rural voters so far, especially the Jat Sikhs, faced an alienated rural constituency. They have failed to prevent repeated crops failures, provided inadequate compensation to farmers, and poor quality pesticides were distributed when the party was in power. In addition to all these, the SAD adopted a flawed crop procurement process, farmers commtted suicides and there was minimum support price for crops. Most significantly, the inability of the Akali government to capture the culprits behind desecration of the holy Guru Granth Sahib also drove away the devout Sikhs.

SAD's attempt to enlist the support of Dera Sacha Sauda right before the election might have brought Dera Premi votes, however, it annoyed the traditional rural panthic constituency of the SAD. The Dera chief is not only charged with serious crimes but was also accused of personating himself as the tenth Sikh Guru.

Beyond these significant departures, several innovative electoral strategies were witnessed in 2017. The AAP, for instance, not only came out with separate manifestos for different social constituencies, but also adopted creative door-to-door and social media campaigns. The youth of Punjab emerged as a new secular ‘voting category’. There were visible techniques used by parties to woo the younger bracket, particularly, the women. Issues related to women received particular attention in this year's state election. But on the flip side, youth in rural Punjab are critically affected by the spread of synthetic drugs. Much of the drug problem has been blamed on Akali politicians, including Bikram Singh Majithia, the brother-in-law of Sukhbir Badal. The allegation stigmatised the Akalis and led to loss of votes among their core constituency.  

Arguably, the 2017 election was not the most interesting in the history of the state but definitely one that can turn out to be a game changer. Since 1992, Punjab has not seen a hung assembly but there is a distinct chance of having such an assembly this year which would then open up interesting scenarios.

There is palpable tension in the air and Punjab waits with bated breath for the results to be announced on 11 March.



Ashutosh Kumar

Ashutosh Kumar is professor of Political Science at Panjab University. His expertise is on Indian politics with special focus on Punjab.

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