It is election season and the one state that promises to provide a dose of high octane complex politics is Punjab. Political masala continues to be added to the electoral cauldron by the day. The recipe included poaching, searing ‘double talks’, sprinkling old issues with fresh ones, adding positions on federalism, mixing religion and politics, and garnishing with diaspora interests, it is all in the recipe of the political meals being fed to the voters.

It is to be kept in mind that Punjab has unique characteristics such as being located along the international border, and that a national minority is a majority here. The state goes to the polls in the last phase, in June. Yet the political thermometer is already competing with the thermal one as temperatures have begun to rise.

Punjab is moving towards a multi-cornered political fight. It will be the first time in more than two decades that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will be testing the political waters without its ally the Shiromani Akali Dal- Badal (SAD-Badal). On the other hand Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and Congress, who on a national level are a part of the Indian National Democratic Inclusive Alliance (I.N.D.I.A.) continue to be at loggerheads here.

Some smaller players too will be in fray. All this adds to the complexities and it is here that personal clouts, caste combinations and religious groupings, everything will matter.

It is a well known fact that politics is like the game of chess, and right now every party is busy with constructing a fortress. They are ready to resort to the ‘castling manoeuvre’ if need be. On one side strategies are being devised, and on the other rivals continue to be attacked.

It is in this context that the political players need to be placed and analysed individually. Of late it is the BJP that has come up with the most interesting moves. It is a party that has built itself through meticulous planning ever since its erstwhile partner SAD-Badal moved out of the alliance at the height of the farmers’ agitation.

Despite odds stacked against it, the BJP is in a position where its rivals fear the poaching of their leaders. Till a few days back there were talks of the BJP having an alliance with the Akalis again, but the move fizzled out.

In any case, the downslide of Akalis since 2017 Assembly polls have brought things to a point where the BJP would no longer want to be a junior partner in an alliance. It will seek almost an equal share in seat distribution in the state that sends 13 members to the Lok Sabha.

The BJP has been continuously on the lookout for credible, particularly Sikh faces in Punjab and it has succeeded to a large extent. Of course the flip side is that the party that talks of a ‘Congress mukt bharat’ is largely ‘Congress Yukt’ in Punjab as a large number of political heavyweights in its kitty today are erstwhile Congress leaders.

These include the likes of former Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh, his wife and former Union Minister Preneet Kaur, former Congress chief Sunil Jakhar who is now heading the BJP’s state unit, Ludhiana MP Ravneet Singh Bittu who is a descendent of former assassinated Congress CM Beant Singh, and Sushil Kumar Rinku a sitting AAP MP.

Rinku recently joined the BJP after moving from Congress to AAP, all in less than three years. Of these Preneet, Ravneet and Rinku have been fielded from Patiala, Ludhiana and Jalandhar respectively.

After joining the saffron party, Preneet said, "Impressed by the pro people policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government the people of Punjab are regularly joining the BJP by leaving other parties. The entire Punjab BJP unit under the leadership of Sunil Jakhar and Vijay Rupani is working hard and I am sure that we will sweep the upcoming Lok Sabha elections in Punjab. People of Punjab are fed by the lies and deceits of the bogus AAP and will surely show them the mirror coming June 1.”

Meanwhile, Jakhar said, "BJP is committed to ensure that India moves forward through growth and development and 140 crore Indians are fully aware of India's growing successes in the last 10 years under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi. The trust that the people of India have in the party is showcased by these large numbers of joinings that are happening daily."

The BJP’s formal ally SAD-Badal is desperately trying to claim its lost fortunes. Relegated to the third space in two consecutive assembly polls, the party is in a public outreach mode through a ‘Punjab Bachao Yatra’.

It is India’s oldest regional force with a rich past, particularly when it comes to raising federal issues. It also claims to be at the forefront when it comes to represent the interests of the Sikhs through panthic issues.

The re-alliance with the BJP not working out, the party is going solo in the polls. Its core committee has recently spelled out the issues, policies and principles on which it will go to the people of Punjab to seek the mandate.

“The party will continue to put principles above politics and it will never deviate from its historic role as a champion of the interests of Khalsa Panth, all minorities as well as all Punjabis. At the same time, we will continue to devote all our energies towards preserving the atmosphere of peace and communal harmony on the basis of the vision of Sarbat da Bhala.

“As the sole representatives of the Sikhs and of all Punjabis, the party will continue its fight for more powers and genuine autonomy to the states. We have never compromised on these interests nor will let its vigil down on these in future,” a resolution passed at a special meeting of the core committee that was presided by party president Sukhbir Singh Badal, stated a few days ago.

The resolution urged the Union government to honour its written commitment for the release of Bandi Singhs who had completed their terms. “These commitments were made in the august presence of Shri Guru Granth Sahib on the occasion of the 550th birth anniversary of Sri Guru Nanak Devji over five years ago,” the resolution stated. The issue of Bandi Singhs is an emotive one and has seen temperatures soaring in the state from time to time.

The resolution further said the SAD would continue to champion the cause of the farmers and farm labourers and said that all promises made to them must be fulfilled. “SAD is the largest representative democratic organisation of the farmers and has always been in the forefront of fighting for their interests,” it read.

Observers say that the farmers taking a strong position against the BJP was a major factor in Akalis not joining hands with the BJP other than the latter not willing to come as a junior partner. The common perception among the observers is that the top BJP leadership at the centre is irked over the strong views expressed by Akali leader and Sukhbir’s wife Harsimrat Kaur on the farmers and some other issues in the Parliament.

She is the sitting Lok Sabha member from Bathinda. The Akalis were compelled to move out of the previous alliance on the farmers’ movement against the three controversial farm laws that were eventually repealed. Interestingly, the Akalis had initially stood with the BJP on these laws.

The resolution also called for the stoppage of the “brazen interference” in the religious affairs and institutions of the Khalsa Panth. “We strongly condemn the conspiracies to break the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) by setting up a separate gurdwara committee for Haryana. We also condemn attempts to usurp control of the DSGMC, Takhat Shri Huzoor Sahib Nanded and Takhat Shri Patna Sahib,” it stated.

The resolution condemned the demolition and demanded allotment of the land for the construction of the Guru Ravidas Temple in New Delhi. “Continued denial of this is an act of discrimination and injustice against the great soul and against millions of his followers all over the world,” it read.

The core committee also called for the opening of the Attari and Ferozepur borders to facilitate trade through the land route with other countries citing the handicaps faced by the state on account of being landlocked.

The party has also spoken on preserving human rights and has opposed the misuse of draconian black laws including the National Security Act (NSA). “These measures were opposed by us even during the Emergency. “Most patriotic leaders like Sardar Parkash Singh Badal were also subjected to laws like the NSA by successive Congress regimes,” it said while also opposing attempts to dilute, in letter or in spirit, the Constitution of India as framed by Bhim Rao Ambedkar.

Sukhbir has claimed that the SAD is not just a political party driven by number games, unlike some national parties. “We are a 103-year-old movement with a clear vision and we have always stood by and for principles. That will continue to be our goal. For us, it is principles above politics and issues above any political numbers.

“We are the largest democratic representative organisation of farmers and have always led the fight for their rights from the front and introduced historic measures in governments for their welfare. Our party stands by high principles and is committed to safeguarding Panth and Punjab,” Sukhbir said.

On Tuesday, the party filed a complaint against Iqbal Singh Lalpura who is the chairman of National Commission for Minorities (NCM) before the Election Commission of India (ECI) for ‘openly and illegally’ participating in political activities of the BJP while holding a constitutional post. It has urged the ECI to take strict action against him.

Arshdeep Singh Kler who is the chief spokesperson and president of the legal wing of the party said that the NCM has been set up to safeguard and protect the interest of minorities. He said that

Lalpura who was re-appointed as chairman in 2022 is believed to work towards the betterment of minorities without involving himself in the political activities of a particular party. He said that Lalpura is involved in the political activities of the BJP and is present at various political leaders’ BJP joining ceremonies. He said that Lalpura was also present at the BJP’s head office during the joining of Preneet Kaur.

Incidentally, the Akalis and the Congress who have been the traditional political powerhouses in Punjab are the most well placed when it comes to having prominent faces to contest the elections. There is no dearth of leaders in their ranks.

Meanwhile, the Congress remains at the forefront of Punjab politics despite a poor performance in the last assembly polls in 2022. It has been aggressive on issues against the AAP government in the state while also attacking the other political rivals.

Since it is a season of political migrations and joining, it has landed a prize catch in Dr Dharamvira Gandhi who is former Patiala MP from AAP. Gandhi is expected to be the party’s candidate against Preneet and Patiala is sure to witness a major political battle in the days to come once the Akalis and AAP also field their candidates.

Welcoming Dr Gandhi into the party fold, the state unit chief Amarinder Singh Raja Warring said, “We express our gratitude to Dr. Gandhi for his decision to be a part of the Congress family. He is a venerable and senior figure in the political landscape.

“Throughout his life, he has worked towards helping the people of Punjab through his social services like providing free healthcare services to those in need. His inclusion is a significant stride, imperative in our collective endeavour to safeguard the interests of the nation.

“In confronting the authoritarian government under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, individuals of Dr. Gandhi's stature are invaluable assets in our pursuit of upholding democratic values. His decision to join us underscores a commitment to a cause greater than partisan interests."

Meanwhile, Dr. Gandhi remarked, "It is incumbent upon me to align with a party that embodies the ideals necessary for safeguarding the nation's interests, particularly amidst the forthcoming 2024 elections. My association with the Congress, albeit indirect, was manifest during my participation in the Bharat Jodo Yatra across Kanyakumari, Punjab, and Kashmir.

“This reinvigorated incarnation of the Congress party led by Rahul Gandhi epitomises integrity and represents a departure from the stagnation of yesteryears. My decision to join the Congress stems from a conviction to be on the right side of history, particularly in countering the forces of saffronisation.

“The Congress, with its ethos epitomised by slogans such as 'Mohabbat ki Dukaan Khulli Rehne Do' and 'Darro Matt', resonates deeply with my vision for an inclusive India. The Congress doesn’t need me, I need the Congress because I want to fight for the nation. In this critical juncture, I firmly believe that the Congress possesses the requisite potency, both at the regional and national levels, to counter the BJP's divisive agenda."

Dr Gandhi had been elected from the Patiala seat on an AAP ticket in 2014 defeating Preneet. After falling out with the AAP leadership this medical practitioner had contested the 2019 polls from Nawan Punjab Party and had secured 1.67 lakh votes owing mainly to his personal reputation.

After a recent meeting of the Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee, Warring attacked the ‘ostensible dissolution’ of the alliance between the Akalis and the BJP and claimed that despite the absence of a formal agreement, both parties continued to collaborate behind closed doors.

He said, “Despite concerted efforts by Sunil Jakhar, Sukhbir Badal, and Captain Amarinder Singh, the BJP and Akali Dal have failed to establish a significant presence in Punjab. It is evident from their persistent endeavours that these parties have been operating in unison to garner credibility ahead of the impending Lok Sabha elections.

“Although the public termination of alliance talks by the BJP and Akali Dal has been announced, I am confident that both entities are still cooperating despite their public disavowals. The statements issued by both parties have merely been tactical responses to the current public dissent in Punjab, devoid of any real advantage from a public alliance.

“Moreover, it has come to my attention that Sunil Jakhar proposed an alliance for six to seven seats, a proposition that failed to materialise due to lack of consensus between the two parties. Despite this, it is evident that the political entities maintain a robust relationship, as evidenced by the continued provision of central security forces to the entire Badal family while our leaders remain devoid of such privileges.

“From the presidential vote to the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) Bill, the Akali Dal has consistently aligned itself with the BJP, conducting its affairs in favour of the latter. Even during the recent core committee meeting of the Akali Dal, the matter of minimum support price (MSP) for farmers was conspicuously absent to appease the central government.

“I challenge Sukhbir Badal to announce that if the Akali Dal wins an MP seat during the elections, their vote will be against the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).”

Warring along with leader of opposition in the state Assembly Partap Singh Bajwa have been scathing in their attacks on the Bhagwant Mann led AAP government in the state.

On every issue ranging from law and order situation, to the recent hooch tragedy in Mann’s home district of Sangrur to the increasing debt burden on the state, the Congress leadership has been in a very aggressive mode. It remains to be seen which faces the party is going to field in this all important electoral battle.

Meanwhile, the AAP is looking forward to a decent showing in the forthcoming polls. Having secured a landslide victory in the assembly polls in 2022, the party needs a good showing in the parliamentary polls as Punjab is the only state outside Delhi where it has a significant presence.

Its leadership is presently fighting on the two fronts – Punjab and Delhi. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal who is also the party’s national convener has been put behind bars on money laundering charges pertaining to an alleged liquor scam.

The departure of its lone sitting MP Rinku to BJP was a big embarrassment to the party. Rinku had won the Jalandhar by-poll only last year and his name had been announced as the AAP candidate from the seat for the 2024 poll recently, till he switched over to the BJP.

The party facing a paucity of prominent faces can be gauged from the fact that it has announced the candidature of five sitting ministers for the Lok Sabha polls. These include Kuldeep Singh Dhaliwal from Amritsar, Laljit Singh Bhullar from Khadoor Sahib, Gurmeet Singh Khudia from Bathinda, Gurmeet Singh Meet Hayer from Sangrur from where Bhagwant Mann had returned victorious in 2019 and Dr Balbir Singh from Patiala.

The other candidates announced by the party include Punjabi actor Karamjit Anmol from Faridkot, Gurpreet Singh GP from Fatehgarh Sahib, Dr Rajkumar Chabbewal who recently switched from the Congress from Hoshiarpur and the party's chief spokesperson Malvinder Singh Kang from Anandpur Sahib.

Bhagwant Mann after holding meetings with the candidates of Patiala and Faridkot along with the party MLAs from the constituencies of these two Lok Sabha seats on Tuesday the leaders to work together to make the AAP candidates victorious from Patiala and Faridkot.

He said that the people are with the AAP as they have seen the government's work and they are happy. He expressed confidence to register ‘big and historic’ victories like the 2022 Assembly elections.