Punjab’s Political Season Blooms
As the Lok Sabha polls approach, local politicians have hectic schedules
Punjab stands out as an exception, staying away from the politics of polarisation that has come to mark North India. However, at the same time the scenario before the Lok Sabha polls can be described as a complicated political maze.
The state is all set to witness a high pitched contest in the forthcoming elections. Chances of political alliances continue to diminish, as hardened postures of various players become visible.
Political turmoil in this border state, where a national minority is in majority, seems to be omnipresent. This can be attributed to the spirit of the people who never shy away from taking the powers that be to task.
There is also an increase in general political awareness after the farmers’ movement that compelled the Union government to repeal the three controversial agricultural laws. The political developments that are underway in Punjab at the moment are expected to have a bearing on the forthcoming parliamentary polls and beyond.
The recent controversy surrounding the mayoral poll in Chandigarh will also add another dimension to the polling on the 13 Lok Sabha seats in the state. It needs to be remembered that while Chandigarh is the joint capital of both Punjab and Haryana, it is also a Union Territory that elects a Lok Sabha member.
A major initiative has now been undertaken by the Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) in the form of its ‘Punjab Bachao Yatra’. Observers see this as an outreach campaign by the party that has been trying to revive its dwindling fortunes ever since it was relegated to the third place in the 2017 state Assembly polls.
It is being said that the Yatra is evoking a “good response till now”. The party aims to cover 43 Assembly constituencies during this Yatra, and raise panthic and other issues. In the last Lok Sabha polls the party had managed to win only two seats.
Party president Sukhbir Singh Badal, and his wife Harsimrat Kaur Badal, had won from Ferozepur, and Bathinda, respectively. Its erstwhile ally the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had also won two seats.
The Shiromani Akali Dal is the oldest regional party in the country. It has a rich legacy of leading battles for federal rights, and panthic issues.
Political analysts are of the opinion that given the distinct characteristics of Punjab, in terms of its demography, economy and polity, there is a definite need and space for a strong regional force. However, they added that a weak Akali Dal is not in the interest of Punjab.
This sentiment was also aired at a seminar on ‘Challenges facing Punjab and their Resolution’ at Anandpur Sahib on January 27. The participants emphasised the need and relevance of a strong regional party in Punjab, to resolve the crisis facing the people of the state, besides fighting centrist tendencies.
Professor Kuldeep Singh of Guru Nanak Dev University in Amritsar asserted that the SAD should not deviate from its core principles and philosophy. Political analyst and scholar Professor Ronki Ram said that Sikhs have a distinct identity, and they should safeguard it. He also stressed how a regional party alone can reflect the people’s undiluted voice.
Leading economist, Professor Ranjit Singh Ghuman focused on how money being spent on development had decreased from 72 percent in 1980-81 to less than 50 percent in 2021-22. He said the investment into the state had also decreased from 30 percent of gross state domestic product (GSDP) in 1995-96 to 18 percent now.
Professor Ghuman highlighted that public debt had increased during the current Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) regime. The AAP had promised to mobilise revenue but has failed to do so. He also spoke on the flight of capital by way of migration and the need to come out with a policy to stop it.
He asked the SAD to demand the reopening of the Wagah border to facilitate trade between Pakistan and India, and call for resolution of problems being faced by 14.5 lakh micro small industries.
The Akalis launched the Yatra on February 1, from near the ‘zero line’ at Atari. They gave a clarion call for re-opening of the international border with Pakistan to facilitate trade between the two countries. They also demanded enhancement in compensation to farmers tilling lands beyond the barbed wire fence in the Indian territory.
Badal held a detailed discussion with the farmers at the border, with the latter disclosing that thousands had lost their livelihood due to the closure of the Integrated Check Post (ICP) at Wagah. They also said that they had not received compensation of Rs 12,000 per acre per annum for land across the barbed wire fence for the last two years.
The farmers called for moving the fence close to the zero line, saying restrictions on caring for their produce was causing losses to them. The farmers also demanded that compensation for border farmers be raised to Rs 35,000 per acre for all 21,600 acres of land situated beyond the barbed fence.
The farmers also complained that a Government hospital initiated by former chief minister Parkash Singh Badal here had still not seen the light of day.
The Akalis are highlighting the achievements of the erstwhile SAD government, and attacking their political adversaries. The party is focusing on how the SAD had given free power to the farmers and was instrumental in granting 3.81 lakh tubewell connections.
It recalled how the SAD tenure witnessed an overhaul of the existing road network and creation of four lane highways at a cost of Rs 40,000 crore. The SAD is also highlighting that five of the six thermal plants in the state came up during its tenure, as did major airports at Amritsar, Mohali, Bathinda, Sahnewal, Adampur and Pathankot.
The party has been attacking the AAP government under Bhagwant Man. It claims that the AAP government has taken an unprecedented loan of Rs 60,000 crore in the last 20 months, but has nothing to show by way of development or infrastructure development.
The Yatra has come under fire from its political rivals. Chief Minister Mann called it a political gimmick and had said that it should be named ‘Akali Dal ton Punjab Bacha Lo Yatra’ (Save Punjab from Akali Dal Yatra).
He accused the Akalis of plundering the state mercilessly, and emotionally bruising Punjabis, due to which this oldest political party of Punjab is in trouble today.
The state unit chief of the Congress, Amarinder Singh Raja Warring said, “the Shiromani Akali Dal appears to lack a cohesive motive and vision, resorting to efforts just to maintain relevance within Punjab's political setup. Undertaking a yatra within Punjab reflects a lack of originality, resembling an imitation of the Congress' Bharat Jodo Yatra. This yatra seems superfluous.
“How meaningful is a 'save Punjab' initiative when there is potential alignment with the BJP in the works, Punjab's primary political adversary? The Akali Dal's leadership, lacking a clear direction, seems to be grasping at straws merely to sustain their relevance,” he said.
Meanwhile, the circus continues in the grand old party. What adds to the chaos is the return of Navjot Singh Sidhu. He recently went on a spree addressing rallies without taking the state leadership in confidence, causing considerable discomfort to the leadership.
Sidhu was warned for not setting up ‘separate akharas’. Two leaders were also reportedly suspended for organising a public meeting addressed by the cricketer turned politician. Sidhu is now on an interview giving spree to local media outlets.
Without naming anyone, he has been attacking the politician while adopting an aggressive stance. He continues to claim that he is fighting Punjab’s battle for Punjabis.
He said in a recent tweet, “The big question is what is the solution to Punjab’s deteriorating economy and how will you pull it out of the quicksand of debt!!! What is the policy driven program; roadmap and most importantly who will implement it for genuine public welfare will need a man of credibility, character and vision to pull Punjab out of the woods! The rest is a diversion from issue based politics… Farmers, small traders and labour should be the top priority for policy making!!!”
“Sidhu’s posture ahead of the last assembly polls in Punjab had cost the Congress dearly and he is again at the centre of things ahead of the Lok Sabha. It is also a reflection on the Congress that has failed to address the Sidhu issue in the last two and half years,” an observer pointed out.
Meanwhile, Warring along with other senior leader Partap Singh Bajwa have been leading the Congress’ assault on its political adversaries in the state, particularly the Mann-led AAP government. They have been accusing Mann of letting AAP’s senior leadership in Delhi interfere in the internal affairs of Punjab.
On Tuesday Bajwa while referring to a news report alleged that Delhi education minister Atishi Singh had participated in the meetings convened by the Punjab's finance ministry pertaining to the upcoming budget.
"It seems highly inappropriate that the minister of the other state participates in the official meetings of Punjab. Could Finance Minister Harpal Singh Cheema explain in what capacity Delhi's Cabinet Minister attended the meeting of the Punjab government? Does the Punjab government even have some official secret policy,” Bajwa asked.
He said it is certain from this instance that the AAP's Punjab government is directly being run by the AAP Delhi leadership. “It has already been a well-known fact that the Rajya Sabha MP Raghav Chadha is the de facto CM of Punjab.
“Delhi CM and AAP supremo Arvind Kejriwal has been keeping an eye on each and every activity of the Punjab government through his close confidants. Kejriwal never considered Mann apt for the CM position,” Bajwa added.
No matter where the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (I.N.D.I.A.) stands in the rest of the country, it has been a non starter in Punjab. Here the leadership of AAP and the Congress, both I.N.D.I.A. members are adamant going solo on all the Lok Sabha seats.
Mann has been talking of winning all the seats and has been attacking both his rivals. He recently said that the traditional parties are “envious” of him because he hails from a common family and is working tirelessly to ensure welfare of people.
He said that these leaders have always believed that they have “divine right to rule the state” due to which they are not able to digest that a common man is running the state efficiently. He said that these leaders have befooled the people for a long time but now the people are not getting swayed by their misleading propaganda.
Meanwhile, the AAP government is on a sop delivering spree in the state ahead of the polls. It launched the ‘Aap Di Sarkar, Aap De Dwaar’ (Your government at your doorstep) scheme on Tuesday which stipulates holding camps at village and mohalla level to benefit people.
The CM said that the people will no longer have to rush to government offices for their routine administrative works but the government officers will come at their doorsteps to offer services.
He said that Punjab will once again lead the country as this citizen centric initiative will be replicated in various other states in the coming times. He said the state government had in December 2023 started a flagship scheme regarding doorstep delivery of major government services to the citizens.
Under that scheme the citizens can call the number 1076, give an appointment as per their convenience, and an official will visit them to address the issues.
Meanwhile, the scope for a re-alliance between the Akalis and the BJP is being debated by political observers amid speculations. There are too many questions surrounding this possibility. The BJP has been reaching out to former allies ahead of the polls.
Observers say that the Akalis stand cornered on Punjab’s political turf, and BJP, which is now basking in the Assembly poll wins in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, will not want to be a junior partner in Punjab anymore. The BJP will also definitely face the heat in the coming days over Chandigarh’s controversial mayoral election.
At the same time the Akalis will have a lot to answer to the people on two core issues: the farmers’ position on the BJP; and ‘Bandi Singhs’ (Sikh prisoners languishing in jails for cases registered during the era of militancy in the state).
With the senior leadership, particularly former Union Minister and Bathinda MP Harsimrat Kaur continuing to attack the government on issues of peasantry, the SAD will have a lot to explain to its cadres, if it re-allies with BJP. The peasantry was once the core support base of the Akalis and would have to be wooed again to enable the party’s revival.
The Akalis were compelled to walk out of an alliance with the BJP on the three controversial farm laws, after having initially supported them. They now want to get the support of the peasantry back, even as the farmers’ movement threatens to come to the boil once again.
With the BJP high on the Hindutva pitch in other states, SAD’s alliance with it will be difficult to defend before the Punjab electorate that largely comprises Sikhs.
On Monday, Harsimrat Kaur took on the BJP-led Union government for “failing to double farmers’ income, increase employment, control inflation and improve the lot of the poor and the downtrodden”.
Speaking on the President’s Address in the Parliament, Kaur said, “Even though the President had stressed that improving the lot of farmers, poor and youth was the focus of the Union government, the same has not been supported with data.
“As per the data of the National Statistical Office (NSO) the average income of agriculture households increased from Rs 8,000 per month in 2015 to only Rs 10,000 per month in 2019.”
She added that in stark contrast the NSO data revealed that the average debt of farmers had increased by 58 per cent in the same period. “As many as 10,880 farmers also committed suicide in 2021 as per the Centre for Science and Environment,” Kaur said.
Kaur said the issues of farmers who were the most under debt in Punjab, with small farmers incurring a debt of Rs 3 lakh each farmer, were also not being addressed. “Despite a clear cut undertaking by the central government that a sub-committee would be formed to make minimum support price (MSP) a legal right of the farmers, the same was not done,” Kaur said.
She said that even as there was an 80 percent increase in agriculture inputs, the increase in the MSP was increased only by 30 percent. She also disclosed how there was a 26 percent decrease in the Kisan Samman Nidhi beneficiaries in Punjab which was contributing the most to the national food kitty.
According to Kaur, even though crop insurance companies had earned Rs 57,000 crore, farmers in Punjab did not get any compensation for successive crop losses even though CM Mann had promised to release compensation for crop losses even before the conduct of the girdawari.
Punjab continues to deny mass support to the BJP although the saffron party has a good presence in certain pockets. Observers say that over the last three years, the BJP has concentrated on poaching credible political faces from other organisations.
While this has given it heavyweight political faces like former CM Captain Amarinder Singh, and former Congress chief Sunil Jakhar, sources point out that their entry has caused some ‘heartburn’ to the ‘organic’ BJP leaders.
The best performance the saffron party has ever recorded in the parliamentary polls in Punjab was during the Atal Behari Vajpayee regime. Tt had won three seats as an ally of the Akalis. It remains to be seen how it fares in the forthcoming polls if it has to go solo.
The party leadership in the state has kept a low profile while propagating the Central government’s achievements, or attacking the AAP government off and on. A re-alliance with the Akalis, if it happens, would be beneficial for the BJP, and change the poll dynamics further.