Compulsions, Confabulations Mark Punjab's Political Turf
The state has one of the most complex political scenarios
In the months preceding the 2024 Lok Sabha polls it is the season of confusion, compulsions and confabulations in Punjab. A state with one of the most complex political scenarios there will be a lot in the offing for those interested in politics as the country heads towards the next parliamentary polls.
It was a foregone conclusion that Punjab along with West Bengal will be a litmus test for the I.N.D.I.A camp when it comes to seat sharing, and contesting. This is given the fact that the stakes are too high for the traditional powerhouse of Congress, and the rookie Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Punjab.
The grand old party will also have to sort out matters with the Trinamool Congress in Bengal. A lot on this front is being witnessed already in Punjab.
Then there is the old stable of Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) which is another pole in Punjab politics that currently has an alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). These three forces stand divided for now against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that continues to work towards finding a firm grounding in the state.
At the same time one cannot completely ignore radical groups like the Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar) that have the capacity to throw up surprises like they did by winning the Sangrur parliamentary by-poll last year or play spoilsport. Simranjit Singh Mann was elected on the Sangrur seat replacing none other than the sitting AAP Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann.
The scenario right now is such that the cadres are waiting for clarity on the things to be sorted out at the macro level before they take up the discourse at the ground level among the public. To understand the complexities one has to look into the stakes of these political forces individually.
To begin with there is a lot of haze around the Congress and the AAP in Punjab for the Lok Sabha polls. Since the AAP replaced the Congress regime in the state via a landslide victory, the party cadres and supporters and cadres on both sides stand a divided lot.
There is one section that wants the respective party high commands in Delhi to decide on the seat sharing for the 13 Lok Sabha seats and then there is the other section that wants their respective party to contest all the seats against the other. The logic being pointed by the latter is that since the ‘common foe’ BJP already stands on the margins, they should go for an all out contest against each other.
The model being cited is that of Kerala where the Left and the Congress have been political rivals at the state level contesting against each other while supporting each other at the centre.
“But things are not easy to sort out. It is a matter of political existence and survival. For the AAP, Punjab is the most important state in its kitty given the fact that Delhi is far from being a complete state and is often viewed as a glorified Municipal Corporation.
“For the Congress it remains a state where the party was always well entrenched. The catch lies in the I.N.D.I.A formula of having a seat sharing agreement ‘wherever possible’. In any case if the alliance manages a seat sharing agreement on even 400 seats, it will be a major achievement for them on the coalition formula,” an observer pointed out.
Just a couple of days back, senior AAP leader Raghav Chadha in an interview to a leading national daily had reportedly said, “junior leadership of political parties, including mine, has in the past made certain statements which do not necessarily reflect the view of the party.
“We all have to remember that for an alliance like this to be successful, ‘mahatvakanksha’ (ambition), ‘matbhed’ (difference of opinion) and ‘manbhed’ (difference of heart) need to be set aside.”
In Punjab it is the group led by former state Congress chief, and present leader of Opposition in the state Assembly, Partap Singh Bajwa who want the party to contest all the seats.
He had tweeted some days back saying, “Punjab Congress Cadre is in no mood to form an alliance with the @AAPPunjab for the forthcoming general elections. Even after getting hold of the power in the state for the past 18 months, the AAP is desperate to form an #alliance with the Congress.
“No Punjab Congress leader has ever issued a statement about contesting elections in an alliance with the AAP. It is only the AAP leadership that is making such statements because they have lost their ground in Punjab. AAP's victory in the Punjab assembly election in 2022 was a political experiment that has failed terribly.” (https://x.com/Partap_Sbajwa/status/1699392521326264774?s=20)
In the state the Congress leadership has been attacking the AAP government under Bhagwant Mann on every single issue whether it is the deteriorating law and order scenario, the menace of drugs, failure to fulfil promises made ahead of the Punjab Assembly polls last year, questioning the high profile marketing being done by AAP by promoting its Punjab model in the state as well in other states where the rookie party is eyeing a foothold.
The Congress has been running one campaign after the other against the AAP government in the state. On Friday, the party had organised an ‘anti drugs’ protest in Moga under the leadership of Punjab Congress president Amarinder Singh Raja Warring. He said that the Punjab Congress leadership would continue these dharnas if strict action against the drug peddlers and immediate remedial measures were not taken by the state government to save the youth.
Slamming the AAP government of betraying the people of Punjab with its false promise to eradicate the drug menace in three months in the name of ‘Badlaav’, Warring said that within one and a half year of AAP’s ‘misrule’ more families lost their sole bread earners.
Accusing the AAP leaders of shielding the drug peddlers, he said that Bhagwant Mann’s incompetence gave a free hand to the drug peddlers to flourish under the patronage of tainted AAP leaders.
Meanwhile Bajwa hit out at the AAP led government saying, “With increasing drug overdose cases, the fact cannot be ignored that the state is on the verge of becoming the drug capital of the country.”
The party has also initiated a ‘Charcha Punjab Di’ campaign to connect with party cadres and workers in all the 117 constituencies across the state. According to Warring, “The ‘Charcha Punjab Di’ campaign is a platform for those who are concerned about preserving Punjab, Punjabiyat and Punjabis.
“We wanted to connect with the party workers and wanted them to come together and discuss the challenges, issues and concerns of the state.”
The campaign is being peddled as a step towards rebuilding the Congress in Punjab and making it a force to reckon with again.
The AAP leadership, meanwhile, is busy marketing the party led government. The AAP’s national convener and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal was in the state this week where he sang praises for the works done by Mann led government.
He went to the extent of saying that Punjab has huge potential of leaving behind China in the sphere of industrial development. He said the earlier governments had squeezed the industrialists in the state but the present government is working overtime for their well being.
Addressing an industrialists’ meet named ‘Sarkar Sanatkar Milni’ (government entrepreneur meet) he claimed that Punjab has already firmed up investment worth Rs 50,000 crore for the state which will provide 2.86 lakh jobs for youth.
The party leadership went gaga over the inauguration of a 'School of Eminence' in Amritsar and claimed that like Delhi, an education revolution has started in Punjab.
Kejriwal mentioned the dialogue of Shahrukh Khan's new film ‘Jawan’ where the latter gives the message do not vote in the name of religion or caste.
At the time of elections, when leaders come to ask for votes, ask them, what will you do for the education of our children? If any member of our family falls ill, what will you do for their treatment? Today, only the AAP asks people for votes in the name of good education and good health facilities.
All these claims are being taken with cynicism and scepticism by the political opponents, informed citizens and even the rational elements within the AAP set up.
There were reports of the AAP MLA from North Amritsar Kunwar Vijay Pratap Singh questioning the school of eminence inaugurated by Kejriwal on social media and asking whether it was newly built. However, he soon deleted his post. But embarrassment was caused to the government.
Similarly observers say that questions galore on the industrial development in Punjab amid rising law and order problems. This comes as the government is trying to hard sell industrial development in the border districts of the state.
Bajwa came forward tweeting,” The @AamAadmiParty national convener Arvind Kejriwal’s Punjab visit has been an absolute flop show. @AAPPunjab government in Punjab attempted to convince the Punjab industrialists and entrepreneurs with mere sugarcoated speeches instead of mitigating their long pending issues.
“The industrialists were expecting a special package and a reduction in the power tariff that the AAP government hiked following its Jalandhar MP by-poll victory. However, what AAP supremo delivered was just lip service. How would this Unique ID serve the purpose of the industrialists without any announcement of a special package or compensation?”
Coming back to the political scenario, the third major force of Akalis continues to desperately try to revive itself after having lost badly in two successive Assembly polls and having not done well in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. With the party patriarch Parkash Singh Badal passing away some months ago, the forthcoming parliamentary polls will be a litmus test for the party president and former deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal.
This will be a major outing for the party ever since it walked out of its alliance with the BJP during the farmers’ agitation against the three controversial farm laws.
The party is surrounded by a web of political issues that it needs to navigate. Observers say that it is unlikely that it will go with I.N.D.I.A despite its leadership being on good terms with several regional leaders of the alliance.
This is because it has always positioned itself against the Congress on issues like Operation Blue Star, and the 1984 anti Sikh pogrom that had followed the assassination of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
While it is already having an alliance with the BSP, it remains to be seen whether an alliance comes into being once again with the BJP. Till now the party has not given any such indications and things stand in the speculative zone.
“However, the party continues to be bogged down with a trust deficit among the people who still do not rule out the possibility of the Akalis going with the BJP once again, even if in a post poll scenario. There is an interesting dichotomy at work in Punjab when it comes to the caste scenario in Punjab.
“The Akalis are primarily seen as a political force representing the interests of Jat Sikhs. But the Dalits here are opposed to the Jat Sikhs and not that much to the Brahmins,” political observer Vijay Bombeli explained.
“The trust deficit is because of various symptoms that project the Akalis of being soft on the BJP. The SAD recently expressed support for the ‘one nation, one election’ agenda of the BJP. The party that has been known for raising the federal issues did not take a stand on Manipur as expected by the people of the state,” said another observer.
Warring had some strong words to say while rejecting the idea of any truck with the Akalis, “There can never be an Alliance with the Akali Dal, never ever! Those who can betray the ‘annadata’ in disguise of being their guardian are even more dangerous to trust.
“They are one of those who bite the hands that feed,” he said in a statement. He was referring to the Akalis initially having supported the three controversial farm laws and then coming out of the alliance with the BJP under compulsion.
But nevertheless, the party has been raising issues of the people and has been very aggressive against the AAP government in the state. It was on the forefront of the fight against the government decision to dissolve the Panchayats in the state ahead of time. The government had to eventually take a ‘U’ turn on the issue.
Of late it went on the offensive against the AAP government opening up jobs in Punjab to outsiders from Haryana and Rajasthan for ‘political benefit in the forthcoming assembly elections’ in the two states.
Addressing a public programme at Budhlada on Tuesday Sukhbir Badal said, “We have all seen how six of the seven Sub Inspectors recruited in Mansa recently were from Haryana. Out of 1370 linemen recruited by the Punjab State Power Corporation Limited (PSPCL), as many as 534 candidates are from Haryana while 94 are from Rajasthan.”
He claimed similar appointments were made in the animal husbandry department and health systems corporation. He also attacked the Congress and the AAP for joining forces to defame the SAD by accusing it of committing acts of sacrilege.
“Can anyone imagine a party which was formed 102 years ago to serve Gurughars indulge in such heinous acts? We tried to explain the entire issue but people were misled by vested interests.”
The party has also been consistently raising the issues of farmers that have been its core constituency. Sukhbir Badal has been attacking the state government for ‘failing farmers by refusing to come to their aid and releasing compensation for paddy destroyed by flooding’ and now adding to their distress with drastic power cuts which are threatening to destroy standing paddy and vegetable crops.
“The forcible closure of lift irrigation pumps of farmers in Punjab is also aimed at artificially inflating the availability of canal water so that Rajasthan’s share can be increased further to derive political benefits for the AAP in elections to that state,” he said in a statement recently.
He said such policies had resulted in drying up of water at tails of canals which had further aggravated the misery of farmers of Punjab.
The SAD president said the urban areas as well as the industrial sector were also facing rampant power cuts. He asked Bhagwant Mann to spend more time in the state and review the power situation immediately.
He said, “You are duty bound to serve Punjabis who elected you to power and not to ferry your boss Arvind Kejriwal from one state to another solely because he wants to use the Punjab government aircraft to further his political career.”
Meanwhile, the BJP has been keeping a low profile at the moment. But observers point out that all is not well in the saffron camp as well.
The party has been successful in importing credible faces, particularly some Sikhs, into its fold over the last couple of years to gain more acceptability. But at the same time there is resentment coming from the original stock that is feeling sidelined.
There have been reports about the state unit chief Sunil Jakhar, an import from the Congress, not being able to announce his time even after two months of having taken over the reins in the state. This is being attributed to the state and the central units of the party not reaching a consensus on the faces.
“It is a case of chickens coming home to roost for the BJP in Punjab. In other states the party has strengthened itself by importing leaders from other parties but in Punjab the move is having a counter effect from within the ranks,” said an observer.
It is being largely felt that if the I.N.D.I.A camp realises a seat sharing agreement in the state it will emerge as a formidable force. If it fails to do so, the game will be wide open.