Whither Punjab? The question arises in the backdrop of the unabated downslide in state’s governance and economy, which gained some momentum during 2016. With less than two months to go for 2017 Assembly elections, uncertainties continue to mar Punjab politics.
The yardstick of good governance is law and order. In Punjab, it has lately been deteriorating. Home Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal’s boastful claim that Punjab is among the safest states in the country has been exposed by the widespread lawlessness prevailing in the state. Print and electronic media have been carrying reports about serious crimes, some committed even with the connivance of those supposed to maintain law and order and enjoy the protection of influential ruling politicians. There have also been allegations that opponents of the ruling alliance are falsely implicated in criminal cases. The politicised Punjab police have virtually become the political arm of the ruling class.
The worst aspect of the situation is the role being played by Akali Dal’s halqa (constituency) in-charges appointed by Sukhbir Badal. Though they have no legal or Constitutional status to disburse government grants, they usually perform the task which is the prerogative of elected representatives or government officers. The halqa in-charges also play a key role in postings and transfers of government officials. Police officials usually follow their directions even in severe cases.
While seeking votes, contesting parties always make loud promises of ensuring speedy development, implementing social welfare programmes and guaranteeing employment to the unemployed, particularly the educated youths. That Punjab’s ruling alliance has failed to deliver on most of its promises is reflected by the growing number of demonstrations and protests being held by different sections of people, mostly the growing number of the unemployed and government employees.
The state government has lately launched publicity blitzkrieg listing its “achievements”. Almost all newspapers have been flooded with full page/half page advertisements adorned by photographs of Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and his son Sukhbir Badal giving details of government’s “achievements”. These ads costing tens of crores make the claim that Punjab has witnessed all-round development under the Akali-BJP alliance’s nine-year rule, making the state and its farmers “prosperous”. The ground realities, however, falsify the claims. The media have been daily carrying reports about suicides being committed by a large number of debt-ridden farmers, the main support base of the Akali Dal.
These stories also speak about a significant number of industrial units, particularly in the industrial hubs of Ludhiana and Gobindgarh, having either been shut down or have moved out of the state rendering thousands of workers without means of livelihood. The situation has been further worsened by the Modi government’s demonetisation decision as it has not only made thousands of industrial and daily wage workers jobless but has also hit the small and medium businesses. Even large business establishments hitherto claimed to be relatively ‘prosperous’ have been adversely affected by the crisis triggered by demonetisation.
Chief Minister Badal’s admirers must have felt let down by his comments on demonetisation which he described as "morally, politically, and financially brave”. He termed the Prime Minister’s decision a “historic and watershed moment for the country” and said that “for the first time since 1947, a Prime Minister has demonstrated courage and statesmanship of a visionary leader and has lend meaning and substance to the concept of independence for the poor and ordinary Indian”. India’s oldest five-time Chief Minister, reputed for his humility and commanding respect, was not expected to sing paeans of Modi for his widely condemned demonetisation decision, about which even some BJP leaders, including a Central minister, have expressed their reservations.
Speaking at a party rally last week in Uttarakhand, where elections are also to be held in 2017, Modi said: “Some people are inaugurating projects on a daily basis. Without a budget, they are laying stones. These politicians should understand that people cannot be deceived.”
Though Uttarakhand’s ruling Congress was Modi’s target, his comments are also applicable in Punjab. For the past several weeks, the state’s Akali and BJP ministers have been laying foundation stones or inaugurating unfinished projects. Last week, Times of India carried a report headlined “Sukhbir performs ‘bhumi poojan’ of landless projects”. One need not repeat the miserable state of Punjab’s financial health. The state’s treasury is empty with the revenue collections having dipped. Rapping the Punjab government last week for misplaced priorities, the Punjab and Haryana High Court said that funds were being provided for advertisements but not for payment to retired or in-service employees.
The state’s political picture is presently blurred. There has been a mushroom growth of political outfits with groups and sub-groups emerging in the wake of splits mainly in Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party. Notwithstanding such splits, AAP will, however, be one of the three mainstream parties which will be contesting the upcoming Assembly elections. In 2014 Lok Sabha elections, AAP had secured four seats, the same number Akali Dal had won, with the Congress securing three and BJP two seats.
What marks the state’s present political scenario is the emergence of Aya Ram Gaya Ram phenomena which had plagued Haryana politics for two years after the state’s birth in 1966. Though Punjab’s almost all political outfits have been affected by inter-party hopping, there have been more Gaya Rams from Akali Dal than other mainstream parties.
The foregoing scenario besides the strong anti-incumbency sentiments prevailing in the state is going to cost Akali-BJP alliance dearly in the upcoming Assembly elections.
(Views are strictly personal.)