For the first time in decades, Punjab is witness to a tight triangular contest for its 117 Assembly seats. Traditional rivals the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party coalition and the Congress, are locked in a keen electoral battle against a rising Aam Aadmi Party. On Saturday, voters in the State registered a 75% turnout, which is slightly less than the 77% recorded in 2012. That AAP had changed the poll dynamic in the state was evident from its performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. At the height of the 'Modi wave', the party secured 4 out of the 13 parliamentary seats. Most analysts focused on aggregate vote shares in the three-cornered contest. In those elections, the Akali-BJP coalition secured 35% of the ballot, the Congress 33%, and the AAP 24%. These numbers, however, do not reflect the close contest at the Assembly constituency level, allied with considerable regional variation in voting patterns.
In 2014, the ruling coalition was leading in 45 Assembly segments, the Congress 37 and the AAP 33. The AAP was able to convert votes into more seats than the Congress because a large part of its success was concentrated in one region. Electorally, the state can be broken down into three major regions—Malwa, Majha, and Doaba. With 69 Assembly segments, Malwa is the largest, while Majha and Doaba have 25 and 23 Assembly segments, respectively. Of the 33 Assembly segments under the sway of AAP, 31 are in the Malwa region and the other two in Doaba. Analysts argue that AAP's success in these Assembly polls will be determined by whether it can build on the success of 2014. As per reports in traditional, digital and social media, the indications are that AAP has indeed built on its success in 2014. In fact, some traditional media houses are already predicting an outright victory for the party.
Critics have often relegated AAP to a Delhi-based party. They have seemingly failed to understand that the national capital was only a springboard for its foray into national politics. From its origins in the Anna Hazare-led national anti-corruption movement, the party had envisioned itself as an entity determined to break the status quo in Indian politics, ushering in an era of good governance. The jury is still out on its current stint in Delhi. Even as Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal spoke of the city-state's concerns, he always pitted himself against the likes of Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi on issues of corruption, religious polarisation, and federalism. Similar to its message in Delhi, Kejriwal has presented the party in Punjab as a viable alternative to both the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Congress. In its campaign, the party has been clever in blunting the identity politics of SAD, although it spoke up for the Sikh victims of the 1984 Sikh riots under the then Congress government. At the forefront of its campaign are issues that have dogged the ruling SAD-BJP coalition government—the drug problem, corruption, nepotism, agrarian crisis, and a whole host of development issues. There is little dispute that the SAD-BJP Government is riding on a severe anti-incumbency wave. Many have grown visibly angry at the alleged corruption surrounding the ruling Badal family. In a recent column for The Hindu on the Punjab elections, researchers with the Centre for Policy Research, noted: "Punjab's corruption is not akin to the kind of corruption seen in other States where government contracts and grants are syphoned off by politicians. The Badal family is seen as being personally invested in promoting its own businesses and outsourcing major public goods to friends and relatives. The tolls on roads, a private bus network, a cess on sand used for building houses are a few examples of services being contracted out to private players — mostly linked back to the Badals."
Many voters also hold the Badal family responsible for the growing drug problem in the State and doing little to resolve the epidemic that has destroyed many families. Individual members of the current ruling establishment in Punjab have been accused of actively encouraging the drug trade, in collusion with some state police and paramilitary personnel. Allegations surrounding the Badal clan's involvement in the drug trade are yet to be proven in a court of law. Both the Congress and AAP have promised to end the scourge of the drug problem once elected to office. Kejriwal has gone a step further and vowed to arrest prominent SAD leaders accused in drug racket cases. As argued in these columns, the drug problem in Punjab poses a grave threat to national security. Allied with these concerns, rural Punjab is also in the midst of a severe agrarian crisis. There has been a spate of farmer suicides in the state. According to a recent study by the Indian Council for Social Science Research, the agrarian crisis is hitting farmers and labourers below the age of 35 the hardest. There is a whole host of reasons behind the crisis—prices of agriculture produce disproportionate to the steep cost of farm inputs, mounting indebtedness, exploitation of farmers by moneylenders and poor quality of inputs. Both the ruling coalition in the State and Centre has done little to address these concerns. And then there is the crippling lack of employment opportunities in the State merged with the lamentable state of industry—marked by the closure of many factories. The electorate holds the Badal clan accountable for this unfortunate predicament, and Congress and AAP are fighting hard to gain from it. It is imperative to note that all these issues are deeply interconnected and form some of the core issues in these elections. Besides its lack of clarity on the divisive Sutlej-Yamuna Link Canal, the AAP is relatively free of these legacy issues that have dogged both the ruling coalition and the Congress party.
Finally, issues of identity, primarily stemming from the apparent caste and class divides in the state, may determine the outcome of these elections. Punjab has the largest Scheduled Caste population in India, at 32%, and many subgroups within this category are seen to be part of a committed core of Congress voters. Will AAP make serious gains among these sets of electors? Will it be a case of the urban citizen going with the Congress and the rural vote for AAP? No one has the answer to these questions until a final count of all the votes is done. What many do know is that a victory for the SAD-BJP coalition will come as a major shock to many.