Reflections on Punjab, UP
In the exit polls published on Thursday for the Punjab Assembly elections, there was little clarity about who would win. One poll gave Congress the majority of seats in the 117-strong Assembly, while another predicted that the Aam Aadmi Party would form the next government. Take the average of all polls and the result is a hung Assembly—55 to the Congress, and 54 to AAP. Despite these figures, one thing seems very clear from the exit polls: Punjab's voters are booting out the incumbent Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party government. In 2012 Assembly elections, the SAD-BJP coalition had surprisingly staved off anti-incumbency. After ten years of SAD-BJP rule, however, the public seems to have grown fed up with the ruling alliance. The massive spectre of the drug addiction epidemic, agrarian crisis and increasing concerns about the lack of jobs in the state has seemingly turned the tide. At the height of the 'Modi wave' in the 2014 general elections, the Aam Aadmi Party pulled off a major surprise by winning its first four Lok Sabha seats in Punjab. It became apparent to senior AAP leaders that anger against the ruling government was palpable, especially in the rural areas.
In its campaign, the party was 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. Credible reports from the ground seem to indicate that ordinary people have grown visibly angry at the alleged corruption surrounding the ruling Badal family. They are 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. These allegations are yet to be proven in a court of law.
For the Congress, meanwhile, the results in Punjab are of critical importance, especially in light of rising concerns over the leadership of Rahul Gandhi. Since the debacle in 2014, Punjab is the only major state, where the party seems capable of winning on its own. The party is banking on the charismatic former Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh and noted poll strategist Prashant Kishore's team. In the absence of AAP, the Congress would have been the default choice, given the anti-incumbency against the ruling coalition. A defeat would shatter any hopes of resurrection for the Congress on the national scene. Exit poll numbers show that extensive campaigns by both AAP and the Congress have worked, pushing the ruling alliance to the margins according to the projected seats. Of course, experience tells us that these exit polls are sometimes off the mark in predicting the outcome of elections. However, it would be rather unprecedented if the SAD-BJP coalition does manage to secure major gains in these elections, suggesting that these polls were consistently wrong.
In Uttar Pradesh, one party, which has been consistently ignored by the national media, is the Bahujan Samaj Party. In the last few phases of polling, especially in Eastern UP, the BSP has reportedly made some gains. Exit polls, however, have relegated the party to third place behind the BJP and Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance, despite a seemingly good start in the first phase. Two of its principal poll planks—a Dalit-Muslim alliance and its earlier USP of law and order—have apparently not gained much traction with the voters. Nonetheless, as one phase of polling after another came to an end, many of the assumptions made by the national media about which way voters may turn in UP were proven redundant. In an election where there is no clear wave for any one party, the BSP might just spring a surprise. What voters do know is that the BSP has a formidable Dalit vote bank going for it. In certain constituencies, there were reports of how Muslim voters, who were not confident about the candidate put up by the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance, went with the BSP.
Sections of the trading community across caste and communal lines unhappy with the BJP after demonetisation went with the BSP. These are merely anecdotal examples, but nonetheless, articulate the complexities involved in understanding voter behaviour. In fact, in certain constituencies, both the BJP and SP have encouraged the BSP in a bid to cut into the other's vote, depending on the constituency. BJP president Amit Shah at one point even conceded that the BSP had considerable public support, "janaadhar". It is truly the joker in the pack. Irrespective of all the talk, there is little doubt that UP will witness a proper three-way contest for the first time in nearly 15 years. No outcome is impossible. We will know later today.