Political realignment likely in Punjab
Will there be political realignments in Punjab before the Assembly polls due in early 2017? The question assumes importance as the form of realignments, if these take place, and the anti-incumbency factor will play a crucial role in deciding who will rule the sensitive border state for the next five years and also influence national politics, particularly the BJP’s relationships with its regional allies.
The main factors which will influence the form realignments take are the health of the state’s mainstream political parties, particularly the ruling alliance and the Congress, and the performance of the Badals-dominated Akali-BJP government.
If the present trends continue, the health of the alliance partners may soon need ICU care. The fissures between them are deepening if the growing dissenting voices and protests by some senior BJP leaders and the verbal accusations against each other are any indication. Some BJP ministers have been publicly voicing resentment against the dominant partner’s “interference” in their Departments. The latest to protest is the Industries and Commerce Minister, Madan Mohan Mittal. He criticised the Deputy Chief Minister, Sukhbir Singh Badal for interfering in the working of the Industries Department and making decisions without his knowledge and consent. He has also held the senior partner responsible for the exodus of a large number of industries, particularly from the Steel Town Mandi Govindgarh and Punjab’s small scale industrial capital, Ludhiana. The breakdown of the steel industry in Mandi Gobindgarh has already claimed the life of a leading trader and district chief of the Brahmin Sabha Ashwani Sharma who jumped into the Bhakra main line canal due to his failed business. Some other BJP ministers have also publicly voiced their resentment particularly against the Chief Minister’s all powerful son, Deputy Chief Minister, Sukhbir Badal’s authoritarian ways of functioning.
There is a growing concern in both the Akali and BJP camps over the efforts being made by the partners to spread their wings in each other’s traditional support base. The sentiment is bound to gain ground with the reports about the RSS affiliate Rashtriya Sikh Sangat’s attempts to expand its base among Akali Dal’s main Sikh vote bank. Former Sangrur MP Rajdev Singh Khalsa, a radical Sikh leader, has been appointed in charge of the saffron front. Similar attempts made by the RSS wing a few years ago had evoked strong protests from Akali supporters and some Sikh organisations.
The persisting concern of the two camps over encroaching each other’s support base implies that they may, if the situation arises, have to go it alone in the 2017 elections. They perhaps also want to increase their post-polls bargaining power. But the mutual interest of the Akali Dal and the BJP to retain and regain power is not likely to prompt the two parties to part ways in the foreseeable future. Both the Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and BJP’s senior central BJP leaders have reiterated that their alliance is “unbreakable” and they would jointly fight the elections.
Notwithstanding the deepening anti-incumbency sentiment against the alliance government if some of its leaders are still harbouring optimism about outcome of 2017 polls, it is going to be soiled by the infighting in their parties which is relatively more multi-dimensional in the saffron party than in its alliance partner.Habits, they say, die hard. Despite the perceived positive perception about the electoral prospects of the Congress, the health of the party continues to be bedevilled by chronic factionalism and infighting. The efforts of the party vice-president Rahul Gandhi who recently woke up from his prolonged slumber and attempted to “rejuvenate” the party have so far failed to bear fruit. The party high command’s only “achievement” so far has been to effect a “ceasefire” between the combating camps headed by the former Chief Minister, Capt. Amarinder Singh and Rahul’s appointee and favourite PCC president Partap Singh Bajwa. But realising Punjab’s ground level situation and the influence Capt. Amarinder Singh commands among the people and the party MLAs, the central leadership may now be forced to restore Capt. Amarinder Singh’s supremacy within the party. What form does it take will become clear in days to come. But signs of Akali leadership’s concern over Amarinder’s prospects of gaining command of the Congress affairs in Punjab are already discernible in some of the top Akali leaders speeches.
It is the tragedy of Punjab politics that the Left parties, the main a secular force with committed ranks which had once played an important role in state politics, have over the years, lost most of their popular base in the state. After making decision at national level meetings, they have started reactivating their ranks to mobilise people and raising their voice against the Akali-BJP government’s “failures” as also the Modi-led NDA government.
If the Left has to recover its lost ground in Punjab it will have to abandon its sectarian approach of going it alone as has been happening since the elevation of Parkash Karat and join hands with secular forces to fight communal elements. This will also necessitate reaching electoral understanding with secular forces including the Congress. On numerous occasions in the past, the Left had reached electoral understanding with them to the advantage of both. No doubt, the Congress had also often played communal card only to later realise that the communal forces could always excel it in using their communal platform.
What will be interesting to watch what will be the role Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi party plays in political realignments in Punjab if and when these take place. Unimpressive performance and infighting have caused disillusionment among large sections of AAP’s supporters. Being a secular party, AAP which got its representation in the Lok Sabha only from Punjab by winning its four seats can play an important role in realignments in the event of their taking place.
If a secular front with Congress as one of its constituents emerges in Punjab, it can pose a formidable challenge to the Akali-BJP alliance. The poor performance of the alliance government coupled with the widespread resentment against the authoritarian ways of Sukhbir Singh Badal’s functioning will give an impetus to the process of political realignments. The coming months are going to be politically an exciting period in Punjab. IPA