After Uttar Pradesh, the Punjab Assembly polls next month are the most keenly watched. Opinion polls predict mixed results. An India Today-Axis survey brings cheers to the Congress Party predicting a comeback winning 56-62 seats. It predicts Aam Aadmi Party emerging as the second largest party with 36 to 41 in the 117-member Assembly. The ruling Akali Dal-BJP combine, which is bidding for power for the third consecutive time may be, reduced to18 to 22 seats. The BSP, which commands sizeable Dalit votes in the state, may bag one to four.
Presenting a different picture, a January ABP-CSDS survey predicts the Akali Dal-BJP combine topping the electoral chart. The graph of AAP has slid to 12-18 whereas, the Congress is projected to be a close first runner-up. The survey predicts 50-58 seats for BJP-Akali, 41-49 seats for Congress.
In the 2012 Assembly polls, the SAD got 56 seats while its coalition partner BJP won 12 and the Congress 46 seats. In the Lok Sabha elections, the SAD and the AAP got four seats each while the Congress won three. The BJP despite the Modi wave won only 2.
The election scene in Punjab is rather exciting. For decades the fight had been between the SAD-BJP combine and the Congress, but with the entry of AAP, there will be a triangular combat this time. With the anti-incumbency staring in its face, the ruling coalition faces a huge challenge. It is battling a profound agrarian crisis which has led to an indebtedness of about Rs 60,000 crores according to some experts. There are also financial problems. The AAP’s campaign hopes to tap the unrest of the farmers, youth, women and marginalised sections.
The caste factor also counts. According to the 2011 census, the upper castes make up 41 per cent while the Dalits are 31.94 per cent, OBCs are 22 per cent. Despite a significant number of Dalits, the BSP did not do well. The SAD has won over a considerable section among the Dalits while the BJP too has been trying to woo them.
Why is the AAP contesting all seats in Punjab? First of all, the party wants to project itself as an alternative where only the two national parties dominate the poll scene. Secondly, the 2014 Lok Sabha polls in which the AAP got four seats has encouraged the AAP to expand. Thirdly, AAP is targeting the Punjab urban segments. Fourthly, although it seemed to be in a position to win Punjab last year, that early advantage has petered out. It also lacks local leaders of stature and a Punjabi identity. Although it may have lost sizeable support among the urban, educated middle classes, its appeal in rural areas, in particular among the youth and peasantry, remains mostly intact. But it is not a cakewalk as the AAP has two significant challenges – the first is to set its house in order and the second is to reach out to more number of people.
While the Congress has nominated former Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh as its chief ministerial face, the Akali-BJP combine has the present Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal on its face. While Badal is 89 years old, the Captain is close to 75 and has declared that this will be his last electoral battle. There is no doubt that Badal too if the combine wins, will anoint his son and Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal as Chief Minister. Interestingly, the AAP has not declared any chief ministerial face while many believe that Kejriwal himself would take over if the party does well.
The Congress depends on the anti-incumbency and the Captain’s charisma. But the party is beset with other problems. The internal rumblings refuse to die down even after the firm backing for the Captain from the leadership. There are factional fights, and these could get worse after the tickets are announced.
Issues are many to attack the Badal government with. Demonetisation tops the list. The second is the drug menace, which has come into greater focus after the ban of Udta Punjab, a movie which depicted the drug problem in the state. According to an AIIMS survey conducted last year in collaboration with Society for Promotion of Youth and Masses, a Delhi-based non-profit organisation, drugs worth Rs 7,500 crores are traded every year and about 1.24 crore people in ten districts use hard drugs.
The third is law and order, and the fourth is unemployment. The unemployment rate is 7.7 per cent, mostly in rural Punjab. The Congress and AAP have promised jobs and unemployment allowance to woo the young voters. Almost half the electorate in Punjab is young. Farmer’s suicides are also becoming a major issue.
Last but not least, the Punjab-Haryana water dispute had flared up ahead of polls with the Supreme Court declaring as ‘unconstitutional’ the 2004 law of Punjab that unilaterally scrapped the 1981 agreement over sharing of Ravi and Beas waters through the Satluj-Yamuna Link (SYL) canal.
Well aware that it is on a weak wicket, the Shiromani Akali Dal is going all out to shore up support, focusing on its core constituency of rural Sikhs, with emphasis on the Sikh identity and Badal’s achievements. Sukhbir is known for his campaign planning skills. There are allegations that the Congress and the Akalis are in collusion to help each other out to block AAP.
With changing election scene every day, it is anybody’s guess who will form the government next, but as of now, it seems advantage Congress.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)