While the SAD-BJP alliance struggles with antiincumbency, the Congress is making headway. The AAP appears nowhere in sight
On the morning of January 8, as Punjab deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal’s motorcade was leaving the venue of an election meeting in his assembly constituency of Jalalabad, a 25-strong group of angry villagers emerged out of nowhere and began pelting it with stones. Though deputy CM Badal was unharmed, the incident sent ripples across poll-bound Punjab.
Former Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh (20022007), who is spearheading a resurgent Congress campaign in the state, promptly called the attack a sign of mounting public anger. “It’s the simmering rage of a population incensed by ten years of misrule by the SAD-BJP,” Singh said on January 9. Interestingly, just two days before the incident in Jalalabad, Sangrur MP Bhagwant Mann, the Aam Admi Party’s (AAP’s) best known Punjabi face, who has been pitted against Sukhbir in the southern Punjab constituency, had unadvisedly suggested that people would greet Akali leaders with “dalle (baked clay pellets)”.
Some 250 km away from where Sukhbir Badal and Bhagwant Mann are battling each other is Bassi Pathana, a rural constituency in Fatehgarh Sahib district. It has been key to the overall voteshare of the Akali Dal, which has won from here 11 times. But that seems set to change now. Out in Bassi Pathana’s main bazaar, a small group of young men spell it out: “Ten years,” Maninder Singh, 26, says, “is much too long to bear the same old faces in government when there is no change in our own lives.” Pawandeep Singh, 32, who runs a minor auto accessories kiosk after he failed to find a job, agrees. “Berozgari (unemployment),” he says, “is the biggest problem facing people.” It is easy to see why this is a big issue in this election. A whopping 52 per cent of the 19.7 million registered voters in Punjab are young people, aged 18-39. That is why unemployment and drug abuse, another issue that predominantly impacts young people, are bigger issues in Punjab than demonetisation.
Further down the bazaar road, a shopkeeper, Shamlal, 60, and a truck driver, Mandeep Singh, are engrossed in a card game in the sun. They say that, in a sense, they too are ‘jobless’. “There are hardly any customers,” says Shamlal, blaming the situation on the policies of the state government rather than demonetisation. Mandeep Singh agrees, saying that demonetisation is, in fact, “an honest move by the PM to drive black money out into the open”, and is only a minor hiccup in an “already bad situation”.
Voters across Fatehgarh Sahib district have been struck by the closing down of the once-thriving steel
mills and arc furnaces in neighbouring Mandi Gobindgarh, which till less than a decade ago, was counted among the biggest rolled steel markets and production centres in the country. With thousands of jobs lost, the collapse of Mandi Gobindgarh also shattered the local economy, affecting the livelihoods of scores of petty traders and small shopkeepers. Sukhbir Badal’s explanation that “the Gobindgarh factories shut down because of a global slowdown in the steel sector and the fact that mill owners failed to upgrade or modernise their units to stay competitive,” cuts no ice with those affected. The deputy CM still has a lot to show though, particularly from the last five years of the SAD-BJP coalition. Besides existing subsidies like free power for irrigation tubewells, which now costs the state up to Rs 5,000 crore annually, Sukhbir talks of making Punjab power surplus, and of building an unparalleled network of six- and eight-lane highways; but most of all, he likes talking of the “grand new international airport in Mohali”.
Up in the Doaba region’s Balachaur constituency in Nawanshahar district, Kamaljit Singh, 63, a former policeman-turned-farmer, is not impressed. “What difference can a new international airport make in a poor man’s life?” he asks, insisting that “the lot of the poor and middle class has only worsened over the past 10 years”. He says that the digging of sewer lines was the lone developmental work ever taken up in the constituency, which elected Nandlal, an Akali candidate, four successive times. And even that’s been halted now.
It is in places like Balachaur that the portents of a change of guard in Chandigarh are most evident. The Gujjar-dominated assembly segment, which has always elected a Gujjar candidate, has a choice of three in the coming polls. The SAD, Congress and the AAP have all nominated Gujjar candidates, but the latter’s Vijay Kumar, a retired brigadier, seems ahead, at least in kerbside conversations. “The Akalis only talk of doles, the brigadier is speaking of creating rozgar. Also, he meets everyone,” says Jowanpreet Singh, 25, an IT graduate.
The disappointment with the incumbent, it appears, has also led to significant support for the Amarinder Singh-led Congress, no doubt helped by the targeted, singleissue campaigns crafted by master
poll strategist Prashant Kishor and a team of some 250 IPAC (Indian Political Action Committee) volunteers. Working round-the-clock from a sprawling office floor in Mohali, IPAC director Rishi Raj Singh talks particularly of ‘Har Ghar Captain’, a campaign launched some months ago to connect with young people. IPAC claims that “3.4 million youth have already registered”, no doubt lured by the campaign’s promise of jobs, and an interim Rs 2,500 berozgari bhatta (unemployment allowance) in the first 100 days, should Amarinder become CM. Rishi Raj says that through a succession of campaigns launched since March 2016, “Captain Amarinder has been able to directly influence over 6 million voters.” And this, he says, is not counting the crowds who come to listen to the Congress chief at election meetings and voter engagement rallies.
On January 10, the AAP rolled out its own version of ‘Har Ghar Captain’, which also promises jobs for Punjab’s youth through an identical registration process—using smartcards and smartphones— but with Kejriwal’s face replacing Amarinder’s. But the AAP appears to be struggling. In Sangrur’s Lehra assembly segment, Congress stalwart and former CM Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, who had all but disappeared from public discourse thanks to the AAP’s blistering rise in March last year, is once again the most visible face. “The AAP made some very problematic candidate choices,” explains Kamaljit Dhindsa, who runs a school in Lehra Gaga. Besides the exodus of local Punjabi leaders and volunteers from the AAP in the wake of former state convenor Sucha Singh Chhotepur’s expulsion last September, Dhindsa tells india today that “many supporters have since become even more disillusioned with Kejriwal approving tickets to highly dubious individuals”.
In Chabbewal, voters like Satnam Singh, 60 and Teerth Singh, 50, say, “We voted for [AAP] in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, but this time he [Kejriwal] hasn’t given us a halfdecent choice.” However, they don’t explain why they won’t vote for AAP nominee Ram Kumar. This is a story being repeated across the state. Ominously for the party, not one of the prospective voters india today spoke to across four villages in Kharar— Jhanjeri, Rasanhedi, Wadala and Nawanshahr—could even remember the AAP candidate’s name.
For the moment, it appears that a significant proportion of the SAD’s core voters will remain loyal. On January 7, Sukhbir Badal told a large audience of opinion-makers in Chandigarh’s Hyatt Hotel, “Elections are a tough game, but I love a fight.” Many are well aware of the SAD president’s uncanny ability to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, and they say the saffron alliance is very much in the race. As Pramod Kumar, a senior political scientist based in Chandigarh, says, “The SAD-BJP could well end up beneficiaries of a division of anti-incumbency votes between the Congress and AAP.”
PUNJAB CONGRESS CHIEF CAPTAIN AMARINDER SINGH AT A ROAD SHOW IN GHANAUR, NEAR PATIALA