DOWN TO THE WIRE
Three heavyweights slug it out in Punjab on poll-eve. The Congress and AAP gun for the Badals, accusing them of amassing personal wealth. But the incumbents remain confident of returning to power
In what would unquestionably be counted as the coldest winter of the 10-year-old Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP coalition, it is uncommonly scorching across the Punjabi hinterland—the fast approaching assembly elections raising temperatures like never before. And nowhere is this more palpable than in Lambi—the personal political bastion carefully nurtured for two decades by 89-year-old Akali patriarch and five times chief minister, Parkash Singh Badal.
Here, the countryside, freshly painted over with green wheat fields, is cloaked in an unmoving fog. Yet Arvinder Singh, a middle-aged farmer in Fatuhikhera village, says he can feel the wind gaining strength: “Umeed ban di jaa rahi
hai, ais waar kujj wakhra hovega (hope is building… this time will be different),” he says. His confidence springs from the fortuitous arrival of former chief minister Capt. Amarinder Singh. “After a very long while, voters here (in Lambi) have the choice of two candidates of comparable stature,” he says, his eyes lighting up.
But what is really signalling possibilities of change is that for the first time there is a credible three-cornered race in what had always been a bipolar face-off between the Congress and SAD-BJP. The Aam Aadmi Party that won four out of Punjab’s 13 seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, all in the politically critical Malwa region, is in the fray. With 69 of the 117 assembly constituencies concentrated here, Malwa is the clincher in any assembly election. Every single chief minister of Punjab, with the exception of Darbara Singh, was from here. In 2014, AAP led in 31 Malwa assembly segments and was a close second in nine. It did well in assembly segments across erstwhile SAD and Congress bastions.
That the fledgling party could pull it off amid a countrywide wave for Narendra Modi, where people voted for it thinking it would capture power in Parliament, has made the Congress and SAD-BJP sit up and take notice. No less worrying for them is that AAP led in 14 of the 34 reserved constituencies in the state. Nearly 32 per cent of the Punjabi electorate is Scheduled Caste, dominant in 44 assembly constituencies.
Spearheading the party’s campaign, AAP national convenor and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal knows Malwa will be crucial to edging past the finish line on February 4. He is pitting former Delhi MLA Jarnail Singh (whose claim to fame springs from the shoe he hurled at P. Chidambaram, finance minister in the UPA-II government) against Badal in Lambi. It may seem like David versus Goliath, but Jarnail is evidently feeding the growing indignation against
the incumbent. On January 11, a villager threw a shoe at Badal in Lambi. Since then, there have been half-a-dozen incidents—protests and angry sloganeering—at his meetings.
Both Congress and AAP are seeking to reap dividends from what they perceive as brimming public resentment against the ruling coalition, perceptions that the ruling elites—in this instance the Badal family and its cohorts— have appropriated it all, from political power to economic wealth and influence over religious institutions. The prospect of a return to power has galvanised Amarinder, spurring him from his laidback 2012 campaign style into an openly aggressive, shoot-from-the-lip combatant, spoiling for a fight with the Badals. On January 17, preparing to file his nomination papers from Patiala, he launched a broadside against the Badals: “They multiplied their personal wealth by usurping control over everything from drugs, liquor, sand mining, cable TV to public transport. All this at the cost of the people of Punjab, who have been reduced to drug addiction and penury.” Upping the ante a day later, he drove through dense fog to file a second set of nomination papers—challenging Parkash Singh Badal’s supremacy in Lambi. “I am determined to teach him a lesson,” Amarinder told india today. Later, leading an impressive roadshow that would have hitherto been unthinkable in the Badal family bastion, Amarinder draws repeated applause at a rally at the spanking local sports stadium. He stays closely focused on his opponent, promising to “throw the Badals in jail” if their role in incidents of desecration of the Sikh scripture in 2015 comes to light.
The Congress and AAP are promising Punjab’s voters the sky—jobs for every household, free smartphones, unemployment allowance for the youth, farm loan waivers, fatter welfare pensions, de-addiction clinics,
pind (village) clinics like Delhi’s mohalla clinics, government schools with swimming pools, cheaper electricity and waiver of water charges...the list is endless.
In their poll speeches, however, Amarinder and Kejriwal are singularly focused on the Badals, accusing them of everything that is wrong in Punjab, and promising to punish them. Notably, both have abandoned any criticism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and demonetisation. Rather, borrowing from the class narrative Modi initiated with the move, Kejriwal, too, is promising to confiscate the gains of corruption: “Hum Badalon ke pet se bhrashtachaar ka ek ek paisa kheench kar nikal lenge…usey Punjab ki garib janta par istemaal karenge (will extract every paisa of ill-gotten
wealth from the Badals and spend it on the poor,” he tells a 3,000-strong gathering at Dharamkot.
Much of what he promises—his plans to jail Sukhbir’s brother-in-law Bikram Majithia, implementing the Swaminathan Commission report on foodgrain pricing, even sending an SIT to investigate Amarinder’s alleged Swiss bank accounts—would be hugely difficult if not impossible to accomplish. But after Modi’s blistering Lok Sabha win in 2014 and his own stellar success in Delhi a year on, Kejriwal’s learnt the value of rhetoric, or jumlebaazi, as some call it.
“This is a perception battle that will have to be fought to the very end,” says Rishi Raj Singh, director of Indian Political Action Committee (IPAC), the 250-strong group of young professionals assisting master poll strategist Prashant Kishor in implementing carefully-crafted and targeted campaigns centred around Amarinder Singh. “The real challenge,” he says, “will be to bring in 50 per cent of the voters who’ll make up their minds in the last week depending on who they see forming the government.”
Amarinder’s unexpected foray into Lambi hopes to do exactly that—project himself as the most-likely-to-succeed challenger. As also Kejriwal’s familiar spiel: “Punjab mein is baar karishma ho raha hai…saare log kah rahe hain ki
AAP ko vote denge (Punjab is witnessing a miracle… everyone is saying they’ll vote for AAP).” He is not seeking votes. In a tried-and-tested tactic from the 2015 Delhi polls, he’s informing people which way everyone is voting.
But unlike in Delhi where Kejriwal was the unquestioned leader, AAP’s Punjab campaign lacks a chief ministerial face. It is a touchy topic. Delhi deputy CM Manish Sisodia’s oblique suggestion that Kejriwal himself would take care of Punjab provoked a storm, with rivals accusing the AAP convenor of eyeing the state and ‘betraying’ the mandate in Delhi. It’s still a guessing game and the party has now centered its campaign around its well-known poll symbol. “Jharoo, jharoo…jharoo
nu vote dao,” is now AAP’s tagline in Punjab. So, is the anti-incumbency accumulated over their 10 years in office now ready to bring down the SAD-BJP coalition? Not if you ask Sukhbir Badal. Supremely confident in the middle of what nearly everyone else sees as impending doom, he says the “unparalleled development” achieved by his government will carry the alliance to an unprecedented third term. “We’ll score a hat-trick,” he says, insisting, “this is a bipolar election with the Akali-BJP on one side and the Congress and AAP on the other.”
Sukhbir Badal proved convincingly in 2012 that the longest-held political trends can be bucked. Even though many young Sikhs, disenchanted with the SAD or fired by the prospect of the new-kid-on-the-block AAP, are seen as moving out of the party’s hitherto unwavering, core panthik vote bank, many believe that a significant section, particularly older voters, will remain loyal. Pramod Kumar, a Chandigarh-based political scientist, says if SAD’s core holds, it could end up benefitting from a division of anti-incumbency votes between the Congress and AAP. “My single biggest achievement is I’ve delivered on what I promised 10 years ago,” Sukhbir tells voters in Jalalabad, where he faces a two-pronged challenge from AAP’s Bhagwant Mann and former CM Beant Singh’s grandson, Ravneet Bittu.
Somehow Sukhbir seems unaffected by Mann’s full shows in Jalalabad or the talk of trouble elsewhere. “Our work will bring us back to power,” he says, citing the network of new highways, abundant power, citizen services, memorials to freedom fighters, soldiers and religious leaders and more. His confidence also springs from the knowledge that over the past five years, the SAD-BJP has managed to directly benefit over 75 per cent of the 19.7 million people expected to cast their votes on February 4.
On January 24, SAD came out with a bag of poll promises that mimics and betters what rivals offer. Sukhbir’s new ‘Vision Document’ bears the promise of more doles for every section, including sugar and ghee under the ongoing Atta-Dal scheme and CCTV in all 12,000 villages! With less than 10 days to go before polling, both Amarinder and Kejriwal hope Punjab will see winds of change blowing their way. Will they? Or will the unmoving fog stay?
AMARINDER SINGH AT A PRESS CONFERENCE IN AMRITSAR
(LEFT) KEJRIWAL AT A RALLY IN DHARAMKOT, THE BADALS IN MOGA