Why Pun­jab is Im­por­tant

The Economic Times - - The Edit Page - Neerja Chowd­hury

Sur­pris­ingly, Pun­jab, which went to the polls on Satur­day and the BJP re­ally does not ex­pect to win, has emerged as much of a high-stake elec­tion for it as Ut­tar Pradesh. Were the BJP-Akali Dal to score a hat-trick, it would be seen as a feather in Naren­dra Modi’s cap and strengthen his hands. But most peo­ple in the state seem to want ‘a change’.

ABJP-SAD de­feat would be at­trib­uted more to Akali Dal mis­rule: to the en­demic drug prob­lem that Pun­jab has wit­nessed over the last decade, grow­ing un­em­ploy­ment, and the en­rich­ment of the Badals at the cost of the state pro­vok­ing anger not un­like that which ex­isted against the Congress to­wards the end of UPA 2 in 2014. It is not so much a de­feat, which some in the BJP may hope would chas­ten the Akalis, as the vic­tory of its op­po­nents in Pun­jab that would worry Modi.

If the Congress emerges vic­to­ri­ous — and this is pos­si­ble, with the BJP see­ing it as the ‘lesser of two evils’ — and if it is part of the next gov­ern­ment in UP with the Sa­ma­jwadi Party, the Grand Old Party would have crossed a psy­cho­log­i­cal bar­rier. Not only could it charge the party’s de­mor­alised cadre, but peo­ple could also start look­ing at it with new eyes.

Even if it is a pha­lanx of re­gional par­ties that can take on a Modi-led BJP in 2019, it is the Congress, by its very panIn­dian char­ac­ter, which will have to be the su­trad­har of such an al­liance. Any Congress re­vival, even if steered by some­one like Amarinder Singh who has cocked a snook at the Gandhi fam- ily in the past, is bad news for the BJP.

If the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) crosses the fin­ish­ing line first — the party seemed to be in the lead till a cou­ple of days be­fore polling day — Arvind Ke­jri­wal could be­come a prob­lem for the BJP else­where. A vic­tory could also sig­nal that Ke­jri­wal now rep­re­sents an as­cen­dant force, at­tract­ing new peo­ple to his fold, a process that had come to a halt after the split in the AAP fol­low­ing the Delhi vic­tory.

It is not for noth­ing that after Delhi, Ke­jri­wal turned his at­ten­tion to win­ning Pun­jab. By not con­test­ing the civic elec­tions in Chandi­garh re­cently, which the BJP won, he moved strate­gi­cally to show that the Congress was not the al­ter­na­tive to the SAD. The toss-up has been be­tween the Congress and the AAP, and the di­vide has been along young-old and rich-poor lines, with the youth opt­ing for AAP. (53% vot­ers in Pun­jab are 18-39 years.) The poorer sec­tions — the veg­etable-seller, the cob­bler, the tea ven­dor, the lower con­stab­u­lary, sec­tions of Dal­its (they con­sti­tute 32% in Pun­jab) that in­clude Mazhabi Sikhs — favoured AAP.

The mid­dle-aged, the elderly and the more well-to-do among the ‘pro-chang­ers’ seemed to sup­port the Congress, who they saw as a ‘safer’ al­ter­na­tive to the SAD in a ‘bor­der’ state, with less chance of a con­fronta­tion with the Cen­tre, as has hap­pened in Delhi. It isn’t clear yet whether the Congress man­aged to out­pace the AAP in the penul­ti­mate round of cam­paign­ing, es­pe­cially after the ter­ror­ist blast in Maur Mandi near Bathinda on Jan­uary 31, with the Congress — and the Akalis — press­ing home the point that an AAP vic­tory could give an en­try to the Khal­is­ta­nis again. They charged Ke­jri­wal of hob­nob­bing with so-far dor­mant mil­i­tant el­e­ments, both in­side Pun­jab and among NRIs, who have been cam­paign­ing for AAP.

Pun­jab, to­day, is a state of con­tra­dic­tions. You drive down good roads found in few other In­dian states flanked by lush green-and-yel­low fields of wheat and mus­tard, sig­ni­fy­ing pros­per­ity. And yet, the state is debt-trapped. Worse, drug abuse among the youth is reach­ing ‘epi­demic’ pro­por­tions.

Pun­jab is fa­mous for its ‘Cancer Ex­press’, the train from Bathinda to Bikaner in Ra­jasthan, car­ry­ing pa­tients af­flicted with the dis­ease thanks to the prob­lem of pes­ti­cides and toxic water that has been left un­ad­dressed by suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments. There is agri­cul­tural distress in a state that has fed the rest of the coun­try.

So what now? A ma­jor­ity by the Congress or the AAP will make gov­ern­ment­for­ma­tion eas­ier. But what is wor­ry­ing many is the pos­si­bil­ity of a hung assem­bly in Pun­jab — if the AAP and the Congress are evenly matched. Nei­ther the Akali Dal nor the Congress are in­clined to sup­port the AAP. It will be very dif­fi­cult for the SAD to back the Congress — even to lend it ‘is­sue­based’ sup­port given their life­time of an­i­mos­ity. Could such a sit­u­a­tion lead to Pres­i­dent’s rule? Which would make Modi smile. At least in the short run.

En­ter­ing a new cy­cle?

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