Why Punjab is Important
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?