Identity politics in Punjab stretched thin
Of all the Assembly elections due next year, most attention is riveted on Uttar Pradesh. However, it is the Punjab Assembly election that promises to reveal political and psephological trajectories not seen before in Indian politics.
What is new about the forthcoming election in a state that shares a border with Pakistan, has seen a separatist movement, and has among the highest concentration of Dalit population, but never a Dalit chief minister (CM)?
The Punjab border with Pakistan is not considered a militarily ‘hot’ border, especially after it was fenced two decades ago. But India-pakistan relations have been a live issue in politics, especially the legacy left behind by Operation Blue Star.
In this election, an important political strand is going to be the way India engages with Pakistan and specifically the complexities of the Sikh identity and the Indian state.
Former CM Captain Amarinder Singh has already flagged this issue by alleging that his bête noir and the man who pushed him out of the position of CM,
Navjot Singh Sidhu, has deeper loyalties to Pakistan than to India.
“In the last election, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) lost out because the leadership pushed too hard on the issue of the rights of Sikhs. This alienated the Hindus, who translated this as AAP supporting Khalistanis and Pakistan” says psephologist and Founder director of Cvoter International, Yashwant Deshmukh.
In 2016, punjabi nd ians(nris)h ad helped fund the aap’ selection campaign, and a sectionof these campaigners was said to be convinced that aap was sympathetic to the cause of separatists. This perception of a a pa mon gt he Hindus prevented the party from forming the government in punjab, but it did succeed in establishing the party as leader of opposition.
This time around, AAP is keeping its distance from NRI Sikhs. But the issue of alleged desecration of the Sikh holy scriptures and the subsequent police firing will be a key electoral issue for it in the coming Assembly elections.
The party’s national convenor and Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal has also announced that AAP’S CM candidate will be a Sikh.
Politics around identity is going to be stretched thin. Now there are many more actors to lay claim to it. The last Assembly election was fought by the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) in alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). That alliance has since broken. The BJP has announced it will contest all 117 Assembly seats on its own. SAD has already found a new ally in the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). And there is no clarity yet whether Captain will float his own party.
Traditionally, Punjab has seen elections where the major actors have been three parties. With the entry of AAP, the last election saw four. This time around, there might be even more fighting for a slice of the political pie.
Rahul Verma, Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, visiting assistant professor at the Department of Political Science, Ashoka University, and wellknown for his expertise on India’s domestic politics, says: “The political situation in Punjab has become quite fluid. On the face of it, it may seem like Punjab will have a five-cornered contest in the upcoming polls. However, in my opinion, it will remain by and large a triangular contest.”
Deshmukh, whose organisation Cvoter has researched polling behaviour in India, agrees that this election in Punjab will be like no other before – but for different reasons. On the basis of a recent poll, Deshmukh’s analysis is that the rift between Captain and Sidhu caused a major attrition in the Congress base. This will lead AAP to become the biggest beneficiary.
The findings of a poll collated days earlier in October suggest the Congress, which got 38.5 per cent of the vote share in 2016, is down to 31.8 per cent, while AAP, which got 23.7 per cent of the vote share, is up a massive 35.9 per cent, an increase of around 12 per cent. This pushes up the AAP tally of seats to 53, from 20 it currently holds in the 117-member Punjab Assembly, and reduces the Congress tally from 77 it held in 2016 (it won more seats in subsequent by-elections) to just 43. Changes in the vote and seat share of the Akali Dal and BJP are small. While there is chatter that Punjab could see a hung Assembly, Deshmukh rules this out, arguing if there is a hung Assembly, it will only be ‘on paper’.
Either way, the Punjab Assembly election promises to throw up many surprises.