It’s Captain Da Punjab!

AAP, Akali missteps helped Congress rebound in Punjab (News Analysis)

By Jaideep Sarin

While BJP was upbeat repeating its 2014 Lok sabha performance in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, Captain Amrinder Singh won Punjab on his own by his local Congress support. Off course, he was ably helped by cricketer turned politician Navjot Singh Sidju in Manjha, but the television celebrity helped Captain consolidate Congress vote bank in the region. It doesn’t mean if Sidhu hadn’t been there, Congress would have failed to win the number of seats it won in Punjab’s Manjha region. Credit should be given to Captain for using Sidhu in a witty manner that helped Congress trounce Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) from both doaba and Manjha and restricted the new entrant to Malwas, especially into the eastern Malwa region which is close to Rajasthan. The Congress CM nominee also made sure than people of Punjab doesn’t get trapped into the Arvind Kejriwal’s dirty tricks that could have attracted the floater votes, especially into the rural Punjab.

Captain led from the front and didn’t rely too much on poll strategist Prashant Kishore. He took ground inputs from Kishore but used it on the basis on his political understanding and didn’t allowed the poll manager to use Congress party as its franchise as he did in Uttar Pradesh — an allegation that BJP used successfully in UP. Apart from this, Captain got some sympathy votes also as the Congress veteran was contesting the last election of his life, which he had already announced ahead of the Punjab polls. If Captain didn’t commit any mistake, there were his rivals like AAP and Akali Dal which aided Congress veteran by committing some poll mistakes.

The stupendous victory of the Congress in the just-concluded assembly polls in Punjab may be credited to a variety of factors, but unintended help also came from the Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP combine and new political entrant AAP.

More than the anti-incumbency of the 10-year rule of the Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) combine, it was the virtual hatred towards the Badal family on issues of corruption, drugs, mis-governance and mafia rule, and the law-defying writ of the ‘Halqa’ (area)-in-charges that the Akalis promoted, which led to the decimation of the alliance.

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which is believed to have cut into Akali Dal votes, too, ended up helping the Congress indirectly instead of consolidating its own position.

This election was different for Punjab because the AAP had made it a triangular affair on a number of seats. Even the Akali Dal and Congress, till the very end, were wary of how the AAP would fare in the polls.

In retrospect, the AAP made several mistakes, starting with the insistence of its central leadership to remote-control the Punjab campaign with leaders from other states and the lack of faith it showed in the local leadership.

That apart, not being able to project a chief ministerial face, the breakdown of talks with cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu, questions over choice of candidates and infighting built up, over the past few months, into a situation in which the party found itself trapped.

While the Congress won an impressive 77 seats in the 117-member assembly, it was the Malwa belt which helped it romp home to power in style. The Congress won 40 out of the 69 seats in the Malwa belt — the region south of river Sutlej and considered agriculturally fertile.

The AAP was considered the strongest in the Malwa belt, since it had won four Lok Sabha seats in the 2014 parliamentary elections and had led in 34 assembly seats in the region at that time, but it could manage to win only 18 seats in the assembly polls. Two more seats in the belt were won by AAP ally, the Lok Insaaf Party.

The Akali Dal, for which the Malwa belt was a traditional stronghold, managed to get only eight seats. Its ally BJP got only one seat in the belt.

But that did not undermine the Congress performance in the other two regions of Punjab — Majha (north of river Beas) and Doaba (the area between the Beas and Sutlej rivers).

The Congress virtually swept the entire Majha belt, comprising the Amritsar, Gurdaspur, Tarn Taran and Pathankot districts, winning 22 of the 25 seats there.

In the Sikh holy city of Amritsar, where former Deputy Chief Minister and Akali Dal President Sukhbir Singh Badal focused in the past four years by carrying out massive renovation of the area near the Golden Temple, virtually transforming the complex, and bringing in development projects like flyovers, the Akali Dal and its ally drew a blank.

All five seats in Amritsar city went to the Congress with impressive margins. While the lowest winning margin was over 14,000 votes, the highest was over 42,000 votes.

The Congress romped home as well in the byelection to the Amritsar Lok Sabha seat, with a huge margin of nearly two lakh votes.

Having been out of power for a decade, the Congress win is not only important for the party in Punjab but also holds out hope for it nationally.

If the central leadership internalises the message that regional leaders like Amarinder Singh need to be encouraged and given a free hand, the party can hope to put up a fight in other states.