Three Corner Slugfest in Punjab

Malwa holds key as it sends 69 legislators compared to Manjha (25), Doaba (23)

By Anil Anand

Finally cricketer turned politician Navjot Singh Sidhu is a Congressman which he describes as home-coming while his detractors (BJP-Akali Dal) term it as an act of back stabbing. Just days ahead of crucial February 4 Punjab Assembly elections all eyes were riveted on Sidhu’s future political move and naturally the garrulous small screen entertainer was hogging all the headlines even in absentia.

The cat is out of the bag and the battle lines are clearly drawn. Three crucial questions still persist and are difficult with no easy answers coming forth. Will Sidhu be a force-multiplier for Congress with equally high profile PPCC chief Capt Amrinder Singh at the helm? Will Shiromani Akali Dal be able to retain its traditional support base to help SAD-BJP combine sail through third time around? And will Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) be able to retain and build upon its 2014 Lok Sabha poll magic?

In the limited sense of the term the answer to first question is that Sidhu has brought some advantage to Congress. He has added to the party’s profile and more importantly helped it capture media space alongside Amrinder. Although both of them, after initial hesitation, shared the Dais and publically complimented each other sending a positive message, thereafter they seemed hesitant to launch a joint onslaught against arch rivals the Badals and Arvind Kejriwal-led AAP. Ostensibly, political insecurities, particularly in case of Amrinder who was yet to be declared as Congress’s Chief Ministerial candidate, were to be blamed.

Nevertheless, despite their differences, Sidhu joining the Congress has definitely given the party a psychological edge. The things could have been much better had he not wasted time in keeping both Congress and AAP on tenterhooks before he finally adopted the former option.

Punjab is witnessing a triangular contest for the first time in its electoral history. The ruling SAD-BJP alliance is faced with strong anti-incumbency mostly on account of Badal family’s “misdoings” which even the strong Narendra Modi factor could not undo during last Lok Sabha elections. Then nonagenarian chief minister Prakash Singh Badal has put everything on stake in what is being perceived as his last electoral outing though he has not said so. But indicators are that the odds are heavily against them.

It may sound strange but it is something on which the SAD-BJP combine particularly the Badals are banking heavily in the event of their traditional support base thinning down. A tough contest between Congress and AAP with both cutting into and dividing the anti-incumbency votes is what the father-son duo of Badals is looking at to give them a chance of retaining power.

But for this to happen they would have to ensure retaining a good chunk of their traditional support base to scrape through to victory. It would be Badal senior’s toughest challenge of his long political career to keep the old support base intact.

These certainly are not the normal circumstances for him as he is currently faced with two additional challenges anti-incumbency and corruption allegations apart. The Centre-induced demonetization has hit the peasantry and man on the street, his traditional supporters, hard. On top of that Amrinder has thrown a gauntlet challenging him in his Assembly segment Lambi primarily to tighten screws on Prakash Singh Badal so as to shrink his manoeuvring space and skills.

The SAD-BJP combine has been in office for the last two terms. The alarm bells had started ringing for them as in last Lok Sabha elections, despite a strong Narendra Modi factor they won only six of the 13 seats. This was despite Modi’s personal popularity and a strong attribute was the anger against both Akali ministers and BJP municipal authorities.

A surprise package was AAP which opened its account in Lok Sabha by winning four seats in Punjab with 30 percent vote share. Clearly, the AAP’s ascendancy was at the Congress’ cost but the party had also made some dent in rural areas earlier seen as the SAD’s feeder areas.

Initially, AAP did take a head-start and succeeded in capturing people’s imagination. Dismayed with both Congress and SAD, the people showed inclination to experiment with something new and an index of which was seen in Lok Sabha polls. But subsequent developments including fissures in the AAP ranks in the state and developments related to its government in Delhi, resulted in a negative impact.

Credit goes to Congress as the party after initial hesitation got its act together and tried to recover the ground it had earlier lost to AAP. That is one reason that Congress is ahead of both AAP and SAD. The real test for Amrinder would be in Malwa, the largest of Punjab’s three regions, where AAP has considerable influence. Incidentally, this region was traditionally an Akali stronghold which turned towards Congress in 2007. Since SAD has been cornered with corruption and rampant drugs menace charges, it is unlikely that the region would once again look up to them.

Malwa accounts for 69 out of 117 seats of Punjab Assembly. It is often and rightly said that the road to the Assembly passes through this region. So Malwa has become the real theatre of action not that the other two regions Doaba with 23 seats and Majha 25 seats are less important.

The significance of last two regions would in fact increase if Majha is evenly split or give a slight margin to one of the contesting parties say AAP. The advantage with Congress in such a case would be its pan-Punjab presence and Amrinder’s own influence in all the three regions. After all he convincingly defeated BJP-SAD combine’s influential candidate Arun Jaitely from Amritsar Lok Sabha constituency which falls in Majha region whereas his own home town Patiala is part of the vast Malwa corridor.

The silver lining is that AAP’s candidates in Lok Sabha elections have deserted the party. Dr Dalijit Singh, a popular eye-specialist who had secured 80,000 votes in Amritsar against Amrinder, has joined Congress, and its Jalandhar nominee Jyoti Mann who had got 2.50 lakh votes has since joined SAD. So the cumulative effect is the weakening of AAP in Majha region to some extent.

Amrinder-led Congress can draw some solace that AAP is not as strong as it was in 2014 and now with some stories of anti-incumbency and bad governance of Delhi behind it. But it is making all efforts to snatch its Malwa support back from AAP. The other factor in Amrinder’s favour is that the extent of dissidence, particularly after declaration of mandate, is not as serious as was expected to be. However, internal dynamics of Congress would worry the Congress till the last vote is counted.