By Praveen Rai
The party systems in Punjab and Uttarakhand share a demographic peculiarity of societal dominance that is unparalled in Indian competitive politics. Their electoral histories reveal that the Sikh community, comprising 58 percent of the population dominate politics in the land of five rivers, while the Upper castes constituting 60 percent of the populace hegemonizes political power in the hill state adjoining Uttar Pradesh. The chief ministers in both these provinces have come from the predominant social groupings, Sikhs in Punjab and Upper Castes in Uttarakhand and the political status quo may not change after the election. Religious and caste majoritarianism as dimensions of discrimination have been a recurring feature of politics that will continue in immediate future. The states witnessed tumultuous phases of intra-party factionalism and leadership tussles that led to the substitution of Chief Minsters (CM). The Congress replaced it CM once in Punjab, while the BJP in Uttarakhand changed its CM twice to quell dissidence and impose a semblance of political unity.
The year-long agitation by the farming community (mainly from Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh) that caused immense hardships to citizens in Delhi and NCR and led to the repeal of the three contentious farm laws in the parliament is a critical electoral issue in both the poll-bound states. However, its ripple effect will be more pervasive in Punjab, as it has been the driving force of the protests led by Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), an umbrella coalition of more than 40 farmer unions. The peasant communities staged Dharnas that led to partial blocking of entry and exit points of the national capital at Singhu, UP-Gate, Tikri, and Dhansa. The peasant movement limited to north India was overall peaceful and democratic, barring the farmers from Punjab at Singhu border. They not only desecrated Red Fort by removing the national flag and hoisting religious flags, but also perpetrated gruesome acts of violence at the protest site like mass rape and killing of a Dalit. The incidents in isolation reflect the violent, patriarchal and anti-Dalit mindset of the dominant community, but it may cast a long shadow on the election and polarize the Dalit votes (32 percent population).
The electoral politics has been a bipolar contest between the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)-BJP combine and the Congress, but the entry of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in 2017 turned it into a tripolar competition in Punjab. The political identities and preferences of the electorate located in the three riparian regions of Majha, Doaba and Malwa is heterogeneous in nature. Majha, located between Ravi and the Beas rivers is the Panthic belt, as Gurudwaras and Deras play a key role in politics. Doaba, known as the NRI belt lies between the Beas and Sutlejrivers and has the highest concentration of Dalit population (37 percent) and small and marginal farmers. The largest region Malwa, is beyond the riverbeds of Sutlej and hold the key to power, comprising of zamindars and farmers with large agricultural holdings. The Congress won a landslide victory in 2017 elections (77 out of the 117 assembly seats) with around 39 percent popular votes that included 40 out of 69 constituencies in Malwa regions, 22 out of 25 in Majha and 15 out of 23 seats in the Doaba belt. The AAP emerged as the runner-up by winning 20 seats, 18 seats in Malwa and 2 in Doaba with 23 percent votes, while the ruling SAD-BJP alliance with a higher vote share, 31 percent votes could only capture18 seats. The state is witnessing a major political churn due to the change in nature of elections from tripolar to multipolar competition due to new political alliances and the addition of new parties.
The issues in the election are like old wine in a new bottle and include drug menace, sand-liquor-transport-cable mafias, unemployment, farmers’ distress, rampant corruption and growing state debts. The new issue that is gaining traction is the delayed justice in the sacrilege of Guru Granth Sahib (Holy book of Sikhs). The Congress was in total disarray due to uneven leadership transition as the appointment of Charanjit Singh Channi as Punjab’s first Dalit CM and Navjot Singh Sidhuas state president led to public spats between them and intense factionalism. The declaration of Channi as the CM candidate seems to have doused the fire, but the party seems to be in a tight spot due to poor governance report card and failure to fulfil its earlier poll promises. The strategy of forging a caste community coalition by using Channi and Sidhu to polarize the votes of Dalits and Jat Sikhs (20 percent of population)respectively seems politically expedient but is fraught with dangers. The upper hand of the Dalit’s in the poll partnership crafted by party high command is an artificial construct and may risk an electoral backlash from the dominant Jat Sikhs, as they will not like to play a second fiddle and desert the Congress for greener pastures.
The AAP is in a direct fight with the Congress and is banking on CM candidate Bhagwat Mann and Kejriwal’s 10-point model of development to consolidate its foothold in Malwa region and maximize gains in other regions. The guarantees include freebies (including Rs 1,000 per month to women), subsidies in public utility services and promise to resolve issues like the drug problem. The BJP is in alliance with Amarinder Singh’s new party, Punjab Lok Congress (PLC)and a SAD splinter group SAD (Samyutk). The saffron party is contesting in 65 seats, while the PLC and SAD (S) are putting up candidates in 38 and 14 seats respectively. The alliance is trying to mobilize Hindu votes and Panthic Sikhs particularly in the Majha region by focussing on a fiscal package from the centre and border security.SAD, under the stewardship of Sukhbir Singh Badal after quitting the NDA government on a moral high over the farm bills has allied with the BSP, but the combine does not seem to be a contender. The Sanyukt Samaj Morcha (SSM) led by B. S. Rajewal is a new party (comprising of 22 farm unions) that hoping to capitalize on its contribution in repeal of central farm laws to make an electoral splash.
The pre-election opinion polls in Punjab suggest that AAP is ahead in the electoral race, but it may fall short of a clear majority. However, the multipolar contest and multiple identity overlaps of the Punjab electorate based on caste community and party affiliations, throws a spanner in correctly assessing the orientation of the voters and the winner. The election verdicts since 1972 have favoured a single party or a political combination and the results will tell whether it follows or bucks the state electoral trends.
The hill state carved out of UP with 70 assembly seats will witness a pitched battle between the traditional rivals, the incumbent BJP and the Congress, while AAP, which forays into the state may have an electoral impact in some urban constituencies. The BJP riding high on ‘Modi’ wave registered an emphatic victory in the 2017 elections by winning 57out of 70 seats with an impressive 47 percent vote share, while the Congress won 11 seats. The saffron party has lost some credibility due to its volatile state leadership, as it had to change CMs 3 times in a span of 5 months and the bungled management of COVID-19 pandemic during the Kumbha Mela. The other issue that is weighing down on the BJP includes unemployment, inflation, migration from hill villages where the benefits of development seldom percolate and ecological degradation. Its achievements of generating 24,000 new government jobs, the central schemes of all-weather Char Dham roads and the Karnaprayag to Rishikesh rail project may hold little water in popular consciousness. However, a redeeming feature is the projection of younger and more competent leaders and it hopes that the youthful new CM Pushkar Sing Dhami will entice the majority of young voters. This factor in combination with transcendental ‘Modi’ and ‘Yogi’ psycho-emotional appeal, which cuts across the different strata of the electorate, may help the saffron party in a repeat election win.
The Congress, which received a severe beating in the previous elections, seems to have slightly revived under the leadership of Harish Rawat. It hopes to benefit from the historical pattern of anti-incumbency and change of government every five years in Uttarakhand to regain power. It is neither fully prepared nor free from factionalism and infighting, but it remains the principal challenger to the saffron establishment. It seems difficult for the party to bridge the gap of 13 percent vote share as compared with the BJP (2017 elections). It is pinning its hopes on star campaigners, especially the Gandhi scions and the anger of the farming community in the nine assembly seats in the Terai region dominated by the Sikhs. The electoral debut of AAP has turned the electoral battle between the two national parties technically into a triangular contest. The party with the broom symbol is using its clean and development-oriented image to lure the voters. It is offering (as in Delhi) 300 units of free electricity for every household, Rs. 5000 employment allowance for youth, improve state-run schools and health care centres, and a freebie of Rs. 1000 per month to women above 18 years of age. In the murky waters of state political milieu, AAP presents itself as a better alternative and may make significant electoral gains. With Ajay Kothiyal, ex-army man, as its CM candidate, known for his contribution to the reconstruction of areas around Kedarnath in the 2013 flash floods, it can be the first choice party of a substantial number of people with defence services background and high religiosity index.
The election surveys conducted before the model code of conduct came into force reveal that the assembly elections would be a tight contest between the BJP and the Congress, with AAP making its presence felt and playing a spoilsport. If the BJP and the Congress fail to get a majority, the role of AAP (if they win seats) and independents in the post-poll scenario will become a realistic possibility in government formation. The saffron party based on its double engine growth story and organisational strength seems to have an edge, and it will depend on the rhetorical firepower of Modi and the religious narrative of ‘Hindu Awakening’ to win the elections.
Praveen Rai is a Political Analyst at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi.