CHANDIGARH ; Punjab has been the only north Indian state to withstand the BJP’s sweep of the region.
The Congress is leading in eight of the 13 Lok Sabha seats in Punjab while the BJP and its alliance partner the Shiromani Akali are leading in two each. The Aam Aadmi party is leading in one seat.
Despite undercurrents of anti-incumbency against the Congress government of Captain Amarinder Singh, neither the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) nor the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) could capitalise on it. The opposition has pinned its hopes on winning the high-prestige seats.
Whether or not the Akali-BJP combine see resurgence as main opposition, the verdict would be a mid-term report card for the Congress and Captain, who is already battling an open rebellion from his firebrand minister and party’s new posterboy, Navjot Singh Sidhu.
Facing heat of incidents of sacrilege of Guru Granth Sahib and police firing incidents during their rule, Akalis, who appeal to moderate Sikhs, piggybacked on the BJP to ride the “Modi wave” in the country.
BJP challenge to Congress
For the first time in Punjab, the BJP emerged as the main challenger to the Congress, even as it again contested just three out of 13 seats as junior ally of the Akalis in state. The Congress adopted a two-pronged approach to tackle anti-incumbency and the SAD-BJP alliance. It targeted Sikh votes and Akalis with sacrilege issue and BJP’s sway over Hindu votes with Modi-bashing.
The Akalis managed to win the perception battle by keeping the ruling Congress on tenterhooks on prestigious seats of Ferozepur and Bathinda, from where SAD chief Sukhbir Singh Badal and his wife and Union minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal fought. They did not show their cards till Congress named its candidates. The last to go off the block in ticket allotment, the BJP dropped a Union minister Vijay Sampla in Hoshiarpur seat, fielded another, Hardeep Singh Puri in Amritsar and roped in actor Sunny Deol to reclaim its bastion, Gurdaspur.
AAP demoralised by infighting
The AAP had been down and demoralised by infighting and party supremo Arvind Kejriwal’s apology to former Akali minister Bikram Singh Majithia on drug charges that helped the rookie party win four seats in 2014 parliamentary polls in Punjab and become the main opposition the state assembly in 2017. Just ahead of the Lok Sabha polls, the AAP also lost face after being stung by defection of two MLAs and Kejriwal desperately seeking an alliance with the Congress.
Ammunition for SAD-BJP
As befuddled Akalis were looking for a counter narrative, Congress leader Sam Piroda’s “hua toh hua” remark in Punjab on 1984 riots gave the SAD-BJP just the ammunition it needed. Rahul tried to defuse the crisis by not only pulling up Pitroda during a rally in Punjab and seeking a public apology but asserting that the culprits should be punished.
In the final overs of the campaign, the full-blown war between Amarinder and state minister Navjot Singh Sidhu seemed that it could hurt party’s prospects. Feeling slighted over “no invite” to campaign in Punjab, Sidhu burst into the poll scene fast and furious and asked people to vote out those playing a “friendly match” with Badals, alluding to the CM. The minister also declared that he would quit if culprits of sacrilege are not punished.
But the Panthic issue does not resonate beyond few pockets of Malwa and Majha. In other parts of the state, moderate Sikhs and Hindus decide the poll outcome.
Keeping promises a tall order
The Congress had delivered a stunner in the 2017 assembly elections by winning Punjab with a two-thirds majority riding on a populist campaign hemmed by poll strategist Prashant Kishor and anti-incumbency against Akalis. But keeping the promises has proved to be a tall order.
Though Amarinder rolled out debt waiver for farmers, which was replicated by the party to win the Hindi heartland in last year’s polls, the Congress did not make it its theme song after the March 7 Moga rally of party president Rahul Gandhi found that farmers not too enthusiastic about it. The Congress also did not talk about its much-hyped job fairs, reservation for women in local bodies or pledge to eradicate state’s drug menace.
The Akali-BJP combine and AAP had been hoping to sail through their prestige battles owing to anti-incumbency against ruling Congress. While the AAP’s only hope is Sangrur seat where its state chief Bhagwant Mann is seeking a re-election, Akalis are pinning their hopes on winning Bathinda and Ferozepur and BJP Gurdaspur and Amritsar.