Amaan Bali: Punjab's Political Parties Feeling The Heat As 2022 State Elections Near
The Farmers Protest and the pandemic will make Punjab’s state election more interesting than usual
June 16, 2021 | 6 min. read | Opinion
The Farmers Protest and the pandemic will make Punjab’s state election more interesting than usual.
Elections here often run on themes. During the 90s it was about the “restoration of peace”. In the early 2000s, it was about building a “drug-free Punjab''. In the 2010s, it was about panthic affairs and calls for justice regarding firings and sacrilege incidents.
After speaking to 50 Punjabi voters, one thing is clear. The 2022 election will demand detailed manifestos from each and every party.
The ongoing Farmers Protest has exposed all major parties in Punjab due to their implicit or explicit complicity in allowing Modi’s three farm bills to pass. Each party has since tried to milk the situation, and promise better provisions for the peasantry. Farmer unions, however, remain adamant on their stand and principle that they are against one and all. The farmer’s unions have made it hard for all parties to take out rallies in Punjab.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also exposed flaws in the health infrastructure of India and states as well.
With all of that in mind, here is how each political party can leverage the current landscape.
Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) (SAD)
SAD remains the main opposition in Punjab.
Although Sukhbir Badal flirted with disaster in not initially understanding the BJP’s anti-farmer legislation, he has hardly made a wrong move since. The big early fumble required SAD to very publicly end its alliance with the BJP, including the resignation of Harsimrat Kaur Badal. A strategic reaction and decision that is actually well thought out with 2022 in sight.
SAD not only faces the challenge of an angry peasantry but is also the main target of panthic circles due to its complicity in shielding dera supporters in firing and sacrilege cases. SAD is also guilty of whitewashing and providing clean chits to many involved in the Bahibal Kalan incident.
Many also see SAD as being responsible for bringing the drug mafia to Punjab. Even though SAD has been at the forefront of criticizing the ruling Congress for its inability to handle the drug issue, people are just not ready to let SAD off the hook for promoting drug mafias over the years. In fact, many in Punjab see the lucrative drug trade as something that is passed down from one ruling party to the next.
SAD has recently tried to pander to the panthic vote by using the Sikh Genocide week of June. The SGPC even presented the bullet-riddled Saroop of Guru Granth Sahib Ji for the first time in 37 years. Many of those in panthic circles have called the move a purely political one in the lead up to the 2022 elections, especially when held against the fact that SGPC still has no answers for the missing items from Sikh Reference Library.
SAD’s recent moves to ally with lower castes and Dalits have been considered a major recent game-changer.
Early hints were given with the commencement of restoration work at the Ramgharia Bungas. Three months after that announcement, the SAD and BSP have entered into a formal alliance, including the promise that the deputy CM post would be held by a Dalit. The BSP is the Dalit party in Punjab.
While the two parties have worked together in the past, many remain unconvinced that this is nothing more than an alliance of convenience and not of values. It also remains to be seen if a Dalit party that hardly enjoys any vote share will change fortunes for the Akalis.
SAD, in light of this alliance, has been reminding voters about the Congress government’s scholarship scam which directly impacted Dalit students and families. Akalis, alongside BSP state president Jasveer Singh Garhi, also courted arrest today in Chandigarh in a protest against a host of Congress corruption issues. The joint protest between SAB and BSP is being shared as a symbolic moment of unity by the parties. Finally, the recent irresponsible and anti-Dalit statements by ruling Congress party members like Ravneet Bittu have only further galvanized Dalit voters towards the SAD.
Congress, like the Akali Dal, has been facing the anger of farmers all over Punjab. Congress is also blamed for its complicity in getting the bills passed. Difficulties for Congress are however much greater than any other party.
Over the past year, Punjab has been boiling with almost all sections of society protesting about something.
While you read this article, the teachers of Punjab are making news for being lathicharged by the police today. There has been a month-long protest by sanitation workers in Punjab. Unemployment is at an all-time high due to the pandemic and, alongside other unfulfilled promises, educated youth are protesting as a result.
Punjab’s Congress has also been unable to handle the pandemic in an efficient manner with two major scams emerging out of the pandemic - including the Covid Kit scam, followed by the sale of publicly procured vaccines to private hospitals at higher prices.
Congress has also failed to fulfill some of the promises made by the Captain himself. The drug mafia has grown under Congress's rule and farmer loans have not been waived off. The suicides by farmers have put a huge question mark on the working of the party and its policies.
Punjab Congress is undergoing internal conflict with Navjot Singh and Pargat Singh targeting Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh. Sidhu and Pargat Singh have constantly blamed Captain for being a monarch and someone who has failed to deliver on the firing and sacrilege incidents. The implosion within the party is being heard in Delhi, with many rounds of meetings with the party’s central high command. The high command has suggested that Congress enter the 2022 race without the face of a CM, which hints at the possible end of Captain Amrinder Singh’s reign.
They have also not done any special outreach with the Dalit community, but have maintained that the party will have good representation from the community.
The Congress party more or less sits complacently on its clean sweep in the Municipal and Nagar Nigam elections.
Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)
Out of the 50 respondents that I spoke to, 30 hold AAP in good faith and a party that is in the interests of people. The Hindu Bania community of Punjab looks at AAP as an option but the wider Jatt community of Punjab looks at AAP as a transfer of power to Delhi. Many in the political circles of Punjab see Arvind Kejriwal as a mere copy-paste, or a softer version, of the BJP and hence the hesitancy in giving control to the party.
AAP lacks panthic representation in Punjab and has not been able to put up a serious face for 2022. Bhagwant Mann is not taken seriously by the vast majority of Punjabis. AAP has also attempted to target the Dalit community by announcing that its deputy CM candidate will be a Dalit. However, they have not yet been able to put a face on the promise.
AAP aims to leverage the Farmers' Protest to its advantage, but farmers are also angry at the party. Farm union leader, Balbir Singh Rajewal, said in October 2020 that Bhagwant Mann walked out of the House when he could have voted against the law. Walking out is complicity as far as Rajewal is concerned.
AAP is protesting strongly against the ruling Congress party in regards to the scholarship scam and the COVID-19 scams of Fateh Kits. It has also demanded an inquiry into the sale of vaccines to private hospitals. AAP has avoided slandering the Akalis and has said that it is open to alliances as well.
The saffron giant of Delhi is a dead rat in Punjab.
With the Punjab BJP cadre facing the heat of farmers every single day for the last 200 days, there is very little for the party members to do on the ground. There have been some rifts in the Punjab BJP on the Farmers' Protest as well. In a meeting with JP Nadda today, Punjab BJP has urged the central government to solve the farmers’ issue.
Punjab BJP has its own Dalit vote bank which remains intact in spite of all the opposition to party policies. BJP has promised a Dalit CM in Punjab for 2022.
Punjab BJP has said that it is fighting in all 117 seats hinting that there will not be any alliance with other parties. BJP has been banking on the failures of the Congress government and is trying to ride the wave much like AAP. It remains to be seen if any possible solution to the Farmers’ Protest will help BJP in the Punjab elections or will the party reduce its vote share in the state.
The situation in Punjab is developing every minute, which makes it hard to predict this far out which party will win.
It is important and worth mentioning that the Akali alliance with BSP and potentially with other left parties like CPI, which has been hinted at by their leader, may see the Akalis put up a good fight.
AAP with its more or less ‘an alternative that is never tried’ image may gain further roots into Punjab, which may also include small alliances with independent candidates or smaller Akali factions.
Congress remains more or less the party to beat for 2022.
Things change drastically in Indian politics and no one is certain until the results are out.
Amaan Bali is born and raised in Kashmir. He is an entrepreneur and author of the upcoming book, “Growing up on the right side of Kashmir History”. You can find him on Twitter at @amaanbali.
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