Amaan Bali: BJP Routed In Punjab Municipal Elections As Farmers Protest Impacts Electoral Fortunes

There was a lot of speculation as to how and who Punjab’s electorate would punish in these elections, which were originally slated to happen last year but were delayed due to COVID-19

Amaan Bali
February 17, 2021 | 5 min. read

As Punjab’s farmers continue to protest outside Delhi, those left behind made sure the BJP  heard their voices at municipal polls. 

There was a lot of speculation as to how and who Punjab’s electorate would punish in these elections, which were originally slated to happen last year but were delayed due to COVID-19. Municipal elections are held every 5 years, and they held greater significance this time around as it is being seen as a precursor for state elections slated for next year. 

Indian politics is hardly predictable, but it was a commonly held belief that the BJP was not going to do well with high resentment against the central government. The question was how bad the results would be, and if BJP candidates would be able to hold traditional strongholds (spoiler alert, they did not). 

The BJP experienced massive attrition and exodus of its members since August 2020. An estimated 146 BJP workers quit the party and joined no other party in Punjab. More than 35 senior BJP people resigned from the party. BJP’s visible faces, such as Surjit Jayani, Harjeet Grewal, Ashwini Sharma, faced the anger of people every single day after farmers came back disappointed from Delhi during their very first meeting in October 2020.

As for the Congress and Akalis, they too faced wrath from different corners in their handling of the farmers’ protest. Resentment against the ruling Congress government in Punjab was a real threat, as it became public knowledge that Chief Minister Amrinder Singh was initially fully complicit in bringing the three contentious fall bills. 

The Akalis attempted to leverage the moment. However, farmers felt they too had failed in their duty to stand up for Punjab. Akali leader, Sukhbir Singh Badal had met with union leaders during the drafting of the ordinances and was clearly told that more needed to be done to protect mandis and the minimum standard price (MSP). And while Akalis claim they took these complaints to the centre,  farmers were adamant that the Akalis actually remained clueless about the bills until it was too late.  

Both the Akalis and the Congress attempted to correct past wrongs with protests and political maneuvers of their own. The Akalis even took the unprecedented step of very publicly breaking a two-decade alliance with the BJP with an eye towards protecting their brand. 

AAP remained a silent spectator for a long time in Punjab when it came to the farm laws. AAP being a Delhi-based party has consistently struggled with its Punjab face. Arvind Kejriwal often engaged in Twitter wars with Captain Amrinder Singh but refrained from commenting on the laws until Nov 26, 2020, when farmers landed at the doors of Delhi. 

The elections took place over 117 urban local bodies (ULBs) of Punjab — including eight municipal corporations (MCs), 109 municipal councils and nagar panchayats (NPs). Bypolls were held in four wards. 9,222 candidates were in the fray, of which 2,832 were independents.

While the average voter turnout in Punjab’s 117 urban local bodies (ULBs) was 71.39 percent, 22 NPs in the state, which have a large rural base, recorded a turnout higher than the state’s average. 12 out of 26 Nagar Panchayats voted above 80 percent and all of them are in the state’s Malwa region, which has 46 percent of the total NPs. 10 out of 26 Nagar Panchayats voted between 74 percent and 80 percent turnout. 

NPs cover villages and rural areas that are heavily populated by either farmers or people of allied professions.  The voters in these NPs are more closely connected with the protests against the farm laws. This created an interesting dynamic where, in most cases, the independent candidates were preferred with Congress taking the second preference. So, while the final tally shows Congress as the clear winner, independent candidates took a major chunk of votes. 

In Boha which is an NP in Mansa, Harinder Kaur voted and she urged her family to vote as well, “we never voted during municipal elections but this time I told my sons and daughters to vote for the sake of farmers. My husband is sitting at Tikri Border, the last thing we want to do is to throne the very people responsible for keeping our people at the borders of Delhi.” Boha’s voting turnout was around 84 percent, much higher than the average.

Another village, Nihal Singh Wala in Moga, experienced an 84.35 percent turnout. This village is noteworthy as it has the greatest number of farmers in Tihar Jail as a result of the January 26 Republic Day Tractor Rally. 

The Sarpanch of the village, Jagjit Singh, shared that the entire village voted against the people who put their boys and men in jail, “there is no question of BJP. There is no question of voting against their allies (former or future).” He voted for an independent candidate and shared that consensus amongst villagers was to only steer clear of BJP. 

Bathinda is also an epicenter of the farmers’ protests in Delhi with a major chunk of farmers at the Singhu Border. Many farmers from Bathinda who could not or have been to Delhi’s borders are protesting at Jeeda Toll Plaza. Bathinda polled over 80 percent. 

In an NP like Kothaguru, the polling was around 75 percent and people had even put posters up that stated “No entry for BJP people” the day before polling.

The final results of the Punjab Municipal Corporation and Nagar Panchayat Elections saw the Congress come out as the clear winners, taking Bathinda, Hoshiarpur, Kapurthala, Abohar, Batala, and Pathankot. The counting for another MC will take place today, February 18.

Captain Amrinder Singh claims that this victory is an indictment of the Akalis, BJP, and AAP. 

Another Congress leader, Deepinder Hooda, said that people are now aware and are actually listening to their own ‘Mann Ki Baat”, a dig at Prime Minister Modi. He said that the results are a clear indication of the disillusionment of the people of Punjab against the BJP.

There are various reasons why Congress enjoyed the success it did, aside from the BJPs handling of the farmers’ protest. 

Punjab is the only state that has rejected Modi’s efforts at centralization and has traditionally always advocated for more powers to states. It is clear that more than 70 percent of Punjabis see the current BJP govt at as a threat to the federal structure.

Religious issues are never separate from politics in Punjab. The inability of the government to bring justice in regards to the Kotkapura firing incident has triggered greater scrutiny on those who shielded Sumedh Saini. Akalis faced major backlash from panthic circles for their complicity in protecting Saini during his tenure. 

In addition to this, the SGPC landed in trouble with 328 missing Saroops of Guru Granth Sahib Ji. The explanation for the missing Saroops never satisfied anyone leading to attacks on the Badal family due to their direct links and alleged control of the SGPC.

Unemployment has also been a major issue in Punjab with unemployed youth protesting about it since September. Many young independent candidates who talked about these issues stole the show in MC and NP elections.

Finally, the divisive Hindutva policies of the Central government have always been opposed by Punjab. As a matter of fact, Punjab, Kashmir, Kerala, and West Bengal are the only states that have been rather unconquerable for the right-wing BJP government.

What this means for next year’s state elections is yet to be seen. A year is a very long time in Punjabi and Indian politics. But one thing is certain - the farmers’ protest will continue to dictate electoral fortunes.

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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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