By Dr. Ashutosh Kumar
After India’s Partition, the Congress party dominated the state of Punjab, like in the case of the rest of India. Although, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) emerged as an effective party due to the demographic change in the state. After the partition, Sikhs now constituted 35% of the state’s population and as a panthic party (based on the Sikh Panth), SAD received community support especially among the Jat rural Sikhs after the elevation of Sant Fateh Singh as the party president. However, it was the Congress that dominated politics in Punjab. Following the reorganisation of the state in 1966, when Sikhs became a majority, it has been either the Congress or the Akali Dal that has formed the government, either as a single party in power (in the case of the Congress) or as part of a coalition government (in the case of the Akali Dal).
The Akali Dal has formed coalitions with the Bharatiya Janata Dal (BJD) as well as the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS) party (Table 1). Since 1997, the BJP as a junior ally of Akali Dal has remained the part of the coalition governments formed in 1997, 2007 and 2012 (Table 2). The two mainstream Left-wing parties, namely CPI and CPI (M), which were once significant enough to have alliances with the Akali Dal (1980) on respectable terms and with the Congress (1997 and 2002) – though as a diminished ally – have become less relevant over time. They have been polling less than 2% votes in the last three assembly elections and not having won a single seat since 2002 elections (Table 1 and 2). Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) is another political party that has become less relevant in Punjab over time after a promising start.
If there were to be a party in Punjab’s post-militancy period that could have emerged as a relevant, if not a winnable party, it is the BSP. In a state with nearly one-third of its population belonging to the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (SCs/STs), the BSP with its social support base among the lower castes, was expected to present a third alternative after its impressive debut in 1992. The founding president of the BSP, Kanshi Ram, was a Punjabi from Ropar. Ram is credited with winning the Lok Sabha seat of Hoshiarpur in 1996, a rare feat for an SC candidate to win from an unreserved seat in India’s electoral democracy.
The decline of the party in Punjab has coincided with the ascendance of Mayawati as the party chief in the post-Kanshi Ram period. Under Mayawati, the party concentrated on capturing and retaining political power in Uttar Pradesh. In the process, the party leadership, mainly drawn from Uttar Pradesh, largely neglected Punjab. As a result, the party has floundered in the state, securing less than 5% of the polled votes in the last two assembly elections. Besides, the apathy of party leadership, internal factionalism, allegation of tickets selling and a tacit understanding with the Akali leadership has all had a negative impact on the party’s performance in the state.
It is also important to note that the politically marginalized scheduled castes in Punjab are better off socially as well as economically than their counterparts in other Indian states. The green revolution caused an increase in wages in Punjab. The mostly-landless scheduled castes have benefitted significantly from this wage increase. Other social reform movements like the Adi-Dharam and the Ravidassia movement have benefitted other scheduled castes, especially the Chamar caste.
One significant reason for the electoral marginalization of scheduled castes in Punjab, as elsewhere in the country, is the presence of hierarchies in the community. These hierarchies lead to factionalism that cause various cast-based groups — Chamars, Mazhabis, Balmikis — to have very different opinions and methods to mobilize political change. For instance, some of these groups use music to this end. Interestingly, even their music reflects the differences in the means that they employ.
The Punjab Peoples Party (PPP), founded in 2010, is another political party that declined after a promising start. Under the charismatic leadership of Manpreet Badal, the PPP secured 5% of the votes cast in the 2012 elections. Since then, the PPP has simply withered away. The now defunct party, however, shall be remembered for ensuring the unexpected victory of the incumbent Akali Dal-BJP alliance in 2012 elections as it received crucial anti-incumbency votes that would have gone to the Congress. In the run up to the 2017 Assembly elections, smaller parties like Swaraj Party and the one founded by former Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Sucha Singh Chhotepur, have come up. However, this time neither these small parties, nor the Left parties, or the radical factions of the Akali Dal like SAD (Amritsar) or Dal Khalsa are likely to play any significant role in the election that has turned out to be a triangular contest involving the Congress, SAD and AAP.
The 2017 elections in Punjab have received unusual attention due to many factors. First and foremost factor is the curiosity about the possibility of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) repeating its impressive performance in 2014 Lok Sabha elections, thus bringing an end to the bipolar party system that has been in place in the state for last five decades with few interruptions. It is also an important election for the Congress, as Punjab is the only state where the party suffering from continuing reverses since its debacle in 2014 election, can realistically hope to secure victory.
Among the five states that have gone for elections, the party has been facing anti-incumbency in Uttarakhand. In Goa too, the party is in a bad shape. It is only in Uttar Pradesh that the party has been made a junior partner of the Samajwadi party. However, even if the coalition manages to be on the winning side, it would be attributed to the success of Akhilesh Yadav led Samajwadi Party; just like it won seats in the Bihar assembly election by virtue of being in a grand alliance with the Janata Dal (United) and Rashtriya Janata Dal.
As for the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) in alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for two consecutive terms, it is not so much about winning the election as it is about losing its traditional support base of the rural Jat Sikhs and consequently losing the elections badly. The party that is going to gain the most by a victory or even an impressive performance is the AAP, as the party government enjoying constitutional autonomy can succeed in providing effective governance and then present the “Punjab model” to other states especially the smaller ones like Goa or the states where the Congress is getting weaker, like in Gujarat. It is this factor that may be worrying to the BJP which, otherwise, does not have much at stake, especially given the bitter rivalry with the AAP in Delhi.
In terms of leadership too, it is an important election for the leaders of the three winnable parties. Captain Amarinder Singh, the chief campaigner and chief ministerial candidate for the Congress party who, like the outgoing chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, has statewide support base, leading the party for the third time consecutively. The defeat would mean an end of the political road for the 75-years-old leader, who has proclaimed it to be his last election. Another state level leader whose career is going to be defined is Sukhbir Singh Badal, the outgoing deputy chief minister and the SAD President. The unexpected victory of the Akali Dal in 2012 was attributed to the ability of Sukhbir Badal to “manage” the election. If the party manages to win once again, then Badal junior would be able to come out as a leader in his own right and not someone who has been shadowed by his father, Parkash Singh Badal, despite being in power for more than a decade. Arvind Kejriwal, the face of the AAP campaign in the state in this election would gain in stature nationwide if the party performs impressively. It’s for the first time in the electoral history of the state that an outsider politician (who is neither a Sikh nor Punjabi speaking) has left such a colossal impact over the politics of the state.
In many ways, 2017 Assembly election was just another election for the state of Punjab as it exhibited the long established trends specific to the state. First, one could refer to the continuing presence of three distinct electoral regions i.e. Malwa, Doaba and Majha. Each of these regions has had its own specific electoral issues and voting pattern along with the relative significance of different parties. A second continuity discernible in the 2017 election was that the electoral campaign was mostly dominated by the issues related to development and governance. There was no mention of Punjab’s troubled ethnic past as it was before the 1997 elections were held in Punjabi Suba.While SAD and BJP claimed to bring about development when in power, Congress and AAP accused the ruling combine of corruption, nepotism and non-performance.
Third, on the flip side, competitive populism/patronage based on clientelistic politics rather than programmatic politics has continued with all the parties making tall unrealistic promises in their manifestos and during their campaigns. Fourth, like the earlier elections, 2017 elections also witnessed a very high level of electoral participation at 75%, higher than the national average, as always. Fifth, the electoral politics of the state continued to remain lopsided if viewed in terms of the different parties’ leadership profile. All the prominent leaders leading the campaign and in important positions in their respective party organizations continued to belong to the land-owning and numerically powerful Jat landed peasantry.
In a state having 31.9 percent of its population belonging to Dalit population, BSP continued to lose its ground even in the Doaba region having constituencies where Dalits even form majority as the party leadership based in Uttar Pradesh continued to neglect Punjab.
However, there were also important deviations, making these Assembly elections exceptional, mainly because the long-standing bipolar electoral system had ended in the state. The AAP’s incredible electoral journey had commenced with the 2014 Lok Sabha election when it had surprised everybody by polling 24.4% of the votes and winning four out of 13 constituencies, finishing third in eight constituencies (34 of the 117 Assembly segments). That performance defied received electoral wisdom, as AAP did not have a recognizable leadership, organization, support base, electoral agenda or the winnability factor in a state that has been witness to high levels of electoral participation and contestation. Irrespective of the number of the seats the party wins, it has clearly emerged as a game changer by forcing the Congress and Akali Dal to address hitherto ignored, but vital issues like drugs, poor plight of farmers and dynastic rule.
Second, in terms of leadership, the election was an aberration as for the first time in the electoral history of Punjabi Suba, a non-Punjabi speaking Hindu from neighbouring Haryana (with which the state has a running feud linked to water and territory) emerged as the face of the AAP campaign and seemed to scare the stalwarts like Parkash Singh Badal and Amarinder Singh. Both have had political innings for more than 50 years and enjoy a state wide support base across the three main electoral regions.
Third, the 2017 election also witnessed a significant shift in the traditional support base of a panthic party like SAD. The party which always managed to gain decent support of its core social constituency of rural voters (especially the Jat Sikh landed peasantry even when it lost the election), faced an alienated rural constituency on account of repeated crops failures followed by inadequate and erratic compensation, spurious distribution of pesticides, adopting a flawed crop procurement process, farmers’ suicides and the issue of minimum support price.
Most significantly, the inability of the Akali government to capture the culprits responsible for the desecration of the holy Guru Granth Sahib alienated the devout Sikhs. The attempt to enlist the Dera Sacha Sauda support just before the election might have brought the Dera Premi votes but, on the flip side, it was a factor that annoyed the traditional panthic constituency of the SAD as the Dera chief is not only charged with serious crimes but also has been accused of personating himself as the tenth Sikh Guru.
Fourth, this election also drew attention due to innovative electoral strategies adopted by different parties to gain the support. AAP, for instance, not only came out with different manifestos for different social constituencies but also campaigned door to door and creatively used social media.
Fifth, since 1992, there has been a clear majority in successive assemblies for the party in power — whether it is the Congress in alliance with CPI/CPM or the Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) combine. However, this time there is a distinct possibility of a hung assembly which would throw up interesting scenarios.
Sixth, this election saw the emergence of the youth as a new secular “voting category” as they seem to have a distinct electoral choice. It was visible in the way different parties made attempt to woo them during the campaign. As 2012 election had seen larger participation from women, there was also an effort on the part of the parties to address the issues that were related to them.
As discussed before, the most significant feature of these elections was the presence of the third alternative for the voters in the face of the AAP. Irrespective of the electoral outcome in the 2017 elections, AAP definitely seems to be a party that is going to stay an effective party in the state. What explains the success of a party that made a debut only two years ago in the state? The AAP’s success in continuing to remain relevant arguably, defies the conventional electoral wisdom, as the party is a new party to be pitted against two well-entrenched ones in a state where region, religion, caste and leadership have played crucial roles in varying manner to determine successive electoral outcomes.
The poll pundits viewed its success in 2014 election in fact as an aberration as the party soon after its impressive debut seemed poised for free-fall. Despite the initial setbacks that the party has suffered in the form of allegations against the state party unit leaders sent from Delhi, the AAP has continued to have a sizeable electoral presence in the run up to 2017 elections. especially in the important Malwa, a region that has as many as 69 out of 117 assembly seats, the AAP has gained ground.
What strengthens the case for the party is the fact that it polled 24% of the votes in the 2014 elections when it was not considered a winnable party, while this time the party is being talked about as one of the winnable parties. In the last two years, the party has made significant inroads in the state under its Punjab Mission Plan. It also launched door to door campaign with the help of the volunteers posted in almost all the villages. Other factors may be mentioned as paving the way for the party’s electoral success, some of them are mentioned here.
The youth of the state has emerged as a significant social category. Not, merely because of the changing demographic profile of the state but also because, due to their wider exposure to social and print media, they have developed their own distinct electoral preferences. The support of the youth for the AAP has gone a long way to establish the party in the state right from the beginning. In Punjab, 53% of voters fall in the age group of 18-39 years. More crucially, out of 1, 99, 63,346 eligible voters, 9, 68,128 fall in the age group of 18-19 years. Significantly, in a CSDS-NES poll survey held after the 2014 election, 40% of young respondents in the 18-35 age group had reported voting for the AAP.
The survey had also revealed that youth credited AAP, more than they credited any other party, for raising their critical concerns like issues of drugs, mafia style corruption, unemployment and widespread use of coercion by men in power. One possible reason may be that the youth has suffered the most from the agrarian crisis and flight of industries that have led to massive unemployment.
Learning their lessons, the older parties this time took note of the youth as a distinct voting category. Evidence of this was in their manifestos as well as their campaign strategies. The Congress manifesto promises at least one job to every household (55 lakh households) in the state, a stipend of ₹2,500 for the unemployed, an end to the drug menace within four weeks of coming to power, and one-lakh taxis/commercial vehicles every year for unemployed youth. The BJP and Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) in their separate, but uncannily similar, manifestos also promised 10 lakh jobs over five years, free laptops and free higher education for girls. To address the youth aversion for corruption, SAD even pledged to appoint a Lokayukta if voted to power for the third time. A move that AAP trumped with its separate youth manifesto.
The party makes elaborate promises to the youth like 25 lakh new jobs in five years, entrepreneurial/ skill centres, end to favouritism in public employment, improved schooling, special laws to give life–terms for drug traffickers, end to corruption and crony capitalism and appointment of a Jan Lokpal on the Delhi model.
Taking a leaf out of AAP’s book, the campaigns of different parties also showed a sense of urgency to connect to the youth. While all the three parties promised better internet connectivity, the Congress led by promising 50 lakh smart phones to youth who participated in its “Captain Smart Connect” campaign. Captain Amarinder Singh, the Congress chief campaigner and Chief Ministerial candidate also launched “Coffee (and not Punjabi Lassi) with Captain“, mainly to connect with the urban youth in small gatherings across the state. The Congress high command’s policy of “one family one ticket” was also aimed at the youth who abhor nepotism and also, to negate the charge of nepotism against it by AAP. Sukhbir Badal, the SAD president had launched a “Youth for Punjab” campaign to make them aware of the development work done by the government in the past decade. All the parties used the social media extensively to connect to the tech-savvy youth but here too, the AAP had an edge during the 2017 campaign.
In the 2017 election, like in the 2014 election, the large Punjabi diaspora, from across the world, played an important role in influencing the electoral outcome. The tragic events in the past in the state have largely alienated the immigrant Sikh community from the Congress whereas, the alleged large-scale corruption in higher places, widespread drug menace in the state and economic deceleration has convinced this influential community to dump the SAD. The 2017 election witnessed them not only funding the AAP campaign, but also campaigning for the party effectively. In the state, they receive wider attention of the youth as they are viewed as icons for those who yearn to settle abroad like them.
The 2017 election was a crucial election for the SAD as the party was not only fighting against anti-incumbency after remaining in power for two terms but also because the party seemed in danger of losing its traditional support base and suffering an unprecedented loss. Shiromani Akali Dal has been blamed for the economic crisis being faced by the state. What can be the possible explanations?
Arguably, the SAD as a party has undergone a critical shift in terms of its organizational, leadership structure. Post-1997 Punjab has witnessed the rise of a person–centric leadership within SAD. Badal and his close relatives have exercised control over both party and government, while the other two Sikh institutions namely, the SGPC and the Akal Takht have lost their autonomy in relation to the party. In people’s perception, SGPC has become a source of funding for the party, with huge donations coming to gurdwaras under its control while Akal Takht’s moral authority over Sikhs has been badly damaged.
Both institutions are now being popularly perceived as instruments of SAD leadership for settling scores with political opponents rather than preserving/protecting the panthic interests. Once a cadre-based and ideologically driven movement party, SAD itself has now been reduced to a “family party“, following the tradition of most other state-level parties including the older comparable state parties like National Conferences and Dravida Munnetra Kadgam. Ironically, this way the SAD has also been “mainstreamed” in national politics as an electoral party.
Reflecting a major shift in Punjab’s electoral politics, secular core issues of governance and development are now dominant for SAD and other mainstream parties, visible in manifestos and campaign speeches, though not much has happened at the ground level. Among the post-Bluestar generation of voters and leadership, there is little memory of the gruesome events in Punjab during militancy. The older leadership realizes that resorting to panthic politics, although core Anandpur Sahib Resolution demands remain unmet, would be suicidal for all stakeholders. At the same time the party has been trying to retain its traditional rural Sikh support base by erecting Sikh memorials and raising panthic issues like separate marriage laws for the Sikhs.
Thus, both factors i.e. decline of the SAD in organizational terms and its inability to raise panthic issues has meant that the party is no longer sure of its traditional support base. The party has been looking forward to wider support system and so, it has been campaigning on the basis of the party’s performance. This has not helped the party’s electoral cause as the party has failed to showcase its performance while in power. Rather, it has helped the opposition parties like the Congress and the AAP who have taken up the issue of governance deficit in the state. Also, both parties have presented themselves as secular parties keeping away from ethnic issues.
There has been a fallout of the marginality of the ethnic issues as caste factor has come to play an important role. AAP in particular was able to use it to its advantage as it mobilised the dalits, especially in the Doaba region with its party symbol that echoed with the Balmiki community and also by issuing a separate manifesto for Dalits.
The Assembly election also showed the failure of the BJP to gain from its long term alliance with the Akali Dal. Interestingly, the BJP has always gained from its alliance with a state level party like in case of its alliance with Janata Dal (Secular) in Karnataka; INLD in Haryana; Biju Janata Dal in Odissa; Shiv Sena in Maharashtra; AGP in Assam; Telugu Desham Party in Andhra Pradesh. In Punjab, the BJP has not only become dependent over the SAD to win the seats but is also unable to retain its urban upper caste support base. Under the coalition arrangement, Punjab’s BJP gets to contest only in 23 out of 117 seats. However, 2017 elections saw it as an ineffective junior ally.
The BJP state unit, moreover, has been forced to underplay its ideological thrust, further alienating its core supporters, while SAD has largely managed to retain its panthic support base. The state unit since the 2014 victory of the party in Lok Sabha has been clamouring for the breakup but, the party high command has been hesitant as it is conscious of the fact that it might help the rival, Congress. Moreover, the alliance is mutually helpful to both as they complement each other with their respective distinct rural-urban as well as Hindu-Sikh support base. It also helps both the parties to shed their image of being communal parties.
Conscious of a possible break-up of this alliance, and given SAD’s natural desire to emerge as a single majority party in the state, there have been consistent efforts by SAD to expand its support base, especially since Sukhbir Singh Badal’s ascendency as the president of the party. These Assembly elections have seen very few rallies by the top BJP leadership, including Modi’s, which was viewed as an admission of the marginality of the party in the state. As a result, the party no longer seems capable of helping the SAD to a great extent especially with its ineffective state level leadership who have failed to deliver despite remaining in the ruling alliance for long.
Arguably, the 2017 election was one of the most interesting elections ever to take place in the political history of post-reorganisation Punjab, one that can very well turn out to be a game changer both in terms of the electoral outcome and also in setting the agenda for future governments. For any discernible observer of Punjab politics, it has been the SAD which, as a regionalist party in the state for around a century, has been able to set the political agenda of Punjab especially after the state’s reorganisation in 1966, whether the party has remained in power or not.
However, for any observer of 2017 election, it was clearly the AAP a four year old party having its presence in the state only for two years that clearly emerged as the game-changer by setting the electoral agenda of the state, identifying and defining important issues and providing credible challenge to the established parties of the state. The question that was in the air during the election period was whether a four-year-old party facing two of the oldest surviving parties in India would be able to bring about a critical shift in the bipolar party system established since 1997 elections. The AAP, a self-proclaimed movement party, has committed to clean and principled politics with politically novice but well-meaning candidates. It has been able to raise hope among wider electorates in the state, disgruntled with lopsided polity that only allowed them a choice between two parties.
|Year||Total Seats||Turn Out||Congress||BJP (1984-)/
JNP (1977-80)/BJS (1967-72)
|CPI||State Party I||State Party II|
| Year of Assembly Elections
The author is a professor in the department of political science in Punjab University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.