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Punjab Elections: Entrenching Akali Dominance

The apparently unanticipated victory of the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance in Punjab appears less surprising if the political and social trends since the late 1990s are read carefully. The coming together of the SAD and the BJP has united the dominant castes among the Sikhs and Hindus into a stable political alliance and replicates the social structure of the Punjab village in its legislative assembly.


Punjab Elections

Entrenching Akali Dominance

Paramjit Singh Judge

The apparently unanticipated victory of the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance in Punjab appears less surprising if the political and social trends since the late 1990s are read carefully. The coming together of the SAD and the BJP has united the dominant castes among the Sikhs and Hindus into a stable political alliance and replicates the social structure of the Punjab village in its legislative assembly.

Paramjit Singh Judge (paramjit.judge@gmail. com) teaches sociology at Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar.

Economic & Political Weekly

march 31, 2012

ven before the people of Punjab voted it was taken for granted by the political pundits that the Congress would form the next government, for, since the formation of Punjabi Suba in 1966 no party has ruled for two consecutive terms. An unprecedented high voter turnout of 79.8% further strengthened this belief in the anticipated outcome, as it is generally assumed that high turnout of voters indicates change in the government. Therefore, the outcome of the elections has shocked everybody. Experts are gasping for adequate explanations and trying to make sense of the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya J anata Party (henceforth SAD-BJP) alliance’s second consecutive victory.

A satisfactory explanation may be difficult, but it is important to point out that the assumptions on which the victory of the Congress was predicated were logically fallacious. Long ago, in the 18th century, Hume had cautioned that the repetition of a phenomenon even a million times is not a suffi cient basis to predict its recurrence. The second assumption, that change is imminent because more than the expected number of voters exercised their franchise, too has no logical basis.

rural areas. It may be observed that owing to delimitation of assembly constituencies carried out in 2008, the Malwa region has gained four seats and the other two regions have lost two seats each. However, delimitation has caused some very significant shifts of villages and urban localities from one constituency to the other. This shift in areas could, we need to realise, also lead to some changes in the election results, depending upon which party benefited from the delimitation. Interestingly, delimitation as a factor was largely ignored by those predicting the results.

There are other interesting features of the election results which suggest that previous results should not be the basis of predicting the future. In eight constituencies, seven runner-ups were independents (mostly rebel candidates who were denied tickets) and one was the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) candidate. In these eight seats three BJP, four SAD and one Congress candidate emerged victorious. It seems obvious that in seven constituencies the Congress lost to the SAD-BJP combine due to internal confl icts. The data on constituencies where candidates won by a small margin (Table 2) shows that the Congress lost 14 seats by narrow margins while in four the result could have gone either way. It is therefore important to understand that despite major differences in the number of seats won by the two rivals, this election was a close call for both the SAD and the Congress. The implications of such a close

Table 1: Number of Vidhan Sabha Seats according to Party in 2007

Let us begin by iden-and 2012

tifying and comparing Party Doaba Majha Malwa Total Doaba Majha Malwa Total
party performances between 2007 and 2012 CongressSAD 2007 04 13 2007 03 17 2007 37 19 44 49 2012 6 11 2012 8 12 2012 32 33 46 56
disaggregated along the BJP 07 07 05 19 5 5 2 12
three regions of Punjab Independents 01 - 04 5 1 - 2 3
– Doaba, Majha and Total 25 27 65 117 23 25 69 117

Malwa (Table 1). First, Source: The Tribune, 7 March 2012.

both the SAD and the Congress have improved their tally of seats, whereas the BJP and the independent candidates are losers. As the BJP c andidates contest elections largely in u rban areas where the Hindus are either in majority or have a substantial presence, it implies that the BJP has lost its Hindu voters, but SAD has gained in

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Table 2: Narrow Margins in the Victory and Losing Party

Margin of Votes Losing Party Losing Party Total
Congress SAD
1-500 4 - 4
501-1,000 4 1 5
1,001-1,500 4 1 5
1,501-2,000 2 1 3
Total 14 3 17
Source: Same as in Table 1.


contest are many, particularly when both these parties have gained in the total number of seats. The delimitation process seems to have favoured the SAD, for despite the decline in its percentage vote share it has won seven more seats. At this moment it is important to examine various factors in the state politics of Punjab, which have worked both extensively and historically in determining the outcome of elections. I argue that in order to understand Punjab politics, there is a need for political sociological perspective instead of treating politics as an autonomous domain of examination.

There are two social axes along which Punjab’s politics gets shaped: religion and caste. The latter is generally undermined in the analysis of elections and electoral processes, but it is, as we shall see, not the case.

Religion and Electoral Politics

As a numerically majority community (almost 60%), the Sikhs are politically divided and we find them in all political parties both as leaders and cadre. They are also active in the BJP, which supposedly represents Hindu interests. Sikhism, as the dominant religion, has had an inclusive approach towards religious practices, whereas it is divided along caste and class lines. On the contrary, the Congress has been claiming to be secular, though it has invariably meddled with Sikh religious issues in order to dilute the political base of the SAD. Understanding the crucial significance of religion illustrates certain important paradigmatic shifts in the electoral history of Punjab as well as the religious confi guration of the state at present. Three distinct phases can be identified. The fi rst phase ended in 1966 when the Punjabi Suba was formed with the Sikhs as majority population and the second phase ended in 1997 when the SAD participated in the electoral process, after boycotting it in 1992, by forging an alliance with the BJP. It is important to point out that the phase between 1966 and 1997 was marked by political turmoil and frequent interventions by the central government owing to which governor’s rule was imposed in the state many times for extended periods of time.

The Vidhan Sabha elections of 1997 initiated the third phase in Punjab’s political-electoral history. The SAD and the BJP had forged alliances earlier too but this one was special, for it happened after a decade and a half of the violent movement for Khalistan. The alliance signified Hindu-Sikh unity thus ending the divide between these two communities which had invariably manifested i tself in voting behaviour. Earlier, the Akalis always maintained that the Hindus never voted for them, whereas the Hindu voters were largely confined to the cities and the rural areas of Hoshiarpur and Gurdaspur districts. Despite the presence of various dalit and middle castes, the political constituency termed “Hindus of Punjab” largely comprise the upper castes like the Brahmins, Rajputs, Khatris, Aroras and Baniyas. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has quite a stronghold among the urban Hindu traders, particularly the Punjabi refugee Khatris who migrated from western Punjab after Partition. Other Hindus are politically divided along various political lines. The urban Sikhs would not vote for the BJP candidates considering them to be the representatives of the Hindus. The SAD-BJP alliance in 1997 was successful, but the RSS was not pleased with the BJP at both the centre and the state. In the next elections (2002) the RSS cadres did not vote for the BJP thus facilitating a Congress victory.

Another feature of the alliance forged in 1997 was that the SAD did not raise their staple issue of “danger to the Sikh panth (faith/community)” thus paving the way for the emergence of issues of development as the major political discourse. Together these make the 1997 elections a watershed and we need to examine trends from this time onwards to draw political-electoral inferences and projections. We need to focus on the major base of each political party during the past four Vidhan Sabha elections (1997, 2002, 2007 and 2012) to understand the current political condition in Punjab.

There are 10 constituencies from where only the SAD candidates have been elected in each of the four elections since 1997 (the only exception is the Tarn Taran city constituency from where Harmeet Sandhu was elected in 2002 who later joined the SAD). On the other hand, there are three constituencies which have always elected a Congress candidate (but O P Soni was elected in 1997 and 2002 as an independent candidate from Amritsar west because he was denied the official ticket, and Jeet Mohinder Singh was elected as independent from Talwandi Sabo in 2002 and he joined the Congress). It is clear that the SAD has a much stronger base in Punjab than the Congress and this has only grown stronger with the SAD-BJP alliance now symbolising Hindu-Sikh unity.

Castes and Electoral Politics

Religion has so powerfully clouded our perception of Punjab politics that the role of caste has been pushed to the background. Underestimating the caste factor has led to some of the fallacies in predicting these elections. It is important to note that the Jat Sikhs constitute an overwhelming majority in Punjab. If we i nterpolate the data of the 1931 Census by assuming that the proportions of various castes among the Sikhs have remained largely constant, then the conservative estimate would be that the Jat Sikhs constitute about 40% of the total population of the state. The next largest proportion is that of the dalits, that is about 30%. However, dalits are divided along caste and religious lines resulting in an absence of any visible pattern in their voting behaviour. In terms of numerical preponderance, the Chamars and the Bhangi/Choorha castes are important. Among the Chamars, the Ad-dharmis and the Ravidasias have traditionally voted for the Congress and now they are divided in terms of their votes for the

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Congress and the BSP. The Ramdasia Chamars have been voting for the SAD. Among the Bhangis, the Valmikis voted for the Congress, the Mazabis for the SAD and the Christian Masihs for the Congress. Besides these predominant patterns, there is also some concentration of the Megh caste in Amritsar and Jalandhar cities and the villages of K apurthala district. They are religiously divided as Kabir-panthis, Arya Samajis and Sikhs. Their voting behaviour is also religiously divided. What is noticeable is that except among the Ad-dharmis and the Ravidasias, the dalits do not show any preference for the BSP.

Even though certain castes, namely, Rajput, Saini, Mehton, Lobana and Kamboh have low numerical strength, but due to their concentration in certain pockets, they have become effective players in electoral politics despite being politically divided. What is most notable is that their caste identities override the religious divisions among them. Caste consideration in the choice of the candidate is an important factor with regard to the numerical domination of certain caste communities in particular areas. Let us look at how various castes have performed in these elections, beginning with the dalits (Table 3).

Table 3: Region-wise Performance of Political Parties among Reserved Seats for Scheduled Castes

Political Party Doaba Majha Malwa Total
Congress 1 2 7 10
SAD 5 4 12 21
BJP 2 1 - 3
Total 8 7 19 34
Percentage of the
total seats (117) 34.78 28.00 27.54 29.06

Source: Same as in Table 1.

It is clear from Table 3 that in all the regions, the SAD has performed better than the Congress. The percentage of seats reserved for the scheduled castes in the Doaba region is the highest. An attempt was made to know the caste background of the elected dalits.1 Interestingly, the Mazabis are the largest in number (18), followed by eight Chamars/Ramdasias. If we add two Valmiki candidates, then the Bhangi caste has emerged as the most numerous among the newly elected dalit MLAs. The caste background of two scheduled candidates could not be

Economic & Political Weekly

march 31, 2012

known, which also included a wellknown Punjabi singer, Mohammad Sadique, who was till recently a Muslim, and the second candidate is from Shatrana reserved constituency. Other dalit winners belong to Batwal, Duman and Megh castes who have won one seat each. Among the dalits, the biggest losers are the Chamars/Ramdasias who, despite having the second-largest population among the dalits as well as having better educational and economic conditions than the Valmikis/Mazabis, have failed to win seats in proportion to their strength. One of the major reasons for this is the support for the BSP among sections of them and another reason is their concentration in certain pockets of Punjab. On the other hand, the Mazabis have made a tremendous impact on these elections. The success of the Mazabis is partly the loss of the Chamars, but at the same time it is also a result of the way various constituencies are declared reserved. This time most of the reserved constituencies except Doaba have had Mazabi concentrations.

We may now turn to the middle castes or the Other Backward Classes (OBCs). These elections have contributed towards a large decline in the influence of the OBCs. Only seven OBC candidates have been successful. Among the biggest losers was Upinderjit Kaur, a minister in the previous ministry, who lost to a Jat Sikh candidate. Among the OBCs three Lobana, two Kamboh and one Gujjar and Bahti candidate each have been successful. Except for the Bahti candidate from Doaba and one Lobana from Majha all others have won from the constituencies where voters of their caste are concentrated. Among the upper caste candidates elected the Jats, including one Hindu Jat, are the most numerous. With 50 members (constituting 43% of the seats) the Jats constitute the largest caste group in the newly elected Vidhan Sabha. Among other candidates eight Khatri/Arora, six Banyas and five brahmins have emerged successful.

The data on the caste background clearly indicate that the pattern of domination has remained unchanged with the Jats at the top of the table followed by the Mazabis. It is interesting to note that the pattern of domination in most of

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the Punjab villages has been characterised by the close association of the Jat landowner and the Mazabi attached labourer under the traditional Jajmani system which was dominant till recently. It was a common saying that no murder in the villages of Punjab is committed without the participation of the Mazabi under the leadership of the Jat! In other words, the stamp of the caste structure of Punjab’s villages is clearly visible in the Vidhan Sabha of 2012. The SAD, with its perceived Jat domination, has found the Mazabi as its most reliable associate. The failure of the Chamars/Ramdasias may indicate the decline of dalit politics and rise of the SAD brand of religious politics in contradistinction to the Ravidasi-Dera politics. Electoral marginalisation of Chamars is likely to push them to the politics of agitation.

Factions and Personalities

In the end, I wish to argue that in every election in Punjab the SAD-BJP alliance has a better chance of winning. Some of the long term, structural reasons have been discussed above but there are some proximate reasons for the SAD-BJP victory in this particular election. First of all, corruption has ceased to be an issue, for no party is seen to be free during its tenure. Bribes are viewed as “honorarium for doing the work” and are so much part of the system that the Anna Hazare movement did not make any impact on the election results. Second, even the high turnover of voters got distributed to the same old parties, though the presence of SAD rebel Manpreet Badal did send shivers down the spine to both the SAD and the Congress. Further, it is important to recognise that the various schemes (Atta-Dal scheme, free cycle to girl students in government schools, Shagan scheme, provision for ambulance to expecting mothers and in accident cases, and free power to the farmers/ dalits) introduced by the SAD-BJP government helped considerably.

A discussion of elections in Punjab cannot be complete without acknowledging the role of factionalism at the village level which vertically connects with the two major political parties through the local MLA to the grass roots. Thus


the panchayat elections are contested with a ferocity which is invariably absent in Vidhan Sabha elections. Vandita Mishra (2012) has captured it well thus

Walk deep into Malwa heartland and ‘development’ begins to split into two: Akali development, Congress development. In the village, start a conversation on public works and government schemes that have or have not been implemented, and two groups are formed immediately on party lines.

The incidents of violence during panchayat elections in 2008 were quite high and in most cases it happened because the SAD workers tried to dislodge the p olitical domination of the Congress. The SAD and the Congress are strong contenders and compete for domination during elections. The 73rd amendment has further contributed to the escalation of confl ict. In the case of reserved post of Sarpanch, the dominant landlords put up their own dalit candidates (Thakur and Singh 2009), which invariably result into clashes at many places. The elected leader’s worth is not examined by his performance at the state level, but what he/she has done for his/her constituency’s stakeholders who are invariably the village-level faction leaders.

Before making concluding remarks, a comment on the leader of the Congress Party is essential. Amrinder Singh joined the SAD in 1984 in reaction to the Blue Star Operation and was a minister in the Barnala Ministry of 1985. He contested as an independent candidate in 1992 after leaving SAD over the issue of boycott of elections. He came out of political wilderness in 2002 and became the chief minister by marginalising the established leaders of the Congress in the state. In the recently-held elections, he remained inactive till he was not announced as the chief ministerial candidate, but it was too late. Politics has become a family enterprise in India, but in Punjab the so-called ruling families symbolise state politics.


Two conclusions may be offered here. First, after the SAD-BJP alliance was formed the future of Punjab politics changed radically and put a huge handicap over other political parties. Therefore, the SAD-BJP will continue to dominate the Congress and together these two poles will lord over the political landscape of the state. Second, as a corollary to the above, the outcome of elections would depend upon the effectiveness with which the local leaders have been satisfi ed by their legislative representatives. The loss of one party could be determined by the village-level politics. It is also equally important to watch what the RSS is deciding. More emphasis on ideological purity by the RSS, more are chances of the Congress winning the elections, as it happened in 2002 when the decision by the RSS cadre to not support the BJP contributed to the alliance’s defeat. Failure to take into consideration these factors has led to wrong forecasts of voting patterns and results.


1 The information regarding the caste background of the elected candidates has been collected through personal contacts. It may be informed that information about six MLAs could not be collected.


Mishra, Vandita (2012): “Mud Flies in Malwa”, iesin-malwa/903596/ accessed on 9 March 2012.

Thakur, Bhupinder and Rajwinder Pal Singh (2009): “Empowerment or Exclusion: Exploding the Myth”, Guru Nanak Journal of Sociology, 30 (1 & 2), pp 41-62.

march 31, 2012 vol xlviI no 13 EPW Economic & Political Weekly

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