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Punjab's Voters Settle for the Familiar Kind of Change


Winning in Punjab provides the Congress which is desperately looking for a national revival, the best opportunity. However, the Badals have left Chief Minister Amarinder Singh with empty coffers. He has a strong enough mandate and nothing to lose if he decides to strike out for bold policy reforms that will put Punjab back on the right path. But he needs to make a clean break from the coteries that came to define his first government. As for AAP, it is now the main opposition in the assembly but it must ponder over why it failed to do as well as it and its opponents, expected.



The 2017 assembly election in Punjab was unprecedented in many ways. For the first time, there was a third party in the fray, offering voters the possibility of a change in politics and government that was dominated for decades by just two parties. Before this, Punjab voters alternated between the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the Congress, giving each a five-year break. The 2007 election, in which SAD won a second term, was an exception. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)’s entry was expected to disrupt this revolving door arrangement. Punjab’s voters did settle for change, but of the old familiar kind, and rejected the new and edgy uncertainty that has come to be associated with AAP.


The Congress party won with 77 out of 117 seats, just one short of a two-thirds victory. This is the most emphatic victory for any single party in Punjab since SAD’s victory with 75 seats in 1997. In that election, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 18 seats, while the Congress won just 14. Exactly two decades later, the SAD- BJP combine which ruled the state together over two terms beginning from 2007, won just 18 seats. The BJP itself was reduced to a mere three seats, down from its tally of 12 in 2012 while SAD won 15, compared to its previous tally of 56.


For two years ahead of the election, AAP which decided to take the plunge into state politics on the strength of its impressive win in four Lok Sabha seats in 2014 had kept SAD and the Congress on their toes. Arvind Kejriwal, the Delhi chief minister and AAP convenor, drew massive crowds at his meetings. The Magi mela of January 2016 in Muktsar, an arena that political parties have traditionally used to hold rallies, was the point at which AAP began to believe it could win the 2017 election. The response to Kejriwal’s meeting at the mela was phenomenal.  SAD and the Congress were suddenly panic stricken. Both insisted that AAP was no threat but from the the manner in which both attacked the party and its leadership, it was clear that they were running scared. However, the crowds that AAP pulled in at its meetings did not turn into its voters.  The party finished a distant second to the Congress, with just 20 seats.


For the Congress, the decisive mandate in Punjab is the only joy in the midst of devastating defeat in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarkhand, and the fragmented vote in Goa and Manipur, in which despite emerging as the largest party, it was beaten to government formation by the BJP.


Not Simply Anti-incumbency


Doubtless, the Congress victory in Punjab rests on the fierce anti-Akali vote. But the decision of the voters to choose Congress over AAP cannot be explained simply as anti-incumbency. This vote could have just as well gone to AAP. That it did not, clearly means that the Congress had something better to offer than AAP did. The voters decided that the party, with a known, familiar chief ministerial face in Amarinder Singh was a better bet than a party that went into the election with ambiguous signalling about who its chief minister would be, at times seeming to suggest that whoever it chose as the chief minister, it would be the party convenor and Delhi Chief Minister who would run the state.  In a state built on Sikh identity, AAP failed to project any of its many Sikh candidates in Punjab as a credible state leader.  Those in its state unit who claimed they would become the chief minister like Bhagwant Mann for instance, the comedian whose barb-a-minute speeches were crowd pullers during the campaign, did not inspire confidence among voters.


At one level, trying to break away from the need to show a “Sikh face” was in tune with AAP’s attempt to pitch itself above identity politics; at another, it was at odds with AAP’s deliberate and studied outreach to panthic voters, who have traditionally voted for the Akalis. At the same time, its overtures to radical Sikhs turned off the moderate Sikh and Hindu voters who live in fear of the return of militancy in the state more than anything else. Indeed, in its assiduous wooing of the Sikh vote, the party forgot that Punjab has a sizeable Hindu population.


Wooing the Panthic Vote


Kejriwal did not unknowingly stay overnight at the house of a former militant during the campaign. It was a ploy designed to consolidate the panthic vote. But it backfired. AAP calculated without a car bomb blast that claimed six lives in Maur, in Bathinda district on 31 January 31 at the end of a Congress campaign rally. It fuelled the very fears that SAD and the Congress had stoked with Kejriwal’s controversial night halt.


AAP won in the Maur constituency itself, where its candidate was seen as the strongest of the three from the main parties. It dominated that pocket of Bathinda and won two other seats in the district. But the incident, in the closing days of the campaign, gave life to the criticism by the Congress and SAD that AAP’s radical friends were all set to stage a comeback. The final nail in the coffin was a statement by the former Punjab Director General of Police, K P S Gill (Indian Express 2 February), that AAP was perhaps unknowingly playing into the hands of extremist Sikhs, and if the party leadership believed it could shake them off after the election, it was mistaken.


Populist Proposals and Loan Waivers


For the Congress, the baggage of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots and Operation Bluestar were not the vote-killers that the Akalis and AAP had hoped.  Or if these were factors, Amarinder Singh, who resigned from the Congress in the wake of Operation Bluestar, was able to overcome it. The election showed that Punjab’s electorate preferred him over AAP, even though he ran an under-achieving, inefficient and corrupt coterie-dominated government between 2002 and 2007. Under the guidance of Prashant Kishor, the election strategist hired by the Congress, Amarinder promised an ambitious scheme of agricultural loan waivers. He also promised one job to every family, and a free smart phone to every youth who registered with the party. These populist schemes competed with loan waivers and other freebies from AAP and SAD, but appear to have resonated better among voters.


Anti-Badal Anger


While anti-incumbency is an easy explanation for SAD-BJP’s resounding defeat, this word is too often conveniently used by ruling party honchos not to take responsibility for their defeat at elections. The term does not quite capture the extent of the anger among voters for the Badal dynasty which has presided over SAD since the beginning of the 21st century. The former chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, the “patron” of SAD, was the face of the party but son Sukhbir, who is the president, is in charge. Over their last two terms in government, the Badal family businesses, which include transport companies, hotels and sundry others, have expanded manifold.


The growth of the transport business came at the cost of the Punjab state bus companies, with those owned by the first family getting preference on profitable routes and times. The government went out of it way to provide an access road to a luxury hotel owned by Sukhbir. He blithely explained away the  two hats he wore – as deputy chief minister and owner of many businesses – as no conflict of interest, but as an enabler of corruption-free government: a wealthy businessman would not be tempted to make money from his office was his argument.


SAD was also in complete denial on the issue of the drug problem – both its widespread availability and drug addiction. Sukhbir dismissed it as a “defamation” campaign against the youth of Punjab, which prevented the government from treating it as a serious health and social crisis. Earlier, stung by the criticism on the drugs issue, the police launched a huge crackdown, arresting addicts and pushing them into overcrowded jails. The naming of Sukhbir’s brother-in-law, Bikram Singh Majithia, by the main accused in an open court during a hearing of the  “Bhola drug racket” damaged the party further.


The decline of Punjab’s agriculture sector has taken place over the decades as a consequence of the wheat and paddy cycle bequeathed by the Green Revolution, but the SAD-BJP government took no steps to alleviate the conditions for farmers. Agricultural growth itself has been shockingly low in a state that is primarily agrarian. After the low of -3.40 % in 2014-14, advance estimates for 2015-2016 (Economic and Statistical Organisation of Punjab) projected 5.22 per cent agricultural growth. In a written reply in the Lok Sabha in 2016, Minister of State for Agriculturre Mohanbhai Kundaria said that 449 farmers had committed suicide in Punjab in 2015, the second highest after Maharashtra,


Nor has Punjab, with its absence of adequately educated or skilled workforce, been able to attract any big industrial investments, despite the good network of roads in the state and its much vaunted power surplus.


The Associated Chambers of Commerce & Industry of India (Assocham) estimated that for the 18.5 lakh people in Punjab in the age group of 18-35 years, the government needs to create 11 lakh jobs in the next five years to maintain the employment level in this group at its present 37.5%. The huge numbers of young voters in this election all want regular government jobs because of the failure to create viable employment opportunities in the private sector, and the skills for such jobs among the youth.


In the end, SAD tried to buy voters with money-draining schemes such as free pilgrimages to cater to every religion and caste, expensive symbolic sops such as building memorials to community heroes, and handouts at “sangat darshans”, at which the Badal family members would go from village to village meeting people pre-screened by the local Akali workers, and grant money for local demands. The people were not averse to taking what they got but it did not make SAD any the more popular.


Injured by Association

The BJP, junior partner to SAD in the state, was hit by association. The 8 November demonetisation move came at a time when the paddy crop had just been harvested and was being procured, and wheat was being sown. While the move caused much hardship across rural Punjab, the notebandi did not become an issue in the Punjab election, as both the Congress and AAP sensed that even without it the SAD-BJP combine was finished. Sukhbir Badal complained about it in a muted way. A BJP minister asked his constituents with folded hands not to hold him responsible for the decision. He did not win, but if demonetisation played a part in his or the SAD-BJP’s defeat, it was one among many factors.




AAP, which had alleged during the campaign that there was a nexus between SAD and the Congress, also alleged after the results that SAD and the BJP leaders, sensing defeat, asked their core supporters to vote for the Congress to keep the new party out.


It was also whispered on polling day that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), angry with SAD for the unsolved killing of its deputy head Brigadier R S Gagneja, and equally furious with the BJP for not being assertive with its alliance partner over the attacks on Hindu leaders, asked Hindu/BJP supporters to vote en masse for the Congress. The BJP is said to have done the same realising that there was no chance of winning this election, in order to prevent an AAP victory.


Only a booth to booth analysis of votes can reveal if these allegations are true.


Overall, the Congress vote-share of 38.5% was 1.5 percentage points less than its share in the 2012 elections, but was spread evenly across the three regions. AAP, which with 23.7% votes polled almost nearly as much as its 24% vote share in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, dented the Akali vote more than it affected the Congress vote. The vote share of SAD plummeted from 34.7% in 2012 to 25.2% in this election, just 1.5 percentage points more than AAP’s share. The BJP’s dropped from 7.2% to 5.4%.  


The Punjab results are better understood when seen from the perspective of its three dominant socio-political regions – Malwa, Majha and Doaba. With 69 seats spread over 12 districts from Ropar, Mohali and Patiala in the east to Bathinda in the south to the border districts of Ferozepur and Fazilka, Malwa sends the most number of MLAs to the assembly.


Majha, spread over four districts – Pathankot, Gurdaspur, Amritsar and Tarn Taran, is next with 25 seats; Doaba (literally, the land between two rivers, Beas and Sutlej), with four districts – Jalandhar, Hoshiarpur, Nawanshahr, and Kapurthala -- has 23 seats.


Malwa is the least developed of all the regions. Save some districts on the northern and eastern edges of Malwa, such as Ropar, Ludhiana, and Patiala, the rest of the region is overwhelmingly rural. The land holdings in Malwa are tiny compared to those in other parts of Punjab, and the region is not as well connected to the state’s river systems. The well developed network of canals that criss-cross the northern parts of Punjab do not stretch deep into Malwa.


Conduit to Power


But the road to power in the state definitely goes through this region. All four of AAP’s four Lok Sabha seats – Patiala, Sangrur, Fategarh Sahib and Faridkot – were won in the Malwa region. In 2014, the party dominated 31 of the assembly segments in this region. Pinning its hopes on this for the recent assembly election, AAP expected to win at least 40 if not more seats from here.  The tremendous public response that it was getting across this poorest of the three Punjab regions gave it and others reason to believe that the party’s message of clean, equitable government had struck a deep chord in these districts. Kejriwal’s several visits to Punjab between 2015 and 2016 were focused on this region.


In the event, it was the Congress that won 40 seats from here.  The SAD-BJP alliance won only eight seats in Malwa. AAP’s 18 seats out of its total of 20 showed that most of its support was indeed located in Malwa though not enough for it to win the election.


Doaba has over 40% of Punjab’s Dalit voters, who are 31.94% of the state’s population, the highest for any state. The Dalits in the state have never voted en bloc, and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP)’s share, whose founder Kanshi Ram was born in Ropar, dwindled to a minuscule 1.5% in 2017 from 4.29% in 2012, and 1.9% in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. The BSP’s failure over the years is attributed to the absence of the kind of social discrimination that Dalits experience elsewhere, the absence of a strong Brahmin community, and the divisions among the two main Dalit castes – the Valmikis and the Ravidassias.  The Dalits in Punjab are also economically better off than their counterparts elsewhere. The community led the immigration wave from Punjab to the West. After initial success in the 1992 election (which was boycotted by SAD), the BSP did more to fragment than consolidate the Dalit vote.


AAP had aimed to occupy the space vacated by the BSP.  Among the separate manifestos AAP brought out for different sections of voters such as farmers, youth and women, one was a Dalit manifesto, which promised that there would be a Dalit deputy chief minister if it came to power. But the party did not invest much of its campaign energy outside Malwa, believing perhaps that a “wave” in its favour in that region would carry it through in the other two. In the event, while nine of its 20 MLAs are Dalit, only two are from Doaba.


The Congress used to count Doaba as a stronghold, but in 2012 was defeated in all but six of the region’s 23 seats, with the rest going to SAD. This time the roles were reversed, with SAD winning six.


In Majha, a mix of panthic, rural, urban and border constituencies, the Congress swept up 22 out of the 25 seats, reversing its equation with SAD in the last two assembly elections.  SAD was able to retain just two constituencies and the BJP won one. AAP was unable to open its account in this region. 


Lessons for AAP


The defeat in Punjab has shattered AAP’s national dreams, but it has emerged as the main opposition in the Punjab state assembly. The party has already appointed H S Phoolka, the lawyer activist who has fought hard and long for justice for the vicitms of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, as the leader of the opposition. Disappointed though it must be, AAP is certain to realise the full potential of the opposition benches to remind the Congress of its promises. While it licks its wounds in Punjab and Goa, it will do well to ask if it was a wise idea to send “managers” from outside to run the party. These managers ensured that the Delhi unit kept the upper hand, and that no local leader worth the name emerged in Punjab. In centralising the leadership in his persona, Kejriwal did not show himself to be too different from the parties and practices he claims to stand against.


One of the ironies of this election is that those, whom the voters were most angry with, that is, the Badal family, have been re-elected in their constituencies. Majithia, who had come to represent everything wrong with the SAD-BJP government in the popular imagination, was one of the two SAD MLAs elected in Majha. Sukhbir was elected in a high decibel contest against AAP’s Bhagwant Mann and the Congress’s Ravneet Bittu in Jalalabad. His father won in Lambi against Amarinder and Jarnail Singh of AAP.


For the Congress, which is desperately looking for a national revival, Punjab provides the opportunity. For that Amarinder Singh must look beyond the promised populism, for which, in any case, the first challenge would be to find the money. The Badals have left him empty coffers. Amarinder has said this will be his last innings in politics. He has a strong enough mandate and nothing to lose if he decides to strike out for bold policy reforms that will put Punjab back on the right path. But first, he must make a clean break from the coteries that came to define his first government.  That is a legacy the Congress badly needs right now.



Updated On : 18th Mar, 2017
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