The electoral outcome in the Assembly elections in Punjab signals the beginning of a new phase in the electoral history of the State, largely dominated earlier by various political alliances, mostly bipolar in nature, headed by the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the Congress respectively.
The continuing electoral presence of the AAP as the main opposition party in the State has confirmed the firm arrival of a triangular electoral system with parties like the BSP, Dal Khalsa, SAD (Amritsar) nearly on the verge of electoral irrelevance.
The landslide victory of the Congress has to be viewed in the context of the colossal defeat of the SAD and its junior ally, the BJP. Going by the scale of its victory it is obvious that contrary to popular perception the Congress has managed to gain even the support of the traditional Panthic rural Sikh vote, which since the days of Punjabi Suba movement always voted for the SAD, and never for the Congress, particularly after Operation Blue-Star and the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi.
In fact, the disgruntled among them this time seem to have voted for the Congress, so annoyed they were with the Panthic party, mainly due to the incidents of desecration of revered Guru Granth Sahib and the inability of the ruling Akalis to catch the culprits.
The Akali leadership’s desperate move to seek the support of controversial Dera Sacha Sauda further alienated the traditional Sikh supporters.
The large-scale disenchantment among the Panthic Sikh voters was also due to the sustained and successful efforts of the Badal family-led Akali leadership to decimate the autonomy of the two other critical institutions of Sikh politics, the Akal Takht and SGPC, over the last two decades. Moreover, in its effort to become a broad-based electoral party, SAD not only kept the emotive Panthic issues like the punishment to the guilty of anti-Sikh riots in New Delhi on the backburner.
In its Moga declaration in post-conflict Punjab, SAD had promised to serve the secular cause of Punjab, Punjabi and Punjabiyat. But despite remaining in power for three terms since politics in Punjab returned to normal after the 1997 Assembly elections, the party failed to bring an economic turnaround in post-Green Revolution Punjab.
The state witnessed large-scale farmers’ indebtedness and suicides. The widespread corruption in higher places, crony capitalism as well as unimaginative populist policies which continued to drain the State’s resources under the rule of the Badal family led to further alienation.
The Congress has always had a decent support base among both communities as well as among the sizeable Dalit population. With Captain Amrinder Singh it had a leadership that enjoyed state-wide support. Learning from the 2012 debacle, this time he was wise enough to keep the rebel factor under check and also appeal to the sizeable youth.
He also pushed his credential as a true Punjabi, who not only resigned from the Congress after Blue Star but also as chief minister got the anti-SYL bill passed in the Assembly against the wishes of the party high command. The AAP did not have a credible state-level leader matching the captain in stature or popularity.
The fact that the AAP campaign was managed by non-Punjabis which meant its government would be remote controlled by Delhi Durbar alienated many voters. Also, the expulsion of Chhotepur on the basis of a sting which was never proven and the expulsion of two of the party’s MPs just for raising dissenting voices also hurt the Punjabi sentiment.
Finally, the electoral wisdom ordained that the AAP, a two-year-old party in the State, could not match the 200-year-old well-entrenched parties in terms of organisational presence, grass roots level knowledge and experience, booth level management and of course, resources. The AAP counted on social media whereas the Congress relied on its traditional strength.