AAP set to replace Congress and overtake BJP: Prof Pramod Kumar

EMERGENCY PUNJAB needs a paradigm shift in the path of development. Unfortunately, the recently concluded assembly elections had anything but a serious debate on solutions to challenges such as the stagnation of agriculture, the creation of avenues for young people, the link between agriculture and industry, the reconquest of the capital as an investment hub and the evolution of models to provide citizens with access to easy living. It has become a battle royale of false claims and empty promises to lure voters. Political parties have become doorless dharamshalas, with popular politicians jumping from party to party.

Elections have been reduced to a ritual of democracy and a simple matter of the perceptions and approval ratings of leaders alone, not of political parties. And, the only audible slogan has been “change,” which has come to mean giving handouts and handouts and selectively targeting political opponents as a substitute for competitive politics. The overall approach has been to use a cocktail of doles and promises to cater to everyone’s tastes. So we got ‘menu-festo’ rather than manifesto. There is a menu card for farmers, traders, students, Dalits, industrialists and women. Credit for this invention goes to AAP. It was odd that the policy agenda could not reflect the issues raised by the year-long farmer protests.

The AAP had an advantage because it had no historical baggage and did not sit on any fault line of caste, religion or region. It largely followed a “catch-all” approach.

Voter apathy towards the existing system became visible as the votes cast were 5% lower than in the 2017 parliamentary elections. In 76 out of 117 constituencies, the drop in votes cast was between 5 and 12%.

This election was different, as it moved from bipartisan to multiparty contests. New electoral alliances were formed and blatant attempts were made to polarize the electoral space on the basis of religion and caste. To counter this, the deras were invoked to weaken the exclusive politics of the vote banks. The grammar of electoral discourse was dominated by doles, deras and drugs, laced with identity politics, ranging from endorsing Dalit identity to radical Sikh assertions, to activating insecurity within the Hindu minority and the revival of the hegemonic politics of the Jat peasantry.

The AAP had an advantage because it had no historical baggage and did not sit on any fault line of caste, religion or region. It largely followed a “catch-all” approach. And the activation of various fault lines could not be an obstacle to the AAP. The Shiromani Akali Dal, on the other hand, had a business background of sacrilege. And Congress was facing a huge anit-incumbent. Added to this was the self-destructive struggle between warring Congress leaders like Navjot Singh Sidhu, Channi, Sunil Jakhar and Pratap Bajwa.

In Punjab, there are no exclusive vote banks based on religion or caste, unlike many other states. There are no clear categories of minority (Hindus) and majority (Sikhs). For example, Hindus struggled with the majority-minority complex, seeing themselves as a majority in India and a minority in reorganized Punjab, and vice versa with Sikhs.

The duality of the minority persecution complex and the majority arrogance complex shapes both the contestation between the Sikh-dominated Akali Dal and the Hindu-dominated BJP, as well as the electoral constraints for coalition strategies aimed at seizing political and economic power. The Akali Dal and the BJP formed four post-election coalitions before 1992 and four pre-election alliances since 1997. The ideological explanation given by the SAD and the BJP was that to protect and promote their exclusive support bases, the coalition was essential.

There has been a shift in the BJP’s political strategy – it is diversifying by regionalising its own agenda, leadership and symbols, and forging an alliance with Capt Amarinder Singh’s Punjab Lok Congress. It also exposed the BJP’s electoral strategy of trying to marginalize regional parties.

In this election, the SAD did not enter into a pre-election alliance with the BJP on the issue of agricultural bills. Instead, he allied himself with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) – an alliance that emerged after two and a half decades.

Unsurprisingly, this coalition of opposites also existed within Congress, which claimed to be secular. The Congress represented a coalition of Sikh leaders (who were supporters of the Punjabi Suba – political movement demanding the establishment of a Punjabi-speaking state) with Hindu leaders (who were at the forefront of Hindi agitation and in favor of Maha Punjab).

It all started with the way the Congress leadership replaced Captain Amarinder Singh just months before the election. When the name of Jakhar (a Hindu) made the rounds, the Congress spokesman said that only a Sikh could be the chief minister – a remark which did not go down well with Jat Sikhs and Hindus alike. . The appointment of a scheduled caste chief minister created a buzz for the first time. But has this led to a consolidation of SC votes in favor of any particular leader or party? Maybe not.

Religious reform movements, particularly Sikhism and to some extent the Arya Samaj, have weakened the behavioral aspects of inter- and intra-caste practices of Sikhs and Hindus. Scheduled castes gained more space for social and political negotiation. They found representation in all political parties rather than just one caste-based political party, like the BSP.

The scheduled castes do not constitute a captive vote bank of any political party. Numerically however, they are proportionally represented in state politics. Of the 1,365 legislators between 1967 and 2017, Scheduled Castes made up 25.57%, OBCs 8.57% and Jat Sikhs 43.59%.

Religio-caste divisions, the Dera factor, regional variations (between Majha, Malwa and Doaba) and the consolidation of urban Hindus could not counter the AAP wave. The decimation of the SAD and the marginalization of Congress in the elections by the AAP is historic. It is a signal that the AAP is poised to replace the Congress and overtake the BJP, especially in Himachal Pradesh and Haryana.

In Punjab, as we see, the status quo has become unsustainable. Therefore, there is an urgent need for political leaders to rethink and demonstrate their sincerity and willingness to implement the pro-people agenda. But the prospects for development in Punjab rest solely on public debt. Without a doubt, it is disturbing. There are states that are heavily indebted, but maintain their pace of development. The crisis in Punjab is not just about the sad fact that government debt is rising or unemployment is rising, or Dalits are being penalized, or drug addiction, female fetuses and farmer suicides are on the rise, the real crisis is how these issues should have been effectively addressed.

The author is director of the Institute for Development and Communication in Chandigarh.

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