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Land of anti-Akali wave

If a Modi wave is indeed sweeping the country, Punjab must be forbidden territory. The only wave here is threatening to sink the Akali-BJP combine.

The slogan that seems to define this general election -- Abki baar, Modi sarkar -- draws a laugh in Punjab. A list of buzzwords here would read: smack, mafia, terror, loot, goonda raj and so on.

What occupies Punjab’s mind space is not the “Gujarat model” but the alleged misdeeds of deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal and his brother-in-law and revenue minister Bikram Majithia.

Be it a taxi driver in Amritsar or a juice seller in Anandpur Sahib, a sweeper in Kapurthala or a doctor in Taran Taran, their anger at the state government seems to override all other issues. Sikh or Hindu, Jat or Dalit, rich or poor, the sentiments appear the same.

There isn’t an iota of fondness for the Congress or Rahul Gandhi, whom most people here dismiss as immature, yet they are going to be the primary beneficiaries.

Ordinarily, the Congress, which won eight of the state’s 13 Lok Sabha seats in 2009, should be facing some sort of anti-incumbency. But the people are so fed up with Akali rule that the outgoing MPs’ non-performance has receded to the background.

If the mood in the streets is any indication, the Congress should better its tally and the Akali-BJP combine should struggle in every constituency. Even the Akali leaders appear unsure of victory ---- even in Badal’s home constituency Bhatinda where Sukhbir’s wife Harsimrat is fighting a grim battle against Sukhbir’s cousin Manpreet Badal.

When Harsimrat accused Manpreet of betrayal, he retorted: “I didn’t betray anyone, I only responded to the inner voice of my conscience.”

The Akalis’ problem is, even the voter seems to be listening to an inner voice imploring him to punish the state’s ruling party.

Chief minister Parkash Singh Badal seemed to have misread the public mood when he said: “The discontent is caused by the people’s over-expectation, not the government’s failures.”

Akali leaders are holding forth on the “rampant corruption” in the central government. But the people seem more worried about the high prices of sand and gravel, the paralysing effect of drug abuse, and the ruling party leaders’ control of transport and television channels and their alleged excesses. Sukhbir and Majithia are being blamed for all the state’s problems.

Young men and women in Amritsar, Ludhiana and Jalandhar say they aren’t watching local television channels as they are controlled by the Badals.

Watching either of the state’s two main news channels for an hour would convince anyone that the Akali-BJP combine is the only player in Punjab politics. But the refrain in the villages is that these channels are “sold out”.

A Sikh shopkeeper in Behram village in the Anandpur Sahib constituency said: “The media are saying there is a Modi wave, the people are not saying so. Let’s wait for the results.”

Akali rule has earned the tag of “dhakkashahi” (government by force). Congress leaders in almost every district and block are complaining of false cases being registered against them and of pressure to shift sides.

At election meetings, Congress leaders’ speeches revolve round these “atrocities” and tales of Majithia’s exploits. They paint Modi as a Badal and Hitler clone who would destroy Punjab by instantly going to war with a nuclear-armed Pakistan.

The Akalis, on the other hand, are desperately trying to shift the focus to Modi, promising people rapid development if he becomes Prime Minister. The BJP still enjoys some goodwill but lacks the strength to change the electoral dynamics in the entire state.

Its vote share hovers around seven to eight per cent while the Akalis polled over 30 per cent the last time. The Congress has sustained its support base over the years, polling above 40 per cent in both the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections. If the Akalis’ share dips, the Congress will sweep the state.

The only concern for the Congress is the division of anti-Akali votes. The Bahujan Samaj Party regularly polls more than one lakh votes in each parliamentary seat in Punjab and the Aam Aadmi Party has entered the scene.

Although Arvind Kejriwal’s party is not expected to win seats, it can harm the Congress because secular and progressive voters are attracted to the fledgling outfit.

The Bahujan Samaj Party continues to eat into Congress votes in the Doab region, between the Beas and Sutlej rivers, whose Dalit concentration of 32 per cent is the highest in India.

Yet the Congress doubtless has its best chance in Punjab despite the Akali efforts to revive the memories of the 1984 Sikh killings and Operation Bluestar.

While big guns Amarinder Singh and Ambika Soni are placed comfortably in Amritsar and Anandpur Sahib, Pratap Singh Bajwa in Gurdaspur and Ravneet Singh Bittu in Ludhiana are fighting with gusto and hope.

Former Assembly Speaker Veer Devender Singh summed up the mood when he told a Congress rally: “Arun Jaitley is a gentleman and could have won from some other place, but he invited trouble by coming to Punjab.”

It would be a miracle if Amritsar elects Jaitley amid the discontent against the Akalis.

Punjab votes on April 30