Close race for Badal & rival

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By ARCHIS MOHAN
  • Published 31.01.12
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Chandigarh, Jan. 29: What had looked to be a cakewalk for the Congress may yet turn out to be a photo finish.

Urban and rural voters in Punjab agree that chief minister Parkash Singh Badal’s Shiromani Akali Dal and its partner BJP have done well on the development front, perhaps one reason behind the missing anti-incumbency factor against the ruling coalition.

But the Akalis are also worried. Punjab has never voted a government back to power since it was created as a Sikh-majority state in 1966.

Not everybody, particularly older generation Jat Sikhs, is convinced that Badal’s son, deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal, is ready to take over the crown from his father, who is past 80.

“The Akalis have done well. As for corruption, who isn’t corrupt? Is the Congress any better? But it might get to Sukhbir’s head if he wins,” says Karnail Singh, a farmer near Amritsar.

It’s a sentiment that finds echo among elders of the Jat Sikh community across Punjab, betraying their disappointment with Sukhbir for not having genuflected enough at their doorstep.

Analysts saw in this the merest hint of a possible tilt towards the “Maharaja”, as the Congress’s chief ministerial candidate, Amarinder Singh, the scion of the Patiala royal family, is known as.

The Election Commission’s preliminary estimates put the voting percentage in Punjab at 77 per cent. If the figure does not come down in the final tabulation, the turnout will be the highest that Punjab has ever polled in the Assembly elections held since the state’s reorganisation in 1966.

Huge turnouts are usually associated with votes for change, something that should worry the ruling SAD-BJP combine. The 2007 election, which clocked the previous highest turnout, saw the ouster of the Amarinder Singh-led Congress government.

In Punjab, there has been little difference between the Congress and the Akalis. Several past and current Congress leaders, including former chief ministers Pratap Singh Kairon and Amarinder, have all been former Akalis. Amarinder was in the Akali Dal from 1984 to 1998.

“It is a culture where the elder brother will wear a white pagri to signify his loyalty to the Congress and the younger brother a deep blue pagri that all Akalis wear. It isn’t uncommon to find pagris having changed colours,” says Pramod Kumar of the Chandigarh-based Institute for Development Communications.

It is this composite political culture of Punjab that its 21 per cent Jat Sikhs control by virtue of being the biggest landowners across the state.

The Badals and Amarinder are Jat Sikhs, as are most top leaders of the two parties.

This is also why much of Punjab disapproved when Amarinder had the Badals arrested for alleged corruption after becoming chief minister in 2002.

Wisely, the Badals resisted the temptation for revenge when they regained power in 2007.

“Chitte bagule, neele more, ye bhi chor toh voh bhi chor, ” is a saying from the 1970s that is still popular in rural Punjab. In English, it translates as both white storks (Congress) and blue peacocks (Akalis) are thieves.

That the Congress is nervous is betrayed by its recent populist promise of providing cable subscriptions at Rs 100 and flour to all at Re 1 a kilo.

The promised diktat from the Dera Sacha Sauda sect, which commands influence among the state’s sizeable 28 per cent Scheduled Castes, has not yet materialised in favour of the Congress.

In 2007, Dera leader Baba Gurmeet Singh Ram Rahim had asked his followers to vote for the Congress. Singh’s followers number a crucial 5,000 to 20,000 in nearly 40 constituencies across Punjab’s Malwa region, which sends 65 members to the 117-strong Assembly.

The other two regions, Doaba and Majha, account for 25 and 27 legislators.

In the last elections, the Congress won 37 of the 65 seats in the Malwa region, thanks to Singh’s support, but the BJP performed exceedingly well in urban areas, winning 19 of the 23 seats it contested. The Akali Dal swept Doaba and Majha.

“What followed the Baba’s diktat has taught him to be more cautious this time,” says Kumar of the Institute for Development Communications.

Singh’s followers were attacked when he dressed up like Guru Gobind Singh. It is likely that the vote of his followers may get divided this time.

Mayawati’s BSP is not an electoral force in Punjab. But in 2007, its vote share in 16 constituencies was more than the margin by which the Congress lost these seats. It may hurt the Congress this time too.

However, the BJP, which has again fielded 23 candidates, is unlikely to repeat its 2007 performance.

How the party fares may make the difference between who forms the next government.