Shreyans Maini
How did the Congress lose Punjab?
This article originally appeared in centreright.in. CRI content has now been subsumed in swarajyamag.com. The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of swarajyamag.com

The recently concluded assembly elections in Punjab was Congress’s election to lose and that’s exactly what happened. Let’s analyze how the electoral  trends dramatically changed in the run-up to the polls and why Congress failed to exploit the cyclical anti- incumbency which is a definining feature  of state’s electoral politics.

Not many in Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee would have believed what was flashed across all television screens on the 6th of March. Punjab is a state that has never re-elected its incumbent government since 1966 (The year Indira Gandhi led union government accepted Punjab as a Sikh province, Haryana as a Hindu province and hilly areas of erstwhile Punjab absorbed in Himachal Pradesh). Punjab Congress unit was  banking heavily and with the benefit of hindsight wisdom, rather embarrassingly, on the ‘revolving door polity’ that state’s voters have unerringly preferrred.

The state Congress unit was in fact correct in assessing the voter mindset but alas that was 7 to 8 months prior to the elections. A huge wave of anti -incumbency against the Akali Dali lead government did exist then. Allegations of high handedness, corruption and nepotism were common.  However the Congress state units committed series of huge mistakes since then:-

1.      To bank overwhelmingly on the ‘revolving door polity’

2.      Unable to decipher and respond suitably to dramatic changes in electoral arena in the last 6 months.

For serious observers of Indian politics, Punjab election results provides a textbook example of how a political formation can contain and reverse a huge undercurrent  of anti-incumbency and turnaround the elections in its favour. It could also provide a fine case study for those hoping to counter a similar natured voter class behavior encountered in the neighbouring Rajasthan.

Let us now look in depth the various factors which harmed Punjab Congress’ standing and caused its subsequent downfall.

Youth, Politics and Punjab

Punjabi youth, both in the rural areas as well as in the urban ones, suffer from the problem of rampant drug abuse. The issue is serious, more so in the rural areas than the urban. Punjab Youth Congress, under the guidance of Rahul Gandhi, started a ‘Drug Free Punjab’ initiative hoping that it will find a resonance with the Punjabi youth. Congress strategist were convinced that Rahul Gandhi, as a youth icon, is very popular in Punjab and because of the ‘Rahul Factor’, youth in Punjab showed a marked preference for Congress over Akali and its brand of religion centric politics.

Its increasingly Rahul Gandhi and political strategising is a match that is surely not made in heaven. Congress observers believe that whatever the Rahul’s right hand does right is negated by his left hand. According to these observers, Rahul Gandhi had attempted to transform Youth congress and turn it in to a democratic body. Punjab Youth Congress’ elections took place 3-4 months before the assembly elections. Not only did these elections divide the youth within the party but the effects  of factionalism were manifested holistically. Ugly scenes followed when some angry youth Congress workers held a protest in front of Punjab Congress HQ’ in Chandigarh. Protests, when done by the Punjabi youth, are usually not Annaesque in nature.

This gave Akali’s, having made a conscious attempt to shed their religious panthic agenda, an opportunity to swing the youth vote bank away from the Congress.

SGPC, October and the Jat and Dalit Sikh vote Bank

There is a gentlemen’s agreement between SGPC and Congress, “you don’t infiltrate SGPC and we will make sure that the Khalistani tendencies are kept checked.”

SGPC elections and its processes / propaganda are a different ball game all together. We are here interested in finding the effect it had on the elections to the legislative assembly.

Neither the Central Congress leadership nor the State Congress leadership was involved in the SGPC elections but the local grass root level Congress leadership was embarrassed during these elections. The local congress leadership tried to manage the politics of SGPC through backroom channels only to fall flatly on its face and how.

SAD – Sant Samaj swept the SGPC elections by winning 157 seats out of 170. Akali’s have never lost the SGPC elections, but elections this time around had far reaching consequences.

The euphoria over defeating Congress at the grass roots provided a fillip to Akali cadres. 3 months before the elections is the apt time for any incumbent government to distribute ‘grants’ for various public works. Grants were distributed in a very strategic manner.

1. Jat Vote Bank – Jat Sikh, or the rich landlord community in Punjab, is a traditional Akali vote bank. The Jat Sikh vote bank had shown signs of attrition for the last year or so and had to be re -aligned with the Akali’s. The trends seen before and after October especially for the Jat Sikh vote bank were surprising.

The first step, keeping your core vote bank intact, was achieved.

2. Dalit Vote Bank – It might come as a surprise to a lot of people but Punjab has around 30% Dalit electorate. BSP suffers from a leadership problem across the state and hence fails to galvanize the Dalit vote bank. In absence of BSP, Dalits primarily vote for the Congress. However, Sukhbir Singh Badal saw a chance (as Shamsher Singh Dullo, Congress’s Dalit face was marginalized by the party high command) and commissioned public works and ‘grants’ for Dalit localities and communities in a manner and fashion which was unprecedented.

The religious plank was thus dropped and all inclusive development was adopted as Akali’s mantra for the upcoming elections.

A maverick is born

How does one maintain a complex alliance in which rich upper caste farm lords are happy, the religious sect is backing you and the lower caste voters favor of you?

Enter Sukhbir Singh Badal.

In the UP elections Rahul Gandhi hogged the complete limelight. Only later did people realize the significance and astuteness of Akhilesh Yadav while Sukhbir seemed to have been forgotten by the media all together in January.

Sukhbir jumped into the state politics by winning the Jalalabad bye – election by a landslide 80,000 votes. Once he donned the mantle of party president, Sukhbir, a graduate from Business School in California University, took some bold and brave steps.

Assessing Akali Dal’s Political Position

Like a clever fox, he assessed the Akali’s situation 6 months prior to the elections. Sukhbir, assisted by his able coterie, strategically created a pool of 20 – 25 seats, based on past election results and the present situation. He focussed on what would eventually be the game changing seats as far as formation of government is concerned. The candidates, who were given tickets, were chosen based on not only their winnability but also on the winnability of the opponent Congress candidate. Manpreet Ayali v/s Jassi Khangura in Dakha is a fine example of political strategising. Politics driven by caste or religion took a back seat as micro-targetting based electioneering strategy became the primary focus.

‘Managing’ BSP

It was important for Akalis that BSP, which suffers from leadership crisis in the state but would be instrumental in deflecting votes away from Congress, to go into the elections without any alliance. Sukhbir made sure that BSP did the same with some voices in the political circles suggesting that he funded their entire election campaign.

The rise  and fall of PPP

14th March 2011 was an important date as far as the contemporary history of Punjab politics is concerned. Sanjha Mela, a huge festival in rural Punjab, gives a rough estimate of the current political mood of the people. It was significant as more people turned up to listen to Manpreet than to Akali’s or Congress. Manpreet Badal founded People’s Party of Punjab at Sanjha Mela among much fanfare and enthusiasm. Support from the NRI community started pouring in and trends suggested that Manpreet might eat away a significant part of the Akali vote bank. But a study of brief history of electoral politics will tell you that enthusiasm and fiery speeches hardly translate to desired results at the hustings. Sukhbir started strategically eliminating various avenues through which PPP can get funding. He crushed the anti-Akali voices within his party and anyone who joined PPP had to pay a price. Local grass root leadership which did deflect away initially was forced to come back. Once the funding was cut – off, a party structure or hierarchy became very difficult to maintain.

Sukhbir really masterminded the strategic game plan and was well aware of the pulse of the voters. I won’t be surprised if Sukhbir follows the NaMo or Nitish’s brand of politics in the long run. As far as Manpreet is concerned he did return with a 5% vote bank across the state and it would be wrong to write him off. One election is too small a data point to even gauge success of his politics.

Ticket Allotment and Rebels

If there is one thing which every Congress politician was wary off before the elections, it was the bizarre logic in which Congress high command distributes the tickets, sitting in Delhi and having only a superficial view of the proceeding. The tickets were delayed and when they finally arrived they left many observers shocked.

Congress faced the wrath of the rebel candidate in more than 20 seats. Remember in a state like Punjab, 20 seats is a decisive chunk that could determine the final outcome. Also statements like “Everyone wants a Congress candidate as Congress is going to win these elections” would not have gone down well with the rebels and their supporters. The difference between Akali and Congress was that the Akalis managed their rebels in a better way. Bains brothers from Ludhiana did hurt the Akali’s cause but Congress rebels were more irritating in the way they affected the polling.

Central Congress’ centralized way of functioning has rubbed off on their state unit which has invariably compromised the local grass root level party workers aspirations.

BJP, RSS and declining support of Dera Sacha Sauda

Dera Sacha Sauda is a Sikh religious sect which has exercised tremendous control over the voting patterns in Punjab. Off the 3 regions in the state, Malwa, Majha and Doaba, Dera Sacha Sauda has a deep network in Malwa.

But these elections clearly showed that the support for Dera Sacha Sauda is declining. Congress which had managed 37 seats in 2007 in Malwa was reduced to 32. Akali’s on the other hand who had won just 19 seats in Malwa in 2007, ensured victory in 33 seats. It was earlier said,

“The road to Chief Minister’s office is through Malwa”

But since past 2 elections Akali’s have toiled hard in Doaba and Majha to counter the significance of Malwa. It can be safely said that the effect of Dera Sacha Sauda has decreased in Punjab politics. Guru Ram Rahim’s own daughter is married to the son of Harminder Jassi, a sitting Congress legislator. Harminder Jassi, who was very unpopular among the voter class, was booted out of office.

Also the rise of BJP in the urban areas in Doaba and Majha through the support of RSS has further contributed to this cause. BJP is the junior partner in alliance but knows pretty well how to play its cards. RSS did not support Akali – BJP combine during 2002 paving way for Congress’ victory, but it seems RSS is pretty satisfied with Akali – BJP’s performance in Punjab.

Akali, predominantly a rural based political outfit, is supported ably by its ally BJP with strongholds in urban areas. It is important to understand and note that BJP’s activity and performance is guided by RSS. Any complacency in the relationship from BJP’s end or Akali’s end might throw the party back by more than 10 years.

The Future Ahead

Punjab Congress needs to assess its locus stand on a host of things regarding its functioning.

1. The first step that Congress needs to do is to make sure that the morale of the party network is restored and political activism on the grass roots continues.

2. The state unit will certainly see a leadership struggle as it has many local strong leaders without a pan – Punjab presence. Amarinder Singh failed not only to win the elections but to effectively manage many factions existent in the party had when he became the president.

3. Also the unit has to focus on the aspirations of the grass root level party worker and especially the youth brigade. Amarinder Raja Warring’s victory in Gidderbaha, which is traditionally an Akali stronghold, is a welcome step.

4. Distributing tickets along family lines has to stop and merit has to be duly rewarded.

5. The State Unit needs a new Punjabi face and a new enthusiasm to bank on. The unit has to realize that electioneering is a bottom up process and not something controlled by corporate war rooms or offices in Delhi