Campaigning Ends, Punjab Voters Wait Their Turn. Will the Silent Ones Hold the Key?
AAP meanwhile will come to power only if it manages to snatch away significant chunks from both the SAD-BJP and the Congress.
A file image
Ever since Punjab separated from Haryana in 1966 the state government has alternated between the Indian National Congress and the Shiromani Akali Dal (later Shiromani Akali Dal - BJP). This, of course, is barring President’s rule off and on in a state that remained troubled and in the grip of a separatist extremist movement for years.
It was a pattern that began to be taken for granted. Until it was broken in 2012, when to everyone's surprise the SAD-BJP returned to power for a second term.
The SAD-BJP combine aware of the pattern knew they had to work really hard during the run up to the elections to be elected. The Congress however took it easy. They knew that at some point Punjab would get tired of the SAD-BJP paving the way for their return.
This similarity of perception and also behavior appropriate to the perception, cost Congress its chance in 2012, despite polling more votes in its favor than the SAD.
Flash forward to 2017. Out of power for 10 years now, the Congress once again seems to be sure of an easy victory. In power for 10 years and with a slew of charges ranging from nepotism, to not doing enough to curb drug networks, to the systematic abuse of power and serious conflicts of interest with the state administration, the SAD-BJP faces strong anti-incumbency.
This should have been a cakewalk election for the Congress despite its divided house and top leadership squabbling with each other.
2014, however, brought a new twist in the tale. The newly formed Aam Aadmi Party launched on 26 November 2012 had won its four Lok Sabha seats from Punjab in spite of polling barely 2 per cent of the votes nationally. This was a time when AAP was not yet a majority government in Delhi. A year later, in February 2015, it won 67 of 70 seats.
Punjab, however, was ready to experiment. The state has been known to be a land of early adopters, risk takers, quick to love and even faster to hate. The victory was a signal to the AAP. Punjab was a land it could build its fortunes. Much to the worry of both the Congress and the SAD-BJP, the new party had eaten significantly into their shares, showing a marked preference to diminish the Akali pie.
AAP has fielded candidates in all 117 assembly constituencies in Punjab. These are candidates who for the most part are unknown. This perhaps is their advantage. Voters are not thinking for the candidate, but are thinking about the party. 'Change', 'jhadoo', ‘badlav’, ‘trial’ is all that matters to them. The right to punish option had only two variables earlier. Now, it has a third option.
Punjab's journey to the polling booth has been an uncertain roller coaster ride. It started with the AAP on a high in early 2016 when it was the only party of the three to initiate its campaign. Congress brought in Prashant Kishore’s IPAC and big data to support its political campaign with systems and statistics. The SAD-BJP began its own exercise to replace candidates and reduce anti-incumbency as far as it could, even as it launched a blitzkrieg of showcase projects from famous Sikh heritage sites, to the Golden Temple complex.
AAP soon suffered setbacks with internal cracks becoming apparent and leaders leaving the party or getting sidelined. The Congress continued its confused march without announcing a chief ministerial candidate and also went slow with the ticket distribution.
The Akali Dal faced mounting criticism over drug penetration in Punjab. AAP was criticised in one voice by both the Congress and the Akali Dal for cosying up to radicals and extremists.
A blast in Maur Mandi that killed six and injured a dozen was attributed to AAP's policies by both Sukhbir Badal and Amarinder Singh. Badal in turn was called a hardened criminal by Kejriwal. Navjot Sidhu entered the fray and said he was promised four years of chief ministership by AAP with a caveat that the first yeare would be under Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal.
Stand up comedian turned politician Bhagwant Mann who harbours CM dreams insisted that AAP's CM candidate would be from Punjab. The Dera Sacha Sauda that commands sizeable following in the all crucial Malwa then swung in to support the SAD-BJP combine.
Rahul Gandhi made sure that Congress should be seen cosying up to powerful Deras and made evening visits to both the Dera Beas near Amritsar and Dera Ballan near Jalandhar.
While the winds of change may be blowing strong across Punjab, it is this huge interplay of variables that makes prediction difficult. The permutations and possible combinations have increased substantially because instead of the traditional two, there are now three major parties in the fray. SAD-BJP’s biggest challenge continues to be anti-incumbency. The probability of a hat-trick is quite low.
The Congress has to earn its victory from a voter base that has been fragmented by AAP. AAP meanwhile will come to power only if it manages to snatch away significant chunks from both the SAD-BJP and the Congress.
In almost all villages of Punjab, for every few shouting party slogans at the top of their voices, there are many more silently watching the proceedings from the sidelines.
It is this silent voter, who perhaps holds the key.
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