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Tuesday, July 23rd, 2024

Opinion: The test of BJP contesting elections alone after 27 years, 7 reasons why Punjab is different from the politics of North

Author- Ashutosh Kumar
Arguably, all the states of the Indian Union are ‘mini-democracies’ in themselves due to their different electoral options and party systems. That is why they have emerged as the preferred analytical units for election studies. While Punjab has many similarities with other states, it also bucks the trends in many ways. This reinforces the ‘Punjab exceptionalism’ thesis. Let’s look at the reasons why it is called the most isolated state of the North. Firstly, even in the early years after independence, its party system could never be called a ‘Congress system’. In the initial years, unlike other states, the Congress always faced tough competition from the Akali Dal and the Jan Sangh in Punjab. This explains the period of coalition governments after the reorganization of the state in 1966. Second, while most states have seen the rise of the middle and lower castes in terms of political power over the last three and a half decades, Punjab is one state where, despite nearly a third of the population belonging to the Scheduled Castes, the social base of power remains numerical. Strong and land-owning Jat Sikh farmers have been in possession of the land since then. This appeared to be a failed last-ditch effort by the Congress leadership to fight anti-incumbency sentiment by appointing a Dalit chief minister months ahead of the 2022 assembly elections.

Third, like the Jana Sangh, the BJP has also not been able to register its electoral presence in the state despite its long-term alliance with the Akali Dal (1997-2021). Be it in terms of seats or percentage of votes. This is different from other states, where the BJP, finding itself weak, first formed an alliance with a locally powerful regional party as a junior ally and then became a winnable party.

Fourth, Punjab has never been influenced by the historic decisions and issues taken by the Congress and in recent years by the BJP. BJP’s efforts to contest elections on national issues like security, Article 370, citizenship, India’s high status on the global stage have not yet made much impact in the state. On the contrary, local issues have been decisive in parliamentary elections also.

Fifth, Punjab is the only state where the Aam Aadmi Party managed to open an account in the Lok Sabha. Till date, no Lok Sabha candidate from any party other than the state has been able to win. At the start of the 2014 elections, the then two-year-old party had won four out of 13 seats. It became the main opposition party in the 2017 assembly elections and then won an unprecedented 92 out of 117 seats in the 2022 elections. It is also making a strong bid in the current Lok Sabha elections.

Sixth, Punjab seems untouched by the large-scale ideological shift from centre-right to conservatism that is reflected in the rise of cultural nationalism in the plains and hilly areas of north, central and western India. This is when the Hindu population is considerable here. Despite Simranjit Singh Mann’s victory in the Sangrur Lok Sabha by-election or incidents like the Amritpal Singh episode, there are no signs of resurgence of radicalism in the Sikh community.

Seventh, unlike many states, regional parties are also not performing well here. The Akali Dal, an over 100-year-old ethno-regional party, has set the state’s political agenda since colonial days and claims to be the sole representative of the Sikh community. But he/she is in continuous decline. That too not because of BJP, but because of its own strategic mistakes and organizational/leadership issues.

Coming back to local issues. The state is dominated by a powerful farming community. The same community has the largest number of farms. But the serious crisis in the agricultural sector in post-Green Revolution Punjab is a matter of concern. Farmers have been stuck at the Singhu border for more than three months, reminiscent of the 2020 agitation against the three farm bills.

The big question is whether Punjab will remain isolated in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. After a gap of 27 years, BJP is contesting the elections alone. It will be interesting to see its performance, especially in urban constituencies like Ludhiana and Jalandhar, where the party will be contesting for the first time, and where the Hindu population is sizeable. Then, there are constituencies where the BJP has won in the past in alliance with the Akali Dal: Gurdaspur and Hoshiarpur (5 times each) and Amritsar (3 times). It will be interesting to see whether Modi’s magic finally works in the state or not.

Also, all eyes will be on the performance of the beleaguered Akali Dal as another defeat will seriously impact the leadership of the Badal family. Since there was no AAP-Congress alliance in the state, unlike Delhi and neighboring Haryana, the results will determine the hold of Bhagwant Mann, who is leading the campaign. his/her leadership skills will also be on display in keeping the flock together in the event of an electoral upset, especially when most of the top party leaders are in jail or facing trial. Similarly, in the Congress, there will be state level leaders like Raja Waring, Pratap Bajwa, Sukhjinder Randhawa, who will not only have to win their respective constituencies but also share the burden of leading the campaign, as Captain Amarinder Singh’s After joining BJP, the party does not have any leader with a statewide support base.

(Ashutosh Kumar is a professor of political science at Punjab University. The article contains his/her personal views.)

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