It’s a close call in Punjab

The post-poll surveys have indicated that the outcome of Assembly elections in Punjab will be a photo-finish between various contesting candidates and political parties, and the announcement of results on March 6 could throw up big surprises.

Ritesh K Srivastava

Throughout its history, Punjab has never voted for the same ruling dispensation consecutively. The voters in Punjab have always voted for change and the strong anti-incumbency factor has troubled the contesting parties.

Though both SAD-BJP combine and the Congress have been claiming of victory, the ground reality is that it is still unclear as to which side will get the popular mandate to rule Punjab.

What has further triggered the guessing game is the post-poll surveys conducted by various agencies regarding the electoral process, voting pattern, trends and poll swings in favour or against a particular party. While some are projecting the Congress as the winner of the assembly elections, some are also giving a thumbs-up for the Akalis, who too are in no mood to give up till the last vote is counted.

If the Akalis perform well, they will certainly set a new precedent in Punjab. But that is an ambitious target for the outgoing Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, who consciously projected himself as the CM candidate ahead of the start of the polls.

With the exit polls and post-poll surveys indicating a return of the Congress to power, and if the counting of votes also proves the same, then the most likely fallout of the electoral exercise will be the end of Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal’s long and illustrious political career.

If the post-poll surveys are to be believed, then Congress is expected to win over 60 seats paving way for Captain Amarinder Singh to become the Chief Minister again. But if the exit polls go wrong then Parkash Singh Badal, who has been chief minister of the state for four times, will get the popular mandate for the fifth time.

According to the post-poll survey conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), the SAD-BJP combine is likely to bag between 51 and 63 seats and the Congress between 48 and 60 in the 117-seat Assembly.

The CSDS survey also suggests that the vote share of the ruling alliance has also dipped by 4%. In 2007, the SAD had secured 45% of votes while the Congress got 41%. The Congress is one percentage point down.

What has further worried the Badal senior are the ground reports that the powerful religious sect Dera Sacha Sauda, that has a great hold over 65 crucial seats in Malwa, was more inclined towards the Congress this time.

In the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, the Dera had tilted in Akali Dal`s favour. The fertile Malwa belt (areas south of Sutlej river), which has 65 Assembly seats, voted in good numbers. The average voting in districts in this belt was around 80 % (79.46% exact).

Guru Har Sahai (90%), Gidderbaha (88.70), Malerkotla (87.71), Lambi (86), Rampura Phul (86), Faridkot (85), Sardulgarh (85), Sunam (85), Lehra (85), Ghanaur (85), Fazilka (85), Fatehgarh Sahib, Dakha, Bagha Purana, Dirba and Bhadaur (all 84 %), saw some of the heaviest polling in the Malwa belt.

In comparison, the Doaba (area between Sutlej and Beas rivers) and Majha belt (area north of Beas river) saw slightly lesser voting at an average of 76.44% and 72.15%. The least voting, 56 %, was in the Amritsar-west seat.
The most brutal blow, though, has come to Badal from within his family. The People’s Party of Punjab (PPP), a new party floated by his estranged nephew and former SAD leader Manpreet Singh, seems to have eaten into the vote share of both the major parties.

It is likely to bag 5% of votes. The party was expected to cause major damage to the ruling combine. However, the survey finds that its impact is limited to Jat Sikhs only.

The clean image of PPP president Manpreet Badal has clicked with the electorate and the party has been able to draw the attention of youth voters in Punjab`s hinterland and towns.

PPP had tied up with the Communist parties - CPI and CPI-M - and others like Akali Dal (Longowal) to put up a third front- which is seen as a dark horse in these elections.

The PPP is also expected to dent the support for Akali Dal`s alliance partner BJP`s vote base in urban Punjab. The BJP, though, is not speaking too much about the outcome of results. A good showing by the BJP could eventually enable SAD to continue its rule in the state. Interestingly, in the 2007 Assembly poll, the BJP had managed to win on 19 Assembly seats.

But if the BJP loses, it will certainly help Congress. Congress leaders are quite upbeat that a government led by Amarinder Singh will be in place next week itself. Importantly, the Congress had 44 legislators in the outgoing Assembly.
The survey was conducted across 45 Assembly seats in the first week of February and involved 3,250 respondents. The survey also recorded a reversal in voting pattern this time. Urban Punjab is likely to shift from the BJP to the Congress. Rural Malwa, which had voted for the Congress in 2007, is expected to back SAD this time. Rural Majha, a Congress stronghold which had shifted to SAD last time, is likely to return to the Congress. In Rural Doaba, which traditionally backs the SAD, the status quo remains.

The survey has also found that veteran Akali leader Parkash Singh Badal still remains the most preferred choice for the post of chief minister. Congress’ Amarinder Singh comes close second. However, his popularity is down by 5% this time. Thirty-eight percent of the respondents favored Parkash to lead the state and he still remains the most popular leader among women and farmers.

Respondents do not find his son Sukhbir Singh fit for the top job. While Amarinder is perceived more corrupt, Parkash is perceived more prone to nepotism.

The Congress leadership is pinning its hope on the damage caused to the SAD-BJP combine by the Manpreet Singh factor and Dera support to its candidates. However, the Congress party has a difficult task ahead given the bitter infighting and dissent over the faulty distribution of tickets combined with Amrinder Singh’s image of a less agrarian and more urbane leader.