The battle for votes in Punjab

With parliamentary polls approaching fast, the political scene is getting hotter by the day in Punjab, like in other parts of the country.

Deepak Nagpal

With parliamentary polls approaching fast, the political scene is getting hotter by the day in Punjab, like in other parts of the country. Accusations are being levelled at each other by traditional rivals– the BJP-SAD combine and the Congress. Amidst all this, voters seem to be worried about one aspect: whether the upcoming elections would bring any real change in the governance. For them, the issues that affect the masses have gained prime importance than who is actually at the helm of power.

Punjab is currently ruled by the BJP-SAD alliance (two constituents of the NDA), while the Centre is with the rival Congress-led UPA. So a political ‘war of words’ is already underway for the agriculture-dominated state’s 13 Lok Sabha seats.

Having been aware that they have been in power for over two years now in the state and the victory margin in the 2007 Assembly polls was not landslide, the BJP-SAD alliance is battling to tackle the growing anti-incumbency. And their main poll plank in the elections is development.

Recent Assembly Elections, especially in J&K and Delhi, have amply made it clear to the political parties – regional or national that the Indian electorate is changing. For the voters, issues like caste, reservations have taken a backseat. What they want is development – good roads, proper housing, clean drinking water, affordable irrigation facilities, electricity for their homes as well as for their agriculture needs, sanitation, clean, pollution-free air, employment opportunities, security etc.

No wonder the BJP-SAD are knocking at the doors of the voters with such promises. Apart from these, regularization of illegal colonies, relaxation of anti-pollution norms for industries, sops for BPL families etc are also among the promises being made by the two parties.

For Congress, issues like the Dera Sacha Sauda crisis – which deeply hurt the social fabric of the society, corruption, power shortage, crisis-hit industry and farm sector, vendetta against the Opposition etc are the main poll planks. But the party, as always, is also battling infighting between the two camps of two former CMs – Amarinder Singh and Rajinder Kaur Bhattal.


The Congress, which is the leading Opposition party in the state, is banking on the anti-incumbency wave against the state government. The party is confident of winning at least 10 of the 13 seats, compared to the BJP-SAD combine’s hopes of taking away all.

Former Chief Minister Amarinder Singh says people have already started drawing comparison between the BJP-SAD alliance and the Congress government, unhappy over the misgovernance of the former.

The ruling Badal family has always faced allegations of corruption whenever they have been in power. The Opposition has accused them of amassing personal wealth. The Punjab CM and his family members, including his wife Surinder Kaur and son Sukhbir Badal, are currently facing a charge of owning assets disproportionate to their known sources of income. Two of the cases have already reached ‘trial’ stage.

Hitting at the BJP-SAD state government and accusing it of being involved in “rampant corruption”, the Congress has demanded to know from Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Badal, as to from where they are getting the money to start and implement the projects they have either announced or claimed to have launched just ahead of the Lok Sabha polls.

Despite making corruption an issue, the Congress knows that it is walking a tight rope as Captain Amarinder Singh, the chairman of campaign committee of PPCC, is himself facing a number of graft charges. In fact, in an unprecedented action, the Punjab Assembly had last September expelled him from the House after he was indicted in a corruption case. Amarinder is also an accused in the multi-crore Ludhiana City Centre scam.

Sutlej-Yamuna water dispute

The dispute over the distribution of water from the Sutlej and Yamuna rivers has also become a prominent issue in the politics of Punjab. Six North Indian states – Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Delhi, Rajasthan, and Jammu and Kashmir, apart from Punjab – have been at loggerheads over sharing of the Sutlej and Yamuna waters, and the issue – hanging fire since July 2004 – is currently in the Supreme Court.

The controversy began on July 12, 2004 when the Congress government in Punjab enacted the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act, 2004 and unilaterally terminated its agreement on water sharing with five neighbouring states.

The then Chief Minister Amarinder Singh said the terms of the 1981 agreement had "become onerous, unfair, unreasonable and contrary to the interests of the inhabitants of Ravi-Beas basin, who have lawful rights to utilise the water of the two rivers. Even though Haryana and Rajasthan are neither riparian nor basin states, they have continued to utilise Ravi-Beas waters."

While the decision was welcomed within the state it expectedly drew flak from the neighbouring states. The matter was transferred to the apex court within days by the then President APJ Abdul Kalam, following intense quarrelling between the six states.

The NDA has promised to the electorate that if it is voted to power at the Centre, it would find a permanent solution to the row.

Dera row

Another issue – a highly emotive one – that might decide who wins in Punjab is the Dera Sacha Sauda row, and the parties’ respective stand on it. The Dera chief Baba Ram Rahim, or Gurmeet Singh, was in May 2007 accused of insulting the Sikh religion after he "appeared in an advert in which Sikhs said he was made to look like the last Sikh Guru, Gobind Singh." This row had turned into a major law-and-order problem not just in Punjab but across North India, with sectarian clashes erupting between Dera followers and several Sikh groups.

The Dera later regretted the events and apologised “for the misunderstanding". The Akal Takht however didn’t accept the apology. The controversy proved to be a Pandora’s Box for the Dera chief who then faced arrest warrant and allegations of rape and murder, including of a journalist.

The Sikh population in Punjab consists of nearly 25% Dalits – the main followers of the Dera and a sizeable constituent of the electorate in the state. The Congress is hopeful that the way BJP-SAD government handled the issue in Punjab, it would surely earn the support of a large chunk of Dera followers, apart from those who come from the upper strata of the society.

1984 riots

The CBI’s move to give a clean chit to Congress leader Jagdish Tytler has reignited the issue of 1984 anti-Sikh riots. The move led to widespread protests, including the hurling of shoe by a Sikh journalist at Home Minister P Chidambaram.

Worried at the prospects of losing voter base in Sikh-dominated Punjab and Delhi, Congress decided to withdraw the candidature of both Tytler and Sajjan Kumar, another accused in the riots case, from two constituencies in the national capital. However, the damage seems to have been done. The memories of the 1984 riots has come back to haunt the Sikhs, who have been trying hard to forget the ‘genocide’, especially in the wake of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh – himself a Sikh – apologising on behalf of the Congress for the riots. If Congress suffers a significant drop in its vote share, it surely wouldn’t come as a big surprise.

Agriculture crisis

Punjab is known as the ‘granary of India’. The state produces 22 percent wheat, 12 percent rice and 13 percent cotton of the country’s total, but despite these figures, the agriculture sector in the state is in serious crisis. According to Punjab Agriculture University Vice-Chancellor MS Kang, the growing crisis has pushed 90 percent farm households under debt almost to the tune of Rs 26,000 crore.

In Punjab, which has less than two percent of the country’s total cultivable land, farm production has reached optimum level. The crisis has surfaced because of an unequal rise in the Central Minimum Support Price and the prices of inputs, triggering a downfall in the farm income per hectare. Further, the growth rate of agriculture in the state, registered at 10 percent in 1980s, has now plunged to a mere 1.2 percent, according to Kang.

The policymakers will have to take immediate steps to revamp the sagging farming sector in the state. This crisis presents an opportunity to the political parties to come up with pro-agri policies and win the support of the voters.

Further, the Central UPA government’s agriculture debt waiver scheme – on which the Congress is banking upon – is reported to have helped the distressed farmers in Punjab little with fresh loans as just seven percent of them have got new advances from banks in the state.

In a clear bid to win support ahead of the polls, the Punjab government in early March announced that it would provide financial assistance to the tune of Rs 2 lakh each to the families of farmers and farm labour who committed suicide on account of farm indebtedness, with retrospective effect from the year 2000.

Power trouble

Electricity crisis has always plagued Punjab and been an issue in almost all elections. This time around too, it will play a crucial role in deciding the fortunes of the various political parties based on their promises.

Recently, "power-deficient" Punjab – which usually faces nearly five to eight hours of power cut daily – has started receiving round-the-clock power supply, as claimed by the state government. The reason being given is that the power situation has improved because the demand for power supply in agriculture had nosedived.

Punjab needs 1,036 lakh units of electricity every month, but falls short of about 500 lakh units. In order to meet the shortfall, it purchases around 350 lakh units every month at a high price.

But the farmers – the main constituents of the electorate in the state – must be keeping an eye on the political parties’ manifestos to find out as to who will offer them better MSPs, free/highly subsidised power for agriculture purposes etc. This is an issue which always remains ‘active’ in Punjab politics.

Dwindling fiscal health

The once-rich Indian state has come in for criticism from the Comptroller and Auditor General of India for its "precarious" and "worsening" fiscal position. In its report tabled recently, the CAG said that Punjab’s fiscal deficit jumped to Rs 4,604 crore in 2007-08 against Rs 612 crore a year ago period while its revenue receipts fell by 6.46 percent and expenditure soared by 24 percent.

The dwindling fiscal situation is mainly on account of the sops being doled out to farmers in the form of higher MSPs, the subsidises/free power bill etc.

The BSP factor

Mayawati, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh and the supremo of Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), is fast emerging as a national leader. With her party fast gaining footprint across the nation, especially among the dalit population, she is becoming a force to reckon with.

In the last elections, the BSP managed to garner 5% votes in the state and it is hoping to better its tally this time around, taking its total vote share to a minimum 7%. If the aim of winning at least one to two seats gets fulfilled, it will badly hit the plans of both the BJP-SAD as well as the Congress.

Miscellaneous issues

The word Chandigarh, to an ordinary Indian, means a beautiful, well-planned city. It is a Union Territory, and the capital of Haryana and Punjab. However, the city now seems to be becoming a bone of contention between the two states.

Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal recently called on the Centre to transfer the UT and Punjabi-speaking areas in neighbouring Haryana to the border state. “Chandigarh which was built as the Capital of Punjab must be transferred to the parent state along with the other Punjabi speaking areas,” he demanded.


The rising immigration, especially of labourers, from states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar has also become a cause of concern in Punjab. A sizeable population of the state now consists of migrants from these states. The native Sikhs are worried that if the trend – fuelled by less employment opportunities in the respective states – continues they will soon turn into a minority in their own state. So the party taking a tough stand against the problem is sure to garner some extra votes here.

French turban

Another emotive issue at which Punjab voters might look at in deciding who rules at the Centre is the ‘turban ban in France’. The Punjab Assembly recently approved a resolution seeking withdrawal of a ban on turbans in France. It has also asked the Central government to take up the issue with French authorities. So the BJP and Congress’ stand on the issue would prove to be a crucial one in sealing their fate in the state.

The Sikh religion requires followers to grow their hair and wear a turban, while children must wear traditional Sikh headgear called the "patka" or "dastaar" in school. France however banned wearing turbans and Muslim headscarves in its public schools in 2004. Sikhs living there and in India say the ban denies them religious freedom.


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