Ritesh K Srivastava
Traditionally, Punjab has been a state which has always believed in ‘change’ and that is why it never voted any incumbent government back to power in the last four decades. This has been so because of popular perception that the engine of growth retards if the incumbent sides retains power for two consecutive terms.
However, this time nearly 1.76 crore votes of Punjab changed the general hypothesis that one ruling party or alliance never returns to power in the next elections. Looking at it that way, the Shiromani Akali Dal led by Parkash Singh Badal has surely created history by getting the popular mandate to rule the state for a second consecutive term stunning the main opposition Congress in the closely fought elections.
Surprisingly, the combine also managed to bag the same number of seats it had got in the 2007 Assembly polls - 68. While, the Akalis managed to take their tally forward from 49 seats in 2007 to 56 this time, alliance partner BJP's tally came down - from 19 seats to just 12 this time.
The unprecedented outcome of the electoral exercise has given a new lease of life to Badal senior, who faced his toughest political test as he was pitted against his own younger brother, Gurdas Badal, 81, of PPP and cousin Mahesh Inder Singh Badal of Congress in a bitter triangular contest for Lambi seat in southwest Punjab.
However, the veteran politician proved his opponents wrong by steering SAD - the party considered by most as traditional and sticking to orthodox and conventional norms- to victory.
The Akalis' victory is mainly attributed to the party's focus on development- a fact even endorsed by Badal in his quick reaction to media after the alliance attained a comfortable majority in the 117-seat assembly- and possibly the Anna Hazare factor.
Badal and his son, Sukhbir, have emerged unscathed by a toxic falling out with a section of their family. The fledgling People’s Party of Punjab (PPP) floated by Badal’s estranged nephew Manpreet Singh Badal, 49, was expected to cause a big dent to the SAD-BJP vote and emerge as the dark horse, but failed badly.
Former Finance Minister Manpreet’s attempt to provide a credible third alternative received a jolt with his PPP drawing a blank.
Manpreet and his father, Gurdas, who is the chief minister's younger brother, formed a third front or the (Sanjha Morcha) which included the PPP, the CPI and CPM, aiming to provide a third alternative to the voters in Punjab. Ironically, Manpreet’s PPP could manage to secure only 6% of the total vote share. He himself lost both Maur and Gidderbaha seats that he was fighting for.
Another important factor of the Akalis resurgence story has been that the Badals' appeal was also unaffected by the influential religious sect Dera Sacha Sauda- the biggest religious sect- lending its support to the Congress.
Deras or the religious sects are crucial since they have a massive following and have the potential to divert a large chunk of votes in favour of their preferred candidates or alliance.
Badals had their reasons to worry when the ground reports claimed that that the Dera Sacha Sauda chief Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim, who has a massive following in the Malwa region, was more inclined towards the Congress this time. Even then, Congress failed to mobilise the Deras’ support in dislodging the SAD-BJP government.
When the campaigning started, the popular perception was against the ruling side since a lot of BJP ministers were under scanner over corruption charges. This encouraged the Congress leadership to claim that “poor performance and high-handedness” of the Akali-BJP regime will tilt the public sentiment in favour of the grand old party.
So it was not surprising that BJP could not put up a good show in Punjab this time, bagging just got 12 seats, which is seven less than what they won in 2007. But despite all odds, the Akalis sailed through and did not allow their partner to become a liability. Despite Punjab's unwavering tradition of voting out whoever is in power, the Akalis were confident that they would break the jinx.
Not to be outdone, this victory also means a lot for the 49-year-old SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal, as the results will set the stage for him to be the next chief minister whenever the senior Badal decides to hang his boots.
The alliance sweeping majority also proves volumes about his leadership skills and the people’s acceptance of the Akali government’s ‘Development for All’ agenda. That’s the reason why Badal Senior gave the credit for the alliance victory to his son, who succeeded his father as party President in January 2008 and became deputy Chief Minister a year later.
Badal had unilaterally in January 2009 announced that Sukhbir would become Deputy CM Minister taking the alliance partner BJP in the state by surprise. But the veteran politician took the senior leadership of the saffron party into confidence to make it a smooth sailing for his only son.
Another highlight of the Akalis victory has been that the SAD succeeded in shedding the tag of being the party of Sikhs, associated with peasantry. The victory of seven Hindu candidates on SAD ticket is a firm pointer to this assertion that the party is changing, it is evolving and that SAD is no longer a mouthpiece of Sikhs only or a particular caste or religion.
This change in the party has got wide acceptance from the electorate, who have returned these Hindu leaders victorious. This change of tag will help the party in the long run and increase its reach among the urban voters.
By securing the popular mandate, the Akalis have shown that they have successfully overcome tough challenges (anti-incumbency, Congress, PPP, infighting) thrown at them. This also implies that the father-son duo will have ample time to strengthen the organisational network of the party and shift focus on the General Election in 2014- to be a major player at the Centre.
The significance of the impressive Akali-BJP victory is that Badals continue to be the major political force in the state, and even serious charges of corruption against their government have not eroded their popularity.
Despite an overwhelming victory, the SAD-BJP leadership has a difficult task ahead. Apart from fighting the incumbency factor, the SAD-BJP coalition will have to correct its graft-tainted image by providing an accountable and growth-oriented governance.
If it has to dash the hopes of Congress by sweeping the 2014 General Elections, it will have to ensure that the promises it made in its election manifesto ‘Development for All’ is fulfilled at any cost. Farmers form a big chunk of vote-bank in Punjab. Any party that wishes to win polls in the state cannot afford to ignore the farmers. Punjab was a large beneficiary of India's Green Revolution in the 1950s when the government provided massive subsidies, electricity to farmers in the state. However, this time around, the farmers appear to be not too happy with the ruling Akali Dal-BJP combine.
Besides dealing with the problem of rising unemployment and economic stagnation, the SAD-BJP government will have to fix the infrastructural bottlenecks and sloppy implementation of social schemes.
The SAD-BJP’s victory has proven that the voting pattern has changed and the that electoral politics in Punjab had shifted it focus from factors like caste, religion, and quota – issues which play an important role in bigger states like the Uttar Pradesh.