Delhi: It is Advantage Congress in Punjab as polling gets underway today, 30 January.
Despite caste calculations, the support of rural Jat Sikhs, the defection of Malvinder Singh (brother of former Congress Chief Minister Amarinder Singh) to the Akali Dal and the blessings of the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabhandhak Committee (SGPC), the reality is that the ruling Akali-BJP combine faces an anti-incumbency factor.
Historically, Punjabi voters have sought change every five years. Power rotates here between the Congress and the Akali Dal. In 2007, the Akali Dal was given the baton and now it appears to be the turn of the Congress. More so because there is a third political front, a breakaway faction led by a cousin of Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal — Manpreet Singh Badal, who was Finance Minister in the Akali Dal government till some time ago.
Manpreet has a clean image. A student of Doon School and later Delhi’s St Stephen College, Manpreet has rejected security cover from the state. He says he came into public life by choice and his only job is to earn the people’s trust and not their wrath. He drives his own car and has refused any VIP security cover from the Punjab government.
Manpreet Badal’s Punjab People’s Party (PPP)-led Sanjha Morcha is contesting all the 117 seats in the state. He himself is contesting from two assembly seats – Gidderbaha and Maur. His father Gurdas Singh Badal is pitted against Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal in Lambi assembly constituency. Gurdas has been credited with nurturing Lambi constituency for Prakash Singh Badal for many years. Besides, Manpreet has obtained support from the Communist parties and other fringe parties and groups, mainly located in the rural belt of the state.
Manpreet Badal’s growing popularity and his ability to mobilise huge crowds during the political campaign in the countryside has dented the Akali Dal. His Sanjha Morcha may end up winning less than 10 assembly seats, but if it dents the Akali Dal in its stronghold, the Congress will romp home.
Anti-incumbency, however, remains the dominant theme in Punjab politics. In 1967 (Punjab was carved out as a state during reorganisation in 1966), the Congress won the elections, winning 35 seats. Two years later, in 1969, the Akali Dal was voted to power (winning 43 seats). In 1972, it was the Congress (winning 65 seats); the Akali Dal returned in 1977 (winning 58 seats). The Congress came back in 1980 (winning 63 seats) but lost out to the Akali Dal (winning 73 seats) in the 1985 elections.
The Congress was back in power with a landslide victory in 1992 (winning 87 seats); the Akali Dal returned in 1997 with 75 seats. In 2002, Capt Amarinder Singh was sworn in as CM, but he too could not change the “anti-incumbency” tide and lost out to the Akali Dal in 2007.
In 2012, the scene has worsened for the Akali Dal. The father-son duo – Prakash Singh and Sukhbir Singh Badal – is facing several corruption accusations. They are accused of having built big stakes in the transport, liquor and sand mining businesses during the past five years when they ruled the state. They are accused of monopolising the state’s cable distribution network. And two weeks ago, Sukhbir Singh Badal, also known as CEO of the Punjab government, was accused of seeking a Rs 1 crore bribe from a senior IAS officer. Former State Industries Director VK Janjua filed a petition with a local court alleging that Sukhbir Badal had implicated him in a corruption case because he had refused to pay him a bribe of Rs 1 crore.
Besides Manpreet Badal, there are many others who want to settle personal scores with the father-son duo. Farmers are not happy because they appointed defeated Akali Dal leaders to head agricultural farm committees. These committees did not ensure a good deal for farm produce.
Cable operators are up in arms, because their business was snatched away by one cable company – Fastway, which has the support of father and son. The local media is miffed as the Akali Dal-supported Fastway cable blacked out some news channels which were showing anti-Akali stories. About 500 cable operators in Amritsar and Jalandhar defied Fastway and made their own satellite arrangements to show TV news channels which were blacked out.
The mood is for change in Punjab. But we will have to wait another month-and-a-half to find out.