Punjab Election 2017: Five key questions that could redefine the politics of North India

The number five is inseparable from Punjab. It is the land of five rivers, panj pyaras and the five Ks — kangha, kada, kirpan, kesh and kachcha — of Sikhism.

In characteristic fashion, this election, after voting is completed on 4 February, Punjabis will answer five questions that may redefine the politics of North India.

And those are as follows:

One, will the Congress make a comeback?

What looked inevitable once is now an uncertainty. Such is Punjab's politics that the Congress and the Akali Dal have taken turns to rule the state a=every five years. The only exception was 2012 when the Akali-BJP combine bucked anti-incumbency and retained power. But, this was primarily because the anti-government vote got bifurcated because of Manpreet Badal's fledgling party.

This year the Badals are facing a severe backlash because of charges of corruption, incidents of desecration of the holy book and a rampant drug culture. But, to the misfortune of the Congress, the AAP has made most of this anger and pitted itself as the principal Opposition.

The Congress could still win the election because it has a set of committed voters across Punjab and a popular chief ministerial face in Captain Amarinder Singh. But, the AAP has caught the voter's fancy, especially the youth, Dalits and radical Sikhs making life difficult for the Congress.

A victory for the Congress, the first in two years, would boost the morale of the cadre, help Rahul Gandhi took over as party president on a high note and position it as the principal Opposition to the BJP in North India. A loss could be set it back by a few more years.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

Two, will AAP grow out of Delhi?

Jhadoo is all over Punjab. In Malwa, it is likely to sweep polls. Across the state, the catchy tune of 'Hogi Congress di chhutti, Akaliyan ne khoob Punjab nu luti, Janata jaag gayee ab sooti" is setting the tone of the election not being an ordinary poll but the revenge of the people.  The key question is, can the AAP convert this into victory?

It is evident that the underclass, youth and radical Sikh voters want to vote for the AAP. The popular refrain is that everyone has multiple chances to rule Punjab. So, there is no harm in giving an opportunity to Arvind Kejriwal and his band of mavericks.

The AAPs problem is that while it is strong in Malwa — 14 districts with 69 seats, it is almost absent in Majha and an also-ran in Doaba, the other two regions with a combined 48 seats. To win Punjab, AAP needs to sweep Malwa and then add a few more seats to its kitty from the other two regions. Mathematically, this looks viable. But, with the Congress giving a tough fight, this election won't be over till the last vote is counted.

Three, will the Punjabis accept an outsider as chief minister?

There is no doubt in anybody's mind that Kejriwal is extremely popular in Punjab. Voters see him as a disruptive force, even a necessary evil, to clean up the mess in the state. But, will they accept him as their chief minister?

Opinion is divided. Some experts believe that the AAP would have done better by being brave enough to name Kejriwal as the chief ministerial candidate. Others argue it would have been disastrous. Many voters to whom Firstpost spoke said it wasn't really an issue; the only thing they want is a clean, honest government that puts Punjab back on the track.

If the AAP wins, the consensus is that either Kejriwal will become the chief minister for six months and, if everything goes well, contest a by-election. But, if he senses opposition to the move, Kejriwal may ask a Sikh leader to take up the responsibility. In that case, lawyer and human rights activist HS Phoolka might just be the dark horse.

Four, has demonetisation succeeded?

The defining image of this election is that of Anil Joshi, the BJP candidate from Amritsar and an incumbent minister, pleading with voters to not punish him for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's decision to outlaw currency notes of higher denominations. That image gives clear insights into the minds of Punjabi voters.

The BJP has, surprisingly, not played up the ''surgical strikes" and demonetisation at all during the campaign. The reason is that feedback from the ground indicated a severe backlash, especially among traders who are now rooting for the Congress. Instead, the BJP attacked outsiders for "maligning the image of the state" and showing disrespect to a senior leader like Parkash Singh Badal.

As a junior coalition partner of the ruling alliance, the BJP is contesting 23 seats in Punjab, most of them in urban areas. Its performance would be a key indicator of the prime minister's popularity and popular reaction to notebandi.

Five, who will challenge Modi in North India?

Punjab has always been a gateway to North India. Historically, invaders who managed to win key battles in Punjab went on to challenge the throne in Delhi. This year isn't different.

A victory for the AAP will position it as a key player in North Indian politics. Kejriwal and his team are already busy challenging the Gujarat government. A victory in Punjab may help it make inroads in Rajasthan, which has several constituencies with a large number of Punjabi voters in the north. Haryana may also feel the impact of the results and may be forced to look at AAP with renewed interest.

If the Congress wins, it will get renewed strength to stave off Kejriwal's challenge in these states and position itself as the main contender to Modi's throne in 2019.

Over to the land of  five questions then.

Updated Date: Feb 05, 2017 10:40 AM

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