History gives us enough evidence that any challenger eyeing India had to first conquer and pass through Punjab. For those who consider an election modern-day equivalent of warfare, Punjab still holds the same importance. The importance of this year's election in Punjab can be stated in just one line: It will separate the contenders for 2019 elections from the pretenders.
Its result will decide the destiny of two men eyeing for an opportunity to rise up and challenge the BJP in the next general election — Arvind Kejriwal and Rahul Gandhi.
Punjab is important because it is the only state out of the five going to polls between January and March where both Congress and AAP have a real chance of winning. Ten years of incumbency and the simmering anger against corruption, drug mafia and dynastic rule have put the BJP-SAD government in a tight corner. On current evidence, only a miracle arising out of a triangular contest would be able to rescue the Parkash Singh Badal and his heir apparent, the man ruling Punjab from behind the veil — his son Sukhbir Singh Badal.
For the Congress, a victory in Punjab would be the first sign of hope since it went into coma after the advent of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the scene. In 2013, since it lost Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi and Chhattisgarh, the Congress has managed to win only in Karnataka. A string of losses has put it on the verge of extinction.
But, in Punjab, the party is a strong contender, primarily because of a combination of favourable factors. That the Congress is still an acceptable option in Punjab was apparent even in 2014, when, in spite of getting wiped out across India, it managed to won three seats and nearly 34 per cent votes, almost double of its national average.
Though it has been a roller-coaster ride for the party, the Congress has managed to remain in the hunt in Punjab for two reasons: Rahul Gandhi's decision to give Captain Amarinder Singh free hand in Punjab. And, two, infighting, drama and self-goals by Kejriwal and his team. Reports from the ground indicate that the election now in Punjab is more about the Captain, than about the Congress. It is more about the question: Is Singh acceptable as Punjab Da Captain? And less about the voter's fascination, or the lack of it, with the Congress.
Yet, a victory for the Congress would reverse the trend that started with in 2012, give Gandhi the first taste of success in almost five years and give the party some momentum before the next round of polls, first in Gujarat and then the cow belt in 2018.
The biggest gain, of course, for the Congress would be Kejriwal's defeat, effectively ending the Delhi chief minister's plan to venture out of Delhi and acquire a national image for himself. For the past few months, Kejriwal has been trying to emerge as the second party in states where the Congress has had a strong presence. More than the BJP, the Congress has been under existential threat because of AAP's efforts to occupy the anti-BJP space in central and north India. A loss in Punjab, would effectively cut Kejriwal mid-flight and give Congress the opportunity to challenge the BJP in Gujarat, Rajasthan, MP and Chhattisgarh.
In all likelihood, the Congress will enter the poll fray in Uttar Pradesh riding pillion on Akhilesh Yadav's motorcycle — the likely symbol if cycle is frozen. For it, the best outcome of the election would be a victory in Punjab and an alliance government in UP. That would give it respite and time to regroup.
For Kejriwal, who appeared the front-runner in Punjab till recently, the election is the defining moment of the short but tumultuous life. When he contested elections in Delhi, he was seen as an outsider who wanted to disrupt the existing system. Even if he would have failed to win in Delhi, he would have got more chances to prove his acceptability.
But, in Punjab, where his party bagged four seats in the 2014 polls and nearly 30 percent vote share, he has always been seen as the top contender. Last year, when the three political parties organised rallies at the Maghi Mela, his tent held the biggest gathering, pointing at the popular mood.
Since then Kejriwal has been through a bumpy ride. The rise of Amarinder Singh, the fracas with Sucha Singh Chhotepur, the inept handling of the Navjot Singh Sidhu episode — who was left out in the cold after quitting the BJP — and the growing perception of AAP being a party without a Sikh face have set its campaign back. Though Kejriwal claims his party would win 100 out of the 117 seats in the Assembly, his claim appears more talk than substance.
Punjab will decide Kejriwal's future. Apart from the opportunity to follow his pan-India dreams, a victory would also give AAP the chance to rule a full-fledged state, where his powers would not be curtailed by some other constitutional authority, like the L-G in Delhi. But a loss would most likely confine him to Delhi, like a caged parrot.
Perhaps the only party that may not be too worried about the outcome in Punjab is the BJP. With UP going to polls simultaneously, it would distance itself from Punjab and leave it to the Badals, a strategy that suits it by projecting the battle between SAD and its regional rivals. For the SAD, battling a decade of anti-incumbency and Supreme Court's recent ban on using religion as a poll pitch--it affects the Akali panthic agenda — would be a huge challenge. In 2012, it had managed to win primarily because Badal's nephew Manpreet divided the anti-incumbency vote. Only an encore this year because of a poll triangle can save it.
Modi would lose sleep only if he loses UP and the SAD-BJP gets alliance wiped out in Punjab. But, he would still be around in 2019 as the giant to beat. But, for Gandhi and Kejriwal, a loss could be mean the end of road to Delhi.
Updated Date: Jan 04, 2017 15:33 PM