PUNJAB: 117 seats, Congress majority
This is the victory of Amarinder Singh. Unlike state Congress bosses elsewhere, he is no non-entity, nor is he easily sidelined. The party had written him out of its script until 2 years ago, but he made a determined comeback, elbowing his way through to the PPCC presidentship after a long stand-off with the high command. Rahul Gandhi resisted naming him the Chief Minister candidate until days before the vote, and there were efforts until the end to undermine his leadership. But his goodwill with voters won the day.
Second, while Punjab clearly yearned for change, the road that the Aam Aadmi Party promised was paved with uncertainties. To voters, a tried, tested and known alternative was preferable to the lure of the unknown.
The government of Amarinder 2.0 will be different from the one in 2002-07 — the decisive victory will quell the factionalism within for at least some time, giving him a freer hand this time. He will have to deal with Navjot Singh Sidhu and his ambitions, though.
Finally, despite defeat in a battle the AAP believed was its to win, the party can take satisfaction from having become the main opposition. The relegation of the mighty Shiromani Akali Dal to third place is a huge development.
The big loser
There are three — the AAP as much as allies SAD and BJP. The AAP was billed to sweep Malwa, which has 69 seats, and with it, the state. A tally of 20 has put paid to AAP’s hopes of forming a government in a ‘full’ state.
Among voters’ concerns might have been AAP’s dalliance with radical elements — Arvind Kejriwal stayed at the house of a former Khalistani militant during the campaign, hoping clearly for the support of panthic lobbies. But for a majority of Sikhs in Punjab, perhaps even more so than for Hindus, the memory of radicalism is too recent and too painful to countenance such adventurism.
Also, a credible Sikh face might have given AAP a better shot. It worked hard to give the impression that people should vote thinking Kejriwal would be de facto CM and, in the process, created more uncertainty.
SAD president Sukhbir Badal’s “consummate” management skills failed. The party unleashed a massive number of expensive schemes in the last year of its rule, undertook big projects to win support from the 2 big Dalit blocs in Punjab, ran with the hares on panthic issues, and hunted with the hounds on security matters. In the closing days of the campaign, it even got the “enemy” of the panth, Dera Sacha Sauda, to ask Dera followers to vote for it. The move boomeranged, as SAD’s hardcore supporters were driven to AAP.
SAD’s breezy explanations to paper over problems from drugs to farm indebtedness, the conflicts of interest between Sukhbir’s role in government and his businesses, and the failure to credibly investigate incidents of desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib clearly angered voters. One of the BJP’s worst performances in Punjab owes much to its alliance with an unpopular party.
For AAP: the raging battle between its government in Delhi and the Centre is probably perceived with alarm even by those who may be sympathetic to it. Both the SAD and Congress flagged to voters the possibility of the threat to everything from credit limits and minimum support price for food procurement to defence and policing at the border should an AAP government decide to do a Delhi in Punjab.
For the Congress: A powerful and charismatic regional leader can make all the difference. Rahul Gandhi’s failure to deliver in election after election stresses the point further.
For the BJP: For reasons of its own further growth, the party is probably in a position now to consider striking out independently of its state allies — the experience with the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra could be instructive.