Punjab’s electoral politics has undergone a qualitative shift. The election signalled the move away from a two-party rotational system to multi-party contests, leading to the crowding of the electoral space. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) talked about change without providing any content for it. The contest was reduced to a battle of false claims and promises and presented to the people in the heady cocktail of three Ds — deras, doles and drugs — garnished with choicest abuse. Change the present incumbents and bring us in to do the same — voters have rejected this definition of change and reposed their faith in the tried and tested Amarinder Singh. The Congress has won the Punjab assembly elections with a thumping majority and 38 per cent vote share, followed by the Akali-BJP combine with 30 per cent and the AAP with 23 per cent.
If political leaders are to be believed, elections are a matter of doling out atta-dal, utensils, smart phones, government jobs, debt relief and so on. Each party tried to outdo the other on this front and no attempt has been made to find ways to raise the purchasing capacity of the poor or understand how the pauperisation of farmers has become endemic or why the demand for drugs and alcohol multiplied amongst the youth. Deras, which have been a symbol of religious tolerance and diversity, have been used by vested interests to issue diktats to their followers to vote according to their faith rather than their conscience.
There are lessons of national significance from the Punjab polls. Punjab is one of the few platforms for the Congress to remain in circulation until the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. On the other hand, the defeat of the AAP has dashed Arvind Kejriwal’s ambition to emerge as an alternative to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. And for the Akalis, it is an early warning: They must amend their politics ideologically and organisationally to emerge as a pan-Punjab party. Further, the lesson to be learnt by political parties is that the high-command remote controls do not deliver. The Congress’s timely correction — giving autonomy to the regional leadership — led to their spectacular victory. The AAP high command took all the decisions and did not give autonomy to the local leadership. The main dictum from this election: Go back to the regions.
Another lesson is that electoral mobilisations based on catch-all categories make parties oblivious to religion, caste and class faultlines. For example, the AAP raised issues such as corruption and drug abuse and defined citizens as farmers, youth, traders etc., to co-opt them into the electoral discourse. They issued separate menu cards, or menufestos, rather than a manifesto. This undoubtedly gave them an advantage to cash in on the Akali-BJP anti-incumbency, but blurred existing faultlines.
Punjab politics can be located across three axes. The first is the stunted identity assertion ranging across religious, communal and secular Punjabi identities. The second is a unique feature of both a majoritarian arrogance and minority persecution complex in both the major communities — Hindus and Sikhs. The Sikhs are a majority in Punjab and minority in India and the Hindus are a minority in Punjab and majority in India. The third axis is the intermeshed religio-caste categories as caste is not a category in itself for electoral mobilisations in Punjab.
The faultline between the institutionalised fundamental Sikh religion and the dera has been a dominant feature of Punjab politics. The radical Sikh elements within the AAP alleged that the Akalis were responsible for patronising these deras for electoral gains. This culminated in the formation of the Sarbat Khalsa by the protagonists of a separate Sikh state and the alleged support by the AAP to this group led to the alienation of dera followers and urban, liberal Hindus and Sikhs. The move gave the AAP an advantage among the traditional Akali support base, but it alienated them from other sections of society.
Punjab needs a paradigm shift. All parties have rained sops rather than initiating a debate on policies to diversify the Punjab economy to generate employment and augment the income of the farmers, building a political consensus against drug abuse, suggesting policies for productive engagement of the youth and the empowerment of women.