“WE HAVE always been Akalis, and will remain Akalis,” said a man outside a store as Congress workers streamed past for a rally that AICC vice-president Rahul Gandhi was coming to address in this village on Thursday.
Sitting next to him, his friend smiled enigmatically, before others in the group pointed to him and said: “He is a Congressman.” A young man cut in: “Let them say whatever they want. Chalna tau jhadoo hi hai (AAP’s symbol broom will hold sway).”
In Akali stalwart Parkash Singh Badal’s fiefdom, where Punjab Congress leader Amarinder Singh is taking on the Chief Minister in a contest billed as Saturday’s “mahayuddh”, this casual exchange between Lambi villagers is emblematic of the Punjab election, closely contested until the very last day.
Even a few hours before Punjab starts voting Saturday in the 117-seat Vidhan Sabha election, the race, the first three-cornered one in the state — between the SAD-BJP alliance, the Congress and new entrant AAP — is proving tough even for pollsters to predict.
Still, there are some certainties, and a few straws in the wind, from which broad trends are apparent.
Voter resentment against the ruling alliance is high and, despite every effort by SAD president and Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal to ensure a “hat trick”, their return to power for a third term seems unlikely.
Even here in Lambi, which Chief Minister Badal has nurtured over so many years, Amarinder is putting up a tough fight, and AAP’s Jarnail Singh has made inroads.
Many homes in the village are flying Congress flags. “The Akalis have destroyed my son, he is a drug addict. He will vote for Akali. But many of us women in Lambi have decided to vote for Congress,” said Sharmeet Kaur.
Her daughter-in-law is a qualified teacher, but did not get a government job. “We had to start a tuition centre at home so she wouldn’t waste her qualification,” said Sharmeet.
The easy availability of narcotic drugs, widespread addiction and unemployment have been the big issues this election. Corruption, the government’s failure to solve the incidents of desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib, a perceived breakdown of law and order, agrarian distress, and the “Badalisation” of Akali Dal have also created an anti-incumbent sentiment.
Akali insiders concede they are now fighting to avoid third place as the call for “badlav (change)” has dominated the election. The big question is which of the two other parties, Congress or AAP, would be chosen as the vehicle of this change.
The bomb explosion that killed six people at a Congress rally in Maur on Tuesday, plus the last-minute surprise from SAD-BJP in the form of support from the Dera Sacha Sauda head Gurmit Singh Ram Rahim, have made this question more fraught.
Voters are playing their cards close to the chest, indicating their preferences in guarded language. One refrain is: “Akalis and Congress candidates are both strong, and now there’s a third party as well, so let’s see what happens in the voting booth.” Congress and AAP are claiming these “silent voters” as their own.
In a part of Lambi where the saffron Akali flag is flying from every house, residents say they are SAD voters. “We wouldn’t have got so many facilities had it not been for Badal sahab,” said an old man, pointing to the concrete road, solar lights and the bench painted in the Akali yellow-and-blue that he was sitting on.
But in a surprising afterthought, he adds that AAP’s “bechara” Jarnail Singh would do the same if he was elected.
It is also clear that the “outsider” tag has failed to stick on AAP. Both Congress and SAD asked voters not to hand over Punjab to a “Haryanvi”, their description for AAP convenor Arvind Kejriwal. But despite naming no Sikh chief ministerial candidate, the party has risen to become a serious contender.
Among the young (approximately 60 per cent of the electorate is between 18 to 39 years old) and older Sikhs who say they can never vote for Congress because of 1984, among the economically weak including Dalits, and among rural voters, AAP’s promise of a just and egalitarian society has carried much resonance.
It is strongest in the 69-seat under-developed Malwa region, which includes 11 districts stretching from Ludhiana to Bathinda to Muktsar. Here, the party is giving itself 60 seats. Even the Congress’s back-of-the-envelope calculations project 25 seats for AAP, with tough fights in many others.
The Congress has a committed vote bank in Doaba, which has a large share of the state’s 32 per cent Dalit votes, and the party hopes to pull in a majority of the 23 seats here. But AAP has made massive inroads here, too.
In Phagwara, a reserved constituency, where sitting MLA Som Parkash is from BJP, and the Congress candidate Joginder Singh Mann is a strong contender, youngsters standing outside a saw mill say the vote was divided between the three parties. But demonetisation had killed the BJP’s chances, they say, and “a new party should be given a chance”.
The Congress is strongest in the 25 seat-Majha region, the centre of which is Amritsar. They hope to make at least 19 seats in this region.
In the last 48 hours, Congress insiders have veered between predictions of a hung assembly and scraping past the halfway mark, the mood swinging with the projections.
AAP has appeared more self-assured though the charge levelled by Congress and Akalis that it has courted ex-militants, in a bid to woo the panthic vote, has got some traction after the Maur blast. AAP’s “radical hug”, including an overnight stay by Kejriwal at the home of a former KCF militant, will cost it dearly, hopes Congress. It is also banking on AAP’s Hindu supporters, whose memories of Punjab militancy are fresh, to turn their back on the party.
The jury is still out on how Dera Sacha Sauda’s support to SAD-BJP will go down with voters, and who it will hurt more, the Congress or AAP. Yet, conversations with voters showed that this time, the yearning for “badlav” may trump affiliation to the dera.