Updated: October 13, 2021 2:54:18 pm
In the run-up to the 2017 Assembly elections in Punjab, an opinion poll on the suitability of AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal as Chief Minister threw up an interesting finding. The majority respondents rejected the idea for just one reason: He was not a Punjabi. His religion, they made it clear, was inconsequential.
Five years on, as Punjab braces for the 2022 Assembly elections, it’s witnessing an unusual focus on caste and religious identity after the elevation of Charanjit Singh Channi as the new Chief Minister, and the rejection of former PPCC chief Sunil Kumar Jakhar.
Ambika Soni, a veteran Congress leader, ruled out Jakhar’s name for the top post saying Punjab is the only state where a Sikh should become Chief Minister.
Many are dismayed as political strategists trot out the maths: Scheduled Castes form 32 per cent of the population, according to the 2011 census, Jat Sikhs (25%) and Hindus (38.4%) in a state that has always claimed to be different from the Hindi heartland with little impact of caste or religion on its voting patterns.
Jakhar says: “What Rahul Gandhi has done by choosing Charanjit Channi as CM is that he has broken the ‘glass ceiling’. This bold decision, though very much in sync with the ethos of Sikhism, is nevertheless a watershed moment not only for the polity but also for the social fabric of the state.”
No one knows the caste fault lines better than Bhagwant Samon, state president of Mazdoor Mukti Morcha, who routinely highlights atrocities on Scheduled Castes by landed Jat Sikhs in the Malwa region of Punjab. But he warns against reading too much into Channi’s elevation.
“It’s a political move to deflect attention from the ruling party’s failures. Yes, caste matters but we are not UP or Bihar. When it comes to polls, the lines tend to get blurred,” he said.
Traditionally, Punjab politics has been dominated by Jat Sikhs who may be numerically small in number but own over 90 per cent of the landholding in the state. Since 1966, when Punjab was carved out, all the CMs of the state have been Jat Sikhs except for Giani Zail Singh.
A former Congress minister calls the attempt to underline the new CM’s caste a bid to Mandalise state politics. Subhash Sharma, state general secretary of BJP, says the party wants political representation for people of all castes and religions according to their population, but the former Congress minister says it’s not a good debate to have for the state.
For once, arch rivals Shiromani Akali Dal and Congress are on the same page. Incidentally, after Partition, Akali leader Master Tara Singh, who was born into a Khatri family, had spearheaded the movement for the Punjabi Suba on linguistic lines.
Underlining that Punjab does not vote on religious lines, former Akali minister Maheshinder Singh Grewal, recalled how in 1997, he won the Ludhiana seat, which had 89,000 Hindu votes and only 8000 Sikh votes, with a comfortable margin.
In 2014, BJP stalwart Arun Jaitley could not win from Amritsar because the two communities did not vote along the lines of religion. While his Congress opponent Captain Amarinder Singh garnered more votes in the Hindu majority urban segments, Jaitley polled more Sikh votes in the rural segments. In 2019 too, BJP Union Minister Hardeep Puri lost to local politician Gurjeet Singh Aujla, for he was considered an outsider.
Akali leader Dr Daljeet Singh Cheema says though caste is an important consideration in matrimonial alliances – courts in the state are flooded with runaway couples from different castes seeking protection — its role in electoral politics is muted.
“We have fielded an SC candidate from Jalandhar Central for 2022 even though it’s not a reserved seat. There is no strict division of votes along the lines of caste even in panchayat and civic body elections. Since the reserved seats are very fluid, candidates are forced to muster the support of all communities,’’ Cheema says.
Sociologists say Punjabis are united by their homogeneous culture, a melting pot for unique identities. “Despite militancy, the state has never seen communal riots. Reductive though it may sound, this is also a reason why it has resisted the nationalistic Hindutva agenda, and the Bhindranwale brand of Sikhism too could not last here for very long,’’ says Pramod Kumar, a chronicler of politics and culture in the state.
Jats and SCs, he says, are united by their common challenges in an agrarian economy. Satnam Singh Pannu, founder of the Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee (KMSC) which has a separate stage at the Singhu border protest site, is a Jat but his outfit is peopled by a large number of SCs. “The kind of discrimination you see in other states is not prevalent here,’’ says Pannu, pointing out how ‘Kisan mazdoor ekta’ is the slogan common to all farm unions.
But veterans are worried that parties and political tacticians, often parachuted into the state on the eve of the polls, could deepen the caste and religious fault lines to grab votes.
Ashutosh Kumar, a political scientist, says there could be an effort to drive a wedge between Jats and the lower castes. And between Hindus and Sikhs. “By saying what was left unsaid, Ambika Soni has given a handle to the BJP,” he says.
Congressmen admit the situation needs deft handling to maintain the fine balance and prevent polarisation.
Jakhar warns that if handled in an inept or biased manner, the prevailing brotherhood and amity in the state, which has been its hallmark even in very testing times, could turn out to be fragile. “And it could shatter just as easily as a glass house,’’ he says.
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