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Explained: Punjab Congress and the caste vote

Hit by infighting ahead of Assembly elections, the Punjab Congress has appointed four working presidents, each from a different community. How have these communities voted over the years?

Written by Sanjay Kumar | New Delhi |
Updated: August 3, 2021 11:02:44 am
Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh and Navjot Singh Sidhu. (File)

The crisis within the Punjab Congress as a result of the power struggle between Chief Minister Amarinder Singh and Navjot Singh Sidhu suggests that the Congress has scored a self-goal. Even if these two leaders are able to work out a formula, supporters of these two leaders may find it difficult to work together on the ground. A four-cornered contest seems inevitable during the 2022 Assembly elections, which the Congress had a good chance of winning — until this crisis and the self-goal happened.

The Congress party’s vote share has been above 35% in all recent Assembly elections in Punjab (Table 1). It won the 2017 Assembly elections with 38.5% of the votes. During the 2022 elections, even if its vote share declines by 5-6 percentage points, it would still have about one-third of the total votes (33%), which should be enough for the party to win another election. Punjab has returned the same government only once — in 2012 when the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)-BJP was re-elected — and the Congress should have been able to repeat that feat. But to do that, it needed to put its house in order, something in which it has failed miserably.

The Expert

Sanjay Kumar is Professor and Co-Director of Lokniti, a Research Programme at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS). While his core area of research is electoral politics, he has been engaged in survey-based research on a very wide range of themes — Indian youth, state of democracy in South Asia, state of Indian farmers, slums of Delhi and electoral violence.

In view of the damage caused, the party has appointed four working presidents from different caste groups keeping an eye on the vote of these communities — Kuljit Singh Nagra from the Jat Sikh community; Sangat Singh Gilzian from the Lubana caste, representing the OBC Sikh community; Sukhwinder Singh Danny from the Dalit Sikh community; and Pawan Goel from the Hindu community. These appointments, however, may not be enough to make up for the damage done to the party by this division within.

This article makes an attempt to map the support base of the Congress among the communities from which the working presidents have been appointed.

Source: CSDS Data Unit (Table 1); Punjab Assembly Election Studies 2002, 2007, 2012 & 2017, CSDS Data Unit (Tables 2to 6)

The Jat Sikh

Jat Sikhs constitute about 20% of the total voters in Punjab; roughly 60% of Sikhs belong to the Jat Sikh community. They are not only numerically large, but also economically, socially and politically dominant.

Findings of surveys conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) indicate that Jat Sikhs have been loyal supporters of the Akali Dal. A large majority of Jat Sikhs have voted for the Akalis in various elections, except for the 2017 Assembly election when the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) made a dent among the Akalis’ Jat Sikh vote base (Table 2).

The Congress has never been popular amongst the Jat Sikhs. By appointing Nagra as one of its working presidents, the Congress is trying to mobilise the Jat Sikhs towards its fold.

Source: CSDS Data Unit (Table 1); Punjab Assembly Election Studies 2002, 2007, 2012 & 2017, CSDS Data Unit (Tables 2to 6)

The OBC Sikh

The votes of the Sikhs belonging to OBC communities have remained divided between the Congress and the Akalis. Data from CSDS surveys indicate the two parties have got an almost equal proportion of votes among voters belonging to this community, with only shades of difference (Table 3).

By appointing Gilzian who is from the Lubana caste, the Congress is making an effort to mobilise voters from the Sikh OBC community. If the Congress is able to mobilise additional votes from among the OBC Sikhs compared to what it has been able to poll in the past, this may give the party some advantage.

The Dalit factor

Dalits constitute a very large proportion of Punjab’s population — 32% as per Census 2011 estimates. Among all Dalits, one-third are Sikh. Findings of surveys indicate that the Congress has been able to mobilise the vote of Dalits — both Sikhs and Hindus (Tables 4 & 5).

However, the party is also aware that it needs to maintain its support among the Dalits if it aims to win the 2022 Assembly election. The appointment of Danny as one of the four working presidents is an effort to keep the Dalit vote within the Congress fold. If Dalits moved towards the AAP, as had happened during 2017 Assembly elections, it could damage the prospects of the Congress.

The Non-Dalit Hindu vote

Whether Dalits or non-Dalits, Hindus of Punjab have voted for the Congress in larger numbers than they have for the Akalis during the last few elections (Table 6). The entry of the AAP and the BJP, contesting separately, poses a threat to the Hindu support base of the Congress.

The appointment of Goel as one of the four working presidents is certainly an attempt by the Congress to maintain its hold over the Hindu vote, which would be crucial for the party in the 2022 Assembly elections.

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