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As Punjab votes today,Cong gains upper hand

As Punjab goes to polls,it has been a campaign of many firsts

As Punjab goes to polls on Monday,it has been a campaign of many firsts. In a rare departure from tradition,the Congress has declared its chief ministerial candidate before hand. Its main rival,the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) has put its traditional panthic (religious) agenda in the back seat. And a third front led by People’s Party of Punjab (PPP) may influence voting pattern in what has been a straight revolving door contest in the state so far.

The presence of BSP candidates in all the 117 constituencies and a significant rebel factor in at least 45 constituencies is also likely to influence results. Significantly,the rebels,considered to be a barometer of the party likely to win the polls,belong to both the main rivals. While the Congress has about 20 influential rebels contesting against the official candidates,the SAD has about eight.

If the Congress is better placed,it is not due to its own making but due to repression let loose in rural areas by local leaders,poor infrastructure development by the SAD-BJP government both in urban and rural areas,delay in completion of ongoing projects like thermal power stations,international airports and industrial hubs. Adding to the anti-incumbency factor is the support extended to majority of the party’s candidates by deras,particularly Dera Sacha Sauda and Dera Sach Khand Ballan. No surprise then that the satta market too is betting on the Congress wresting power with 61 seats.

The Congress took time to get into campaign mode,delaying its list of candidates. Even after the party changed its candidates in four constituencies,it continued to face rebels in many others. The late release of the rather insipid manifesto did not help matters either. However,an intensive campaign by party leaders,including Sonia Gandhi,Rahul Gandhi and Manmohan Singh,and the support of the influential Dera Sacha Sauda has placed the Congress in an advantegeous position.

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But an even more important factor is its campaign against dhakkashai (repression) by Akali leaders,particularly in rural areas. Indeed,the anger against dhakkashai is the buzzword in rural areas where defeated Akali candidates and local leaders were given important posts,like membership of district development boards and police public committees,which many misused to target their political opponents. This high-handedness was also witnessed during the panchayat samiti and zila parishad elections in 2008.

“We don’t prefer the Congress to come to power but if the Akalis retain power,the repression would only increase… and we can’t afford that,” said a youth from a village in Malwa.

On the other hand,the thrust of the Akali campaign was development,contrary to its traditional focus on panth (Sikh religion),territorial and water disputes and alleged discrimination of Sikhs by the central government. The agenda was set by the comparatively young Akali leader Sukhbir Singh Badal,who was mainly responsible for the choice of candidates and the manifesto. However,he remained unsure of being accepted as a leader,preferring to project his father,Parkash Singh Badal,as the chief ministerial candidate. Evidently the decision was aimed at not taking the risk of incurring the wrath of a section of the old guard who trust the elder more.

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The stakes are high for Sukhbir. If his decision to put the panthic agenda on the backburner does not click,he will face trouble from within the party. While he may deserve credit for ushering in governance reforms and accountability,these were too late and too little to make any major impact.

The BJP,which was initially considered to be the weakest link,has surprisingly not only made up for the lost ground but appears poised to surprise most political observers. While it won 19 of the 23 seats it contested last time,the tally is set to increase this time,following persistent campaigning and poll strategy evolved by party leaders like Arun Jaitely and J P Nadda.

The fledgling People’s Party of Punjab of Manpreet Singh Badal and victorious Independents (rebels) may play a key role in the formation of the new government in the event of a close verdict.

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In the absence of a discernible wave,the main parties have left no stone unturned to reach out to the voters,quite unlike last time when Capt Amarinder Singh,who was leading the Congress campaign,went missing during the crucial campaign period.

First published on: 30-01-2012 at 02:26:34 am
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