Anti-incumbency in Punjab: Akali roads fail to bridge the distance

What bothers the voter in spite of new infrastructure, from local power networks in villages to growth priorities in towns and cities.

Written by Vandita Mishra | Ludhiana/bhatinda | Updated: January 12, 2017 12:16:19 pm
punjab elections, punjab polls, punjab elections 2017, akali, akali dal, sad, punjab voters, aap, punjab vote bank, punjab road, punjab infrastructure problem, SAD’s election, flyovers, bad road condition, punjab road condition, SAD-BJP government, Ludhiana Management Association, indian express news, elections updates The Bains Brothers have courted an “anti-establishment” image — as self-styled intermediary between the people and an elected government seen as too remote or too corrupt.

Just before the code of conduct kicked in, the Shiromani Akali Dal government was in overdrive in Chandigarh, announcing projects, laying foundation stones and cutting ribbons. In December alone, the tastefully renovated Golden Temple Complex — on which work was done on a war footing in less than a year — was opened to the public; the Bathinda airport declared upgraded, the first phase of the Amritsar BRT inaugurated, and in Hari-ke-Pattan, a water bus launched.

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Despite the last minute-ness and because of it, it appears SAD’s election pitch is made of these: roads and highways, bridges and flyovers and airports, the state’s crossing the power-surplus mark. Of course, the panthic agenda, which has long shored up Akali politics, is implicit and out there too, in the teeming list of state-sponsored pilgrimages and religious memorials, for instance. But the encompassing theme of SAD-BJP’s Campaign 2017 is vikas.

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But there are questions about, and challenges to, the development claim.

Some of this discontent arises from the inevitable, wider predicament Punjab shares with many states — of government, no matter how fleetfooted, failing to keep step with the rising aspirations of citizens. And then, there is the very Punjabi insouciance vis a vis bijli-sadak-paani issues: surely development is what all governments are elected to do, many will say here, and isn’t a lot of it “automatic”?

But there are other reasons, too, for the anti-incumbency that may or may not succeed in unseating the SAD-BJP government, but has palpably built up in Punjab.

For a glimpse, come to Kotmangalsingh colony in Ludhiana, to the private suvidha kendra run by the Bains Brothers. (Suvidha kendras, meant to function as one-stop centres at subsidised fees, catering to a spectrum of services for the citizen, were opened by the government nearly a decade ago).

Balwinder and Simarjeet Singh Bains, invariably twinned as “Bains Brothers”, broke away from SAD and won two assembly seats from Ludhiana as independents in 2012. This election, their newly floated Lok Insaf Party has tied up with AAP. Though they are themselves elected MLAs, the Bains Brothers have over the years courted, and to a large extent achieved, an “anti-establishment” image — as self-styled intermediary and bridge between the people and an elected government seen as too remote or too corrupt.

The brothers’ suvidha kendra is structured just like the government’s version, with a row of neat counters, separate ones for men and women, and a brisk air. But this one functions without the interminable delays and queues, and the bribes and touts that help you break them, in the government’s suvidha kendras. Basically, for the citizen, the Bains Brothers’ suvidha kendra acts as a go-between and facilitator — without a fee — in accessing services from the government.

People come here to get their Aadhar and ration cards made, for sewerage connections and pension, birth, death, and land ownership certificates. They get help here in filling up the cumbersome forms and the tedious follow-up with government officials is taken care of. People also come to the Bains Brothers for dispute resolution.

Off the main hall, in a tiny room filled with people and their problems, Balwinder Singh Bains, the elder brother, sits behind a desk. He asks an aide to dial now the DC and then the tehsildar, using his vantage point as an MLA to cut red tape, broker solutions.

“If you go to the government’s suvidha kendra, and you need residence proof, the government says 15 days, but actually takes one-and-a-half months. Why should it take even 15 days? To submit a form, you must pay a bribe of Rs 200. People come to me with work relating to the corporation, thana, tehsil, because they don’t get sunvai (a hearing) if they go there directly.”

If the AAP-Lok Insaf Party comes to power in Punjab, he says, he will not dismantle his private suvidha kendra, but use it as an example for the government to emulate.

The Bains Brothers’ private suvidha kendras — they run four in Ludhiana — underline a wider predicament in the state: a lengthening distance between government and people that Sukhbir Badal’s much-touted governance reforms have failed to bridge.

The local leader

The problem in Punjab has two faces. At one end, in city and town, it is made up of the distance between government and the people with the bribe-taking middleman insinuating himself in between. In the village, however, the problem can also be about too much proximity with the local ruling party, and a corruption compounded by indignity.

There is a term to describe the dominance and brute power of SAD in Punjab, the Akali right of way: it is called dhakka, or dhakka shahi. In other words, rule by partisanship and force, a system of winner takes all, in which the ruling party monopolises the thana, panchayat, municipality, mandi board and cable network, leaving little room for the political opponent, neutral arbiter and institution.

Dhakka shahi is more associated with SAD rule than with Congress regimes, for a reason. The Congress, in popular perception, presides over big-ticket corruption and vendetta politics at the top, while SAD fosters a tangled system of petty corruption and extends political vindictiveness to the ground level.

In the village, there are stories of corruption and delay — of the missing atta and dal from the state-run atta-dal scheme. Or money in the shagun scheme, in which underprivileged families are helped at the time of a daughter’s wedding, reaching only after the bride has become a mother. Or damage to the cotton crop due to spurious pesticides approved by the agricultural department.

But the real bitterness is about how Akali jathedars (party notables) become arbiters of resource distribution and appointments.

In the Harijan basti of village Jodhpur Romana, Bathinda district, Teja Singh, former sarpanch, talks of a “goonda raj”. “Seventy-five latrines were sanctioned for this village under the government’s scheme. But only those who paid a Rs 2,000 commission to a gram sabha member got it.”

According to Birbal Singh, an electrical mechanic, “The Badals favour their own. They look out for their partymen, not at who is needy.

Here, the divide is not so much between rich and poor, but between those who are politically connected and those who aren’t,” he says.

Parkash Singh Badal is a good man, says Birbal Singh, but his local leaders are not. And in the years of the SAD regime, the number of those belonging to the ruling party who get to decide whose work will be done in the village, and whose won’t, has multiplied. “If there was one raja in the village, now there are four,” he says.

He is referring to the burgeoning base of Akali politics after two terms in power. To accommodate rising ambitions and to contain the elected sarpanch, SAD has created parallel and informal power networks at village level, which have expanded over the years.

The elected sarpanch is often a disempowered figure in the village, dominated by unelected SAD “pradhans” and “jathedars”. At constituency level, the “halka-in-charge”, or the defeated Akali candidate, is seen to have more clout in the SAD dispensation than the democratically elected MLA of another party.

In Chandigarh, Punjab Education Minister Dr Daljit Singh Cheema counters the charge that SAD is tampering with the line of accountability in a representative democracy: “This is a Congress accusation, that we favour the so-called halka-in-charge over their elected MLA. But what can we do if the elected MLA is weak, if he doesn’t come to meetings of grievance committees? In or out of power, SAD leaders keep working. They don’t just sit back if they are not elected”.

And in Bathinda, SAD MLA Sarup Chand Singla is more unabashed: “So what if the Akali candidate has lost the election? This happens everywhere.”

Development skew

In Punjab’s town and city, there are also concerns about a development skew — both the political focus on agriculture by successive governments and the more recent push for physical infrastructure have relegated the needs and concerns of industry and human resource development, they say.

Even agriculture is a story of losing ground in a state where, by all accounts, the Green Revolution exhausted itself and plateaued long ago, with little or no movement towards modernisation, food processing, crop diversification. Yet, many point out, it is education and industry that have borne the brunt of political inattention and neglect.

In Ludhiana, Inderjit Kaur, principal of Ramgarhia Girls College, says: “Roads and highways have been built, yes. But grants for education have only reduced. Nothing has been done in higher education. In colleges, no new recruitments have been made in decades, except on a contractual basis.”

Ranjot Singh, who runs a business of auto- and agri-parts exports and also runs the Ramgarhia college and several schools, laments “there has been no major new industrial project in the last 10 years in Punjab even as elsewhere, technology has changed and competition from China has increased. In Punjab, industrialists are the most harassed and ignored by government, we are surviving only by dint of the Punjabi spirit”. Punjab is power-surplus “but with no new industry coming up and old ones shutting down, where is the requirement or the demand”, he asks.

After demonetisation, many worry about the impact on small and medium business, especially Ludhiana’s unorganised hosiery and cycle industries in which cash transactions are high.

Sudarshan Jain, president, Knitwear and Apparel Manufacturers Association of Ludhiana, talks of older problems that persist: absence of airport connectivity and exhibiting and marketing centres for the garment industry, which generates the most employment after agriculture. The Ludhiana airport is a “flying club” he says dismissively, “it needs to be expanded, or if there are problems with that, shifted elsewhere”.

Punjab could have been an IT hub, says Kamal Wadhera, senior vice president of the Ludhiana Management Association and CEO of a company that helps the young prepare for competitions. “Had we been successful, our youth would not be fleeing abroad. We missed that bus. We didn’t create the infrastructure for IT. The drug problem is an off-shoot”. Wadhera talks of missing eco-systems. “In Ludhiana, we could have created one around hosiery. Students of engineering have no interface with industry. They come out of silos, find themselves nowhere and head abroad.”

In Jalandhar, former vice chancellor of PAU, Joginder Singh Puar, points to an eye-catching new trend — across the state, a spate of incidents has seen school teachers climbing water tanks to press their demands for regularisation. Vikas has not been done in Punjab, he says, if it means education, health and employment. Puar asks: “How will Punjab progress, if human development is neglected in this manner?”

In Chandigarh, Education Minister Cheema dismisses these concerns: “The voice of anti-incumbency is always louder, but we are confident. More corners in the contest help us because our base has not eroded,” he says, in a reference to AAP joining the contest. And in Ludhiana, senior BJP leader Rajinder Bhandari says: “Industry has not flourished because ours is a landlocked state and because Uttarakhand, Himachal got special packages and incentives.Yes, drugs are a problem, but it is so everywhere. Why doesn’t the Congress talk of development? Only drugs, chitta. The Opposition was successful to an extent in the Lok Sabha elections (in making drugs an issue), but no longer.”

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