Political parties in Punjab have become dharamshalas without doors. There are no political boundaries and ideological filters, and all the parties look alike. There are leaders without charisma and parties without ideology. The grand old Congress party is using Sidhuisms to provide much-needed theatrical relief to the misgoverned people in the post-Covid phase. It’s playing the role of an effective opposition, with Navjot Sidhu in command, to its own Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi, much to the amusement of the opposition parties.
The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) seems to be galloping like a horse without a rider, hoping to win the race. Unlike the Akalis (SAD) and the Congress, the AAP had neither historical baggage nor historical advantage; the party has yet to evolve a regional identity of its own. Punjab does not have a large footloose population as in Delhi — freebies may not provide the winning margins. AAP’s vote share, for instance, declined between the 2014 and 2019 Parliament elections from 24 per cent to 7 per cent.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), without a strong political base, has aligned with Captain Amarinder Singh. But his baggage of non-performance in Punjab might combine with the BJP’s own anti-incumbency at the Centre. On the other hand, the Akali Dal is a relatively stable party and has an undisputed leader in Sukhbir Badal, though in recent times, it is struggling to prove itself as a regional party.
The repeal of the three Farm Acts, the nomination of a Scheduled Caste Chief Minister and the Amarinder-BJP alliance mean that the Punjab elections are not likely to be the two-party contest it traditionally was. The urban Hindus and Scheduled Castes could turn out to be game-changers. The Jat peasantry and urban Sikh traders, who have exercised hegemonic control over state politics for more than four decades, have been divided into factions supporting the three rival political parties, the Congress, Akalis and AAP.
Has the political culture and terrain of Punjab then become ideologically rudderless? The history and culture of Punjab does not support such generalisations. Punjab politics can be located on three axes. One is a stunted identity assertion, ranging from religious and communal to secular Punjabi identities. The second is a unique combination of majoritarian arrogance and minority persecution complex in the main communities, Hindus and the Sikhs. The Sikhs are in majority in Punjab and a minority in India, while the Hindus are a minority in Punjab and a majority in India. The third axis is the intermeshed religio-caste categories, as caste is not a category in itself for electoral mobilisations in Punjab.
The ruling Congress has activated the religio-caste category to cover up its non-performance, which is a reversal of the post-1997 politics of nurturing a Punjabi identity. The Congress government under Amarinder Singh was outsourced to a “retired babu”, who worked overtime to make the party redundant in the state. The Congress high command replaced its Chief Minister to resurrect itself. However, the manner of doing so created a bigger crisis in the party and the state.
The announcement by a Congress spokesperson that only a Sikh can be the chief minister of Punjab, after having nominated Sunil Jakhar, a Hindu, followed by publicly announcing the name of a Jat peasant, Sukhjinder Randhawa, and then nominating Charanjit Channi, a member of a Scheduled Caste community, as Chief Minister, speaks of a discriminatory approach. In a survey conducted by the Institute for Development and Communication (IDC), Chandigarh, 48 per cent of Hindus and 34 per cent Jat Sikh respondents disapproved of this discriminatory approach to politics by the Congress.
In the 2017 assembly elections, the Congress was routed in other parts of India, but won in Punjab with a thumping majority. Strangely, the BJP seem to have supported the Congress in 2017 to defeat AAP. The party did not extend support to its alliance partner, the SAD. This can be easily discerned from the shift in the urban vote share of the competing political parties. The urban vote share of the Congress grew from 43.5 per cent in 2012 to 49 per cent in 2017. The urban vote share of the BJP declined from 28 per cent in 2012 to 19 per cent in 2017. In the 2019 elections, there was no pact between the Congress and the BJP. The urban vote share of the BJP increased from 19 per cent to 27 per cent. And the Congress party’s urban vote share declined to 45 per cent. It appears that in this election the urban vote shall work to the disadvantage of the Congress party.
The nomination of a Scheduled Caste Chief Minister, for the first time, has created a new buzz. This has to be located in the dynamics of caste politics and the political drama enacted in public view by the Congress establishment. Punjab has been known for its liberal ritualistic practices in relation to caste. Both Sikhism and the Arya Samaj liberated the Scheduled Castes from the stringent purity-pollution-based behavioural patterns. However, the basic structural inequalities continue to persist. A unique regional feature is that the Scheduled Castes share a common cultural reservoir to acquire social parity without accepting the hierarchical system. This has given them greater political and social bargaining capacity without their becoming hostage to any Scheduled Caste party or a leader.
The three epitomes of Punjab politics — doles, deras and drugs — have become demonetised currencies. And “Punjab ka dard” has become a catchphrase for those who are clueless about Punjab’s history, its cultural terrain and unique religio-caste fault lines. The new currency seems to be the religio-caste formations. And, strangely, with a thoroughly weakened BJP, all other parties are thronging Hindu temples and even those temples which are not known to Punjabi Hindus. This is symptomatic of the erosion of the ideological support base of the parties, a political leadership deficit and the absence of any transformational agenda.
The writer is director, Institute for Development and Communication, Chandigarh