The northern Indian state of Punjab will vote in state assembly elections on February 20. With just a few days to go until the vote, the tussle between political adversaries over 117 seats in the state legislature has intensified. While parties and candidates are preoccupied with slamming one another, voters are looking beyond petty politics. Punjabi voters are more worried about issues like unemployment and mounting drug use in the state.
Several incidents and events over the past year have grabbed the media spotlight. But whether they impact voters’ decisions will be known only on March 10, when election results are announced.
Foremost among these events is the farmers’ protest against the Narendra Modi government’s controversial farm laws. Tens of thousands of farmers, many of them from Punjab, camped on highways on the outskirts of New Delhi for almost a year demanding the repeal of the farm laws. Their dogged protests were successful; the Modi government was forced to revoke the farm laws. Several farmers are in the electoral fray now and the Sanyukt Samaj Morcha (SSM), a political party formed out of the Sanyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM), which spearheaded the farmers’ protests, has thrown its hat in the electoral ring. Will they succeed in drawing people’s votes?
There were incidents of alleged sacrilege too and a bomb blast at a local court. Voters are keen to see delivery of justice in cases linked to the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib, the religious scripture of the Sikhs, and police firing at those protesting against it. They are also anxious to see the government take steps to prevent sacrilege in future.
In October last year, Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi announced his decision to waive arrears of unpaid water bills in rural and urban areas running into billions of rupees. Will it win him another term in office?
It was in 1966 that today’s Punjab state emerged out of a redrawing of political boundaries. In the decades since, the Congress, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) have been the main parties in the fray. In 2017, the Aam Aadmi Party joined the contest. Elections have become more complex this time around with the SSM contesting as well.
Unemployment is a key issue in Punjab and parties have come to power in the past making grand promises relating to jobs. The SAD-BJP alliance promised to create a million jobs in the 2012 election. It went on to win the vote. The Congress rode to power in the 2017 elections on the promise that it would provide one job for each of Punjab’s 5.5 million households. However, Punjab’s unemployment problem has only worsened over the past decade.
Political parties are promising jobs this time as well. Channi has pledged to create 100,000 jobs per year if the Congress is voted back to power, and SAD chief Sukhbir Badal has promised a 75 percent quota for locals in private sector jobs. Opposition parties are slamming the Congress for not fulfilling the promises it made to voters during the last election in 2017.
The Congress is also being criticized for not regularizing services of contractual and temporary employees in various government departments. However, it appears that it is Governor Banwarilal Purohit, an appointee of the Modi government, who blocked Channi’s attempt to regularize those positions. The governor has apparently withheld his assent to a bill regularizing the services of 36,000 contractual employees. Channi had threatened to stage a sit-in outside the governor’s office to protest Purohit’s obstruction of the legislation.
Another important issue of concern for Punjabi voters is the severe drug problem in the state. According to the Punjab Opioid Dependence Survey (PODS) conducted in February-April 2015, around 1.2 percent of Punjab’s adult population (20 million people as per the 2011 census) is addicted to narcotics. Being a highly lucrative business, successive governments have done little to break the nexus between drug dealers and the police.
Meanwhile, SAD leader Bikram Singh Majithia was recently booked in a drug case. However, he is yet to be arrested, and the AAP is slamming the government for failing to do so. Congress leader Navjot Singh Sidhu used the case against Majithia to claim that the Congress has acted robustly against drug trafficking in the state.
In its campaign for votes, SAD is playing a card that the other parties do not have. It is the only Punjabi party in the fray and claims to understand best the needs of the locals. It also boasts of being harbingers of big-ticket development in Punjab. When SAD was in power, it built highways and airports and made Punjab a power surplus state.
When SAD broke its alliance with the BJP and instead teamed up with the Bahujan Samaj Party, which represents Dalits, the Congress swiftly named Channi, a Dalit, as Punjab’s chief minister. It has also projected him as the next chief minister should the party win another term in power. Its ploy to win Dalit support may cost it the votes of Jat farmers.
The AAP, meanwhile is trying to rope in the SSM to draw the votes of Punjab’s farmers.
Reading the manifestos of the contesting parties is not going to help voters see what sets one party apart from another. The manifestos read like copies of the same document, as all parties are offering voters free electricity and various other economic benefits. Therefore voters will have to elect the candidates they trust will deliver on their pledges.
Punjab has emerged a prime example of why governments cannot afford to take voters, especially the rural populace, for granted. The farmers’ protests proved to politicians that the population in Punjab, especially the agrarian class, cannot be messed with. The farmers forcefully demonstrated that they will not accept attacks on subsidies in the name of reforms. Farmers have repeatedly asserted that reforms have to respect rural realities of the region and not simply bow to the demands of corporations and capitalists.
Punjab is also the state that has managed to keep the BJP at bay. Despite teaming up with SAD in 2017, the party could not make inroads into Punjab. Modi’s party has now stitched an alliance with the Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa-led SAD (Sanyukt) and the Punjab Lok Congress, led by Amarinder Singh, who quit the Congress last year. The BJP is campaigning aggressively in Punjab, focusing on 36 constituencies out of the 73 it is contesting in the state.
On February 16, Modi targeted the AAP at an election rally and described it as a photocopy of the Congress. He promised to make farming, trade, and industry profitable in five years if the BJP-led alliance is voted to power in the state.
Over 500 farmers who participated in the protests were killed in clashes with the police last year. The BJP cannot escape responsibility for those deaths. It will find it extremely tough to make voters forget its role in those protests.