A Close Race
lections in India were always loud, colourful and a celebration or a festival but travelling through Punjab the silence was quite deafening. The posters, banners, buntings, pamphlets and the loud loudspeakers were missing. As were the large cavalcades of cars which normally accompany a candidate everywhere.
What is however very visible in Punjab this time, as the state goes to polls, is the strict police bandobast with cars, van, jeeps and buses being stopped everywhere and searched, for the huge piles of notes being transported, and known to be the hallmark of a true blue blooded Punjab election. The election commission has come down hard on political parties, so much so that a videographer accompanies the candidates through the election campaign with even chairs being counted in the expenses! Not to mention the cars and other paraphernalia.
Overcautious candidates are now resorting to laying out the good old dari rather than hiring chairs for the large number of nukkad meetings a candidate addresses through a long and tough day of campaigning.
But the Congress which is working overtime to overthrow the Akali-BJP government, in power for the last 5 years has welcomed the election commission’s moves, pitted as it is against a government perceived to be overflush with funds. Punjab full of stories of the kind of money which is being pumped into each constituency by Sukhbir Singh Badal, the son of the chief minister who is masterminding the Akali election campaign and who has run arguably one of the most corrupt governments in recent times where every thing had a price and that price was always in crores.
But notwithstanding the corruption and the misrule of the last 5 years, credit has to be given to Badal father-son duo for fighting tooth and nail to return to power for a second term, unheard of the lexicon of Punjab politics where no government is repeated after 5 years—it is always time to take a rest. But in this round of assembly elections 2012, the election is poised on a razor’s edge. There aren’t too many people willing to wager a bet with absolute certainty that Captain Amrinder Singh of the Congress is taking oath as the chief minister of Punjab in March! The Congress is fighting with its back to the wall to get the winning edge.
The two key factors bogging down the Congress is the dissidence within the party, with Badal having pumped in money to ensure rebels from Congress did not withdraw their candidature and the second is the large number of relatives in the fray. This has demoralised the workers who feel that their prospects of contesting elections are growing slimmer with each successive elections.
The current election has witnessed the largest number of kith and kin jumping into the fray so much so that the focus is only on ensuring their win. For example, Lok Sabha MP Santosh Chaudhary has managed to get an assembly ticket for her husband. She has not been seen to be campaigning anywhere else except for her husband. The rest of her Lok Sabha constituency has remained orphaned. She did not even make an effort to approach angry dissidents who had filed their nominations against the party nominee and pressurise them to withdraw.
With the Akali Dal still strong in the rural belt, and much of its vote intact, what is working in favour of the Congress is the erosion of the BJP vote in the urban areas. The predominantly Hindu urban voters, which last time had voted for the BJP, now appear to have dumped it and are supporting the Congress in urban constituencies. This is also because very little of development has actually been focused on the urban areas, with the Badal government preferring to pamper their rural vote bank. This divide stands exposed loud and clear in this election and if the Congress makes it past the winning post it can only be because the BJP has lost its moorings in the state.
Manpreet Badal, the rebel nephew of the chief minister, appears not to be making too much of a dent either way. Some Akali sections are running with the theory that the rebelion of Manpreet is the deliberate handiwork of chief minister Badal and his brother to ensure that the anti-incumbency vote is not harnessed by the Congress but is absorbed by Manpreet Badal and his party. It is not a theory which has too many backers probably because he has not been seen as a serious player in the Punjab political arena.
Interestingly both the Amrinder Singh and Sukhbir Singh Badal camps are confident of victory, with each side telling their close supporters that they are winning 70 seats. This may be mostly bravado since the picture is more than different within the political parties they represent. Senior Congress leaders in Delhi are hopeful that the Congress would win 55 seats, depending on rebels and independents to make up the numbers. They say it could be a similar situation to Haryana where Hooda had to rope in the independents to form the government.
A recent constituency-wise survey commissioned by the Congress party after the distribution of tickets has shown the Congress getting only 49 seats while the Akalis are at 60 seats. The survey details the fate of each party candidtate and whether he is losing or winning. But, this is not an assessment shared by Congressmen working in the field and those who are managing the election. They are of the view that chief minister Prakash Singh Badal may be losing the election in his own backyard and at the same time they say that CLP leader Rajinder Kaur Bhattal is also skating on very thin ice and may lose the poll. The Congress assessment on the ground is that they are crossing the red line and would form the government.
But what is interesting is that influential sections of the Akali Dal are giving their party only 30 seats. They say that the Akali rule is over and that the Congress is all set to cross 70 seats and will form the government. Be that as it may, for the moment Punjab is looking difficult to put a final figure on and the only silver lining for the Congress is the sharp decline in the support base of the BJP, since the Akalis had ignored the urban areas when it came to development work. The Akalis are depending on money power to win the election back as well as the huge amount of effort that Badal junior is putting in.
While Sukhbir Singh Badal is braving the rain and the hail to crisscross the state and reach out to the voters, Captain Amrinder Singh turned back the other day from Jallandhar as his helicopter could not go to Amritsar due to bad weather. The reports of large disappointed crowds have not moved the Congress party’s raja who is known to be most comfortable while travelling by helicopters!! And that exactly is not good news for the Congress!
By Renu Mittal from Punjab