Of uncertain experts and opposing forecasts

Of uncertain experts and opposing forecasts

Elections in Punjab are just three weeks away, but there is no guessing which way the electoral wind will blow. While the psephologists have come up with diametrically opposite forecasts, the commentators sound uncertain and shaky and possibly, the voters are confused.

A part of this confusion is easy to explain. For the first time, Punjab will not witness a direct contest between the Akalis and the Congress. Queering their pitch is the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). If it maintains its performance level shown during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the AAP should win one-third of the Assembly seats. Its own claims are of course much higher. If so, which party will lose the most for the AAP’s gains?

The AAP, however, may not be able to sustain its 2014 momentum. Its image and strength may have been damaged by internal dissensions, expulsions of popular leaders and formation of breakaway groups. The question here is, which party stands to gain from the AAP’s setbacks.

Confusion is also caused by the fact that there is not enough to distinguish between the three parties. Earlier, the Congress and Akalis used to compete in populist politics. They made promises that were either hollow or unsustainable, even extremely harmful to the long-term health of the state’s economy. Now, the AAP – claiming its dream is to create a new and strong Punjab – has joined the bandwagon of hollow populism.

The AAP issued manifestos separately for farmers, industrialists and traders, and Dalits and youth, making tall promises to all segments of society.  These include waiving of bank loans of poor farmers, substantial compensation for crop loss and crop failures, high minimum support price for crops (costs +50%), and money and government jobs for families of farmers who committed suicide. The industries have been promised low tax rates, tax  holidays and low tariff electricity. The youth have been promised 25 lakh new jobs and for Dalits the AAP has promised jobs, pucca houses, old-age pensions and shaguns for marriages.The Congress manifesto matches the AAP in promising jobs, loans and housing. In addition, it throws in free smart phones for good effect.

But neither party explains how all this will be done when the state is financially bankrupt and under huge debt. How will new jobs be created when those already employed are not paid salaries for months? The two parties offer date-bound magic solutions to end drug trafficking, mafia, goonda raj, corruption and nepotism. This is not sheer populism, it is a callous joke on the voters.

Predominantly an agricultural economy, Punjab was once the richest state of India. However, the Green Revolution began to fade away a quarter century ago. Productivity stagnated, incomes declined and a serious ecological crisis looms large. Neither party is addressing how Punjab could be pulled out of this mess.

The Akalis have done one better. They set up a committee last October to frame the party manifesto, that manifesto is yet to manifest itself. Instead, Deputy Chief Minister Sukbhir Singh Badal declares that past performance speaks louder than promises.

The saving grace is that there is little overt exploitation of cleavages based on religion, caste or community. However, the recent Supreme Court judgement has nothing to do with it, nor are the political parties in Punjab secular or broadminded. Demographic logic of Punjab dictates restraint. Muslims and Christians constitute insignificant minorities in Punjab, counting for just 1.93% and 1.26% of the population, respectively. The two religious communities that matter are Sikhs (57.69%) and Hindus  (38.49%). Their self professed leaders and protectors are Akalis and the BJP.

Collusive relationship

However, the two parties have been for long in a collusive relationship. Their constituencies were sharply and exclusively defined. Neither therefore feared encroachment, while both realised that when pitted against the Congress, their route to power lay in alliance rather than competition. In recent years, there were some short- lived attempts to make inroads into each other’s constituencies, but the new threat in the form of a resurgent AAP seems to have put an end to such efforts. Interestingly, the collusion between these two parties continues to be the best bet against Sikh fundamentalist and Hindutva elements in Punjab.

One of the eternal mysteries is why the Dalits have not been able to emerge as an independent political force in Punjab. The Scheduled Castes constitute 31.94% of Punjab’s population. Moreover, most of them are concentrated in the Doaba region. Constituting around 45% of the population, this region sends 23 representatives to the 117-member Assembly. Yet the Bahujan Samaj Party has failed miserably. It has not won a single seat since 1997 and the vote share was just over 4% in the last two elections.

Punjab has witnessed strong socio-cultural assertion by the Dalits in recent years. Yet there is no Dalit leadership per se. Instead, many Deras – seats of alternative religious/spiritual leanings – have gathered massive following among the disillusioned Dalits. But Deras offer no alternative politics. Rather, they act as vote banks and secretly bargain with all mainstream parties for lending support.

Finally, it is hard to see what impact the demonetisation gambit will have. The election will be held at a time when money supply may not have completely normalised. Also, memories of the jolt some sectors of the economy felt would still be raw.

But there is a possibility that the BJP’s support may have been dented among the small and medium industries, trade and the informal sector. Let us remember that this will also affect the prospects of many Akali candidates who win with the BJP votes ensured through the seat-sharing arrangement.

(The writer is professor of political science at the Panjab University, Chandigarh)

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