Who Will Win Punjab?

Past record shows that the outcome of the Municipal Corporation elections in Chandigarh, the joint capital of Punjab, has no impact on the Assembly elections which follow a little later in the state.

This time, however, there is an important takeaway from the Corporation elections held a couple of months before the Assembly elections in Punjab. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) emerged as the largest party for the first time in any elections outside Delhi. The party, which is making a determined attempt to wrest power in Punjab, has received a major boost with its cadres gaining confidence that it can win elections outside the national capital.

Another important factor in the Corporation elections was the multiplicity of contests. Besides the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, the Congress, the AAP, the Shiromani Akali Dal, a large number of independents in the fray had made it a multi-cornered contest with comparatively small number of electors in each ward. In at least five wards the margin of victory was only in double digits.

The coming elections in Punjab too are set to be multi-cornered contests with the emergence of the alliance between Capt Amarinder Singh and BJP, the SAD-BSP alliance, the Congress, the AAP and now also the Kisan Samaj Morcha formed by farmers’ organisations, besides the independents. The current possibility of five-cornered contests would definitely leave the field wide open with various parties eating into each other’s vote banks and making the task of predicting the outcome a near impossibility.

It is in this context that an analysis of the past electoral trends would be significant and relevant to the ensuing elections.

For over three decades, the state had witnessed a straight contest between the SAD and the Congress. This changed last time when the AAP entered the fray and changed the political equations. Several electoral surveys had predicted an AAP victory given the disenchantment with the other two political parties.

The Congress emerged victorious with a thumping majority of 77 seats out of a total of 117 at stake thanks to a large extent to the division of votes in the three-cornered contest. SAD won 15 seats (besides three by its alliance partner BJP) against the tally of 20 for the AAP and two for its alliance partner. But what’s significant is that the SAD finished second in no less than 43 seats while AAP finished second only in 26 seats. Akalis got lesser number of seats than AAP but received more votes.

ALSO READ: Farm Laws – Winners, Losers And The Future

SAD got 25.3 per cent of the total votes polled as against AAP’s 23.8 per cent. Add to that the 5.4 per cent votes polled by the then SAD’s alliance partner, the BJP. They together polled 37 per cent votes against 38.5 per cent by Congress. Akalis contested on 94 seats compared to 112 by AAP and still got 1.5 per cent higher vote share than AAP. Same is true for Congress. Both in 2007 and 2012 when it lost elections to the SAD-BJP combine, Congress posted a vote share of over 40 per cent.

It is in this context that the pre-poll scenario needs to be analysed with five-cornered contests on the anvil. The ruling Congress, which rocked its own boat by changing the chief minister just six months before the elections, is facing an internal crisis. Its unpredictable state party chief Navjot Singh Sidhu continues to take pot-shots at the party’s own government and chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi.

In the given short time the new chief minister is coming out with a flurry of announcements which lack credibility while some of the sitting legislators are quitting the party anticipating denial of tickets. Even as the 56-member election committee supposed to send its recommendations to the party high command for final selection of candidates is yet to meet, Sidhu has been declaring candidates for some of the seats. The party is also yet to develop a strategy for the elections.

SAD, which had quit the coalition with BJP over the farm laws, has tied up with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) whose vote share has been less than two per cent even though one third of the state’s voters belong to the Dalit Samaj. However, Akalis are by far the first movers.

Party chief Sukhbir Singh Badal has been actively leading the party and besides the alliance with the BSP, has already declared candidates for the ensuing elections. It is also attempting to woo back its core constituency of rural votes by touting that it has quit the coalition and power to stand behind the farmers. The party is not facing any major hostility from farmers now and its fate would depend on how rural voters view its role in the aftermath of the farm laws which were subsequently withdrawn.

AAP, which had built up a strong cadre before the last elections, lost some ground with several leaders quitting the party and the state unit of the party remaining disoriented over the last four years. It has received a fillip after the Chandigarh Municipal Corporation elections but continues to remain under the direct charge of its central leaders. It’s biggest failing has been a lack of a credible chief ministerial face. With just over a month left for the elections, the party chief Arvind Kejriwal has decided to maintain silence over the issue although he has declared that the candidate would be a Sikh from Punjab. This effectively ruled himself out of the race as was being apprehended last time.

The new entrant to the political scenario, the Kisan Samaj Party, might turn out to be the X factor in the coming elections. About 22 of the farmers organisations have joined hands to form the party but at least 10 others have decided to stay away. On its own, the new party is unlikely to make a serious dent but it can change the calculations if it decides to tie up with one of the major parties. And if it happens with AAP, which has a strong presence in urban areas, it would be a strong alliance to be reckoned with.

Even as the model code of conduct is to come into force any day now and schedule is to be announced for elections next month, the political situation remains fluid with new alignments in the making and finalisation of party tickets setting the tone for the elections.

Elections And Yo-Yoing Popularity Of Modi

If you looked at a comprehensive list of festivals in India it could seem staggering. India is often known as the country of festivals. With its range of diverse cultures, languages, costumes, number of religions, number of gods or avatars of god that are worshipped, and different ethnic backgrounds that is not surprising. But there is one type of festival that is different from the others and, possibly, unique to India. These are elections.

In any other democracy, elections are only a necessity, a periodic group decision-making process through which citizens choose individuals to public office: a mere means to an end. But in India, elections, especially when they are for electing MPs or MLAs become supercharged events that can rival the most popular festivals in the country.

In roughly two months from now will begin a series of elections to state assemblies. The elections covering seven states (eight, if Jammu & Kashmir, where there is President’s Rule, also goes to the polls) will begin in February and go on till the end of 2022. And because these state assembly elections can have a bearing on what happens in the parliamentary elections in 2024, the entire political apparatus of the country will be obsessed with them.

Among the states that will hold elections are important ones. Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state in India (pop: >204 million) where the BJP has been in power since 2017 is one. Many believe that what happens in the UP elections often determines the outcome of parliamentary elections. Gujarat, a stronghold of the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state where he was chief minister for over a dozen years, is another. Then there are other small but significant elections. In Goa, where the BJP is in power, and where the contest has usually been between the BJP and the Congress, there is an aggressive new challenger–Mamata Banerjee’s All-India Trinamool Congress (AITC).

ALSO READ: Nuts & Bolts Of Mamata’s Not So Nutty Plan For Goa

What happens in Punjab would also be interesting to watch. Although the Congress is in power in the state, a few months back the state’s former chief minister and veteran Congressman Amarinder Singh resigned because of internal discord in the party. Singh has now announced the formation of his own party and that may be a force to contend with. In Punjab, it has traditionally been a two-sided battle between the Akali Dal and its alliances and the Congress and its alliances. If the former chief minister forms a new party and enters the fray, the shape of the contest could change dramatically.

In the meantime, there are mixed perceptions about the popularity of Mr. Modi and his party, which won the parliamentary elections convincingly (the National Democratic Alliance, which the BJP leads, has 334 of the 543 seats in Lok Sabha) in 2019. That clearly meant Mr Modi and his party were in top form when it came to popularity. But in August this year, when India Today magazine did its Mood of the Nation survey, polling 14,600 respondents, just 24% of them said they considered Modi best suited to be India’s Prime Minister.

Mr Modi’s plummeting popularity may have quite a bit to do with the ripple effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has hit India hard and while infections, hospitalization, and deaths have soared, it is the economic impact of the pandemic that has hit Indians hard. As many as 70% of the respondents in the poll said their incomes had fallen during the pandemic, and a third of them charged his government with inability to rein in price rises across the board–beginning with petrol and diesel prices that have soared.

How accurate are such surveys? It’s difficult to say. Because, in October, barely two months after the Mood of the Nation survey, another survey by YouGov, an international Internet-based market research and data analytics firm, found that Mr Modi’s approval ratings had bounced back. Based on YouGov’s methodology, his popularity among urban Indians had increased from 53% in August to 59% in October.

Part of the problem with such surveys is their sample size of respondents. India’s population is in excess of 1.3 billion. Even if we consider the urban proportion of that, it is more than 480 million people. The Mood of the Nation survey had 14,600 respondents. And, YouGov’s survey had 5,095. These are very small sample numbers relative to the universe that they try to find a proxy for and the accuracy of opinion polls based on such samples in a very diverse country can be questioned. For the record, the YouGov survey found that there was a North-South divide in Mr Modi’s approval ratings: he enjoyed a 63% approval rating among residents of Northern India, but 36% of those residing in Southern India disapproved of him.

There are, however, some fun facts in other survey-based research that YouGov has done. In YouGov America’s survey of The Most Popular Foreign Politicians, carried out among US citizens in the third quarter of 2021, Mr Modi ranks at No. 13, just below Russia’s Vladimir Putin (No. 12) and just above Mexico’s former president, Enrique Pena Nieto. And just in case, you are wondering who was on top on that list, here it is: at No.1 it was Angela Merkel, the former chancellor of Germany; at second spot, it was Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau; and at the third position, it was France’s president, Emmanuel Macron.

‘Sidhu Has Harmed His Party, He Is A Bad Team Leader’

Dr Bhojdev Brar (22) from Amritsar says celebrities do not always make good politicians and all the good work by Navjot Singh Sidhu was undone by his image politics

Punjab politics is going through such confusing times, I wonder how things will shape up in the next few months when Punjab Assembly elections are held. I belong to Amritsar, the constituency of Navjot Singh Sidhu, who is slowly turning out to be one of the most divisive figures of Punjab politics.

I feel he is eyeing the Chief Minister’s seat in the strategic state as in these important times (because of farmer protests). But the way he is going about it doesn’t seem very well thought out. He seems temperamental, hasty in decision making and someone who doesn’t think too well before taking a step. Soon after he resigned, another minister from the Charanpreet Singh Channi cabinet, Razia Sultana, Punjab Congress General Secretary Yoginder Dhingra and party treasurer Gulzar Inder Chahal also resigned from the party. This then becomes more about a person and less about the interests of the party.

I don’t think image politics can influence the electorate deeply if there is no weight behind their words. These celebrities or personalities cannot just bank on their image or previous charisma to get votes, they need to keep interacting with the people who voted for them and upgrade their understanding. There are so many celebrities who are good at what they do, but aren’t able to walk the long road in politics.

Metro Man, Mr E Sreedharan can be considered an example. Sidhu has walked a longer and more active road than most other celebs (17 years in active politics), but I feel he still doesn’t know the art of walking in unison with others, he still considers himself above the party.

Dr Brar with farmer leader Rakesh Tikait (left) and with Dr Swaiman Singh (extreme right in green), a New Jersey-based cardiologist who came to India to support farmers protesting agaisnt Central farm laws

And in times like these, especially in the post-Covid world, we need compassionate, considerate and calm leaders; leaders who have the capacity to listen to people’s concerns as much as they can speak. Covid has shown us how each leader is important right from the ward level to the Prime Minister level and we can’t be lax with who we choose to power.

Sidhu has done some good work in Amritsar like building road, strengthening the metro bus service, but he should also look into important matters like reducing corruption at all levels, strengthening the administrative machinery and easing governance in general so that people find it easy to approach the government on important matters.

ALSO READ: Comedy Of Errors: Capt On Congress Crisis

Moreover, I feel surprised why doesn’t he stand secure in his own identity? Why is trying to pit himself as an alternative to Captain Amarinder Singh? He should focus more on what is being and not being done in his own constituency rather than galloping off to Patiala, the constituency of Captain Singh.

If many people say that Captain Singh is growing old, then the ex-Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh led the country efficiently even at an advanced age, an Sidhu is probably showing the folly of youth. Punjab needs leaders who are cool, calm, composed and yet not afraid to take the lead, if the situation so demands.

I am keeping a keen eye on the news developments and in these times of social media boom, celebs image can fall down as quickly as they can be built. So people should be careful about each step in politics. They should aim at serving the public and not their image.

Can Amarinder Singh Save Congress?

Insinuations about the Nehru-Gandhi family’s ‘Muslim’ past, made by their cultural/political foes, are old. But for the first time, during a very toxic campaign for Delhi Assembly elections, Firoze Gandhi was called “Firoze Khan”. None from the Congress party that the family heads, objected, ostensibly out of fear that the issue would get communal hue. Congress is politically frozen. It needs a new leader.

It’s delicate. Criticizing Congress leaders/cadres for this is difficult when Nehru-bashing even by union ministers is the in-thing and when lawmakers question Mahatma Gandhi’s role in the freedom movement. But all this, besides weakening of secular ethos for which India is known, underscores the decline that the party has suffered over the recent years.

Assessing this decline is also not easy, indeed, difficult to define, when the party still has three scores of Members in Parliament (out of 800-plus) and rules, singly or jointly, in major states like Punjab, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra.

The other, more important, aspect of this political reality is declining vote share, of its leaders and activists, young and old, jumping off the ship and turning vocal critics, overnight as it were, to get accepted in their new parties. But most important, over a long period now, is the low reached in the vote-catching influence of its top leadership.

ALSO READ: Is Congress Really Rudderless?

More glaring are the inertia within and directionless approach, of losing states – Goa, Arunachal Pradesh, Haryana – despite numbers and being outsmarted by rivals. The worst is the public ridicule to which the party and its leaders are subjected to in social media-driven information explosion and a low-level public discourse.

The latest instance of all these is the Delhi polls that saw the Congress drawing a blank, yet again, cementing its vote-share loss during the parliamentary polls in 2014 and 2019. Sixty-three of its 66 candidates lost deposits, after ruling for 15 years straight in this small but politically important national capital.  

Newbie Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has almost entirely hijacked the Congress’ support base. Elsewhere, across the North – Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, much of the North-East and the South – it has long ago lost out to regional parties.

Placed in similar dire stress after losing in 2004 and 2009, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) recovered. It held on to states where it wielded power with strong chief ministers and eventually, found its national leader and vote-getter in Narendra Modi. Mounting this process was its larger cultural/political family. The Congress does not have this, even as its mass base is eroding.

ALSO READ: Nation Rising Up, Opposition Holed Up

India’s oldest party is stuck with the Gandhis, who are neither able to deliver, nor able/willing to give up. A ‘temporary’ president, Sonia Gandhi, had headed it the longest, for 19 years, earlier. She is known to be ailing and keen to retire. Her reticent son Rahul, resigned after a disastrous performance last summer and asked for selecting a “non-Gandhi” to lead. But nearly five decades of the family rule has totally benumbed the party, at all levels, into not even looking for a new leader or a set of people who can provide coherent, collective leadership. For want of a better word, the party is in coma.

The Delhi debacle and prospects of Rahul returning to lead, likely next month, if only to relieve his mother, have brought the prolonged crisis to the fore. Reports indicate a silent demand, a muffled one so far, for a “non-Gandhi.”

Reports also indicate deep discord and disarray within the family. Sonia wants Rahul to return, but does not seem to trust his choice of aides and his decisions – and not without reason. The “old guard” around her clashes with the ‘new’ one close to Rahul. The difference between the two is that the ‘old’ is really old and now rootless, while the ‘new’, by and large of young techies and managers, never struck roots.

Much was made of Priyanka and her resemblance to grandma Indira Gandhi. But repeated electoral outcomes show that the present-day voter’s memory is too short for that. If Priyanka is the alternative to Rahul, she is also the sitting duck for a government that is vigorously pursuing cases against husband Robert Wadra.

Rahul tried, with limited success last year, to by-pass his 24X7 ridicule. His ill-advised choice of campaign issues and gaffe-prone performance went against him and the party.  

To be fair, the Gandhis are a decent lot. Rajiv, the last Gandhi to rule was extremely decent, too. But that is not enough in politics. They are expected to deliver each time, often as the lone rangers. Absence or internal elections leaves them with leaders, but no workers.

The Congress’ shrinking cadres need leader(s) who actually perform full-time and not during the elections; who can rub shoulders, literally, with the crowds. Past sacrifices, charisma and token reach-outs with photo-ops, without support on the ground have not worked, and will not in future.

This is not the Congress of the Mahatma and Nehru who were relatively tolerant of dissent. Indira ended it, appointing leaders from the top and turning the party into a family estate. Although the Gandhi family was not active from 1991 to 1998, Narasimha Rao could not be without its overcast shadows. Ditto Manmohan Singh who had no base, no say in the party.  She lacks understanding of Indian social and psychological traditions. She must be credited, though, for forging alliances that earned the Congress power in 2004.

When Sonia entered politics in 1998, some left, dubbing her a ‘foreigner’. Today, some Congressmen clamour for the return of one: Sharad Pawar. Conventional wisdom still places Congress as the Opposition’s rallying point – only if it strives to organize and act.

The party is unsure of its ideological direction. Adopting “Soft Hindutva” has failed. The task of countering the BJP’s majoritarian agenda is extremely daunting when secularism means being pro-Muslim and thus, “anti-national.”        

The Gandhi-centric working has marginalized strong and credible Congress chief ministers Amarinder Singh (Punjab), Kamal Nath (Madhya Pradesh), Ashok Gehlot (Rajasthan) and Bhupesh Baghel (Chhattisgarh). Decision-making by a weak leadership and anxiety to hold everyone together have left these older satraps fighting with younger rivals.

Generational changes have been most painful in Congress whose Treasurer is 92. None retires in India, anyway, irrespective of age and health.

The Gandhis need to take political sabbatical, completely, if not quit. Let Amarinder Singh head the organization, with young, strong support from the likes of Sachin Pilot and Jyotiraditya Scindia. Lok Sabha needs an articulate Shashi Tharoor.

But naming names is futile till the party that is wedded to only one name acts. There is still time, last chance, perhaps, to stem the rot.

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

CM Amarinder to meet Trudeau in Amritsar

Look forward to meeting Canadian Prime Minister @JustinTrudeau in Amritsar on Wednesday. I’m hopeful that this meeting will help strengthen the close Indo-Canadian business ties as well as the deep-rooted people-to-people relations between our two countries.

— Capt.Amarinder Singh (@capt_amarinder) February 19, 2018 Trudeau is arriving in Amritsar on Wednesday and will offer prayers at the Golden Temple complex, where the holiest of Sikh shrines ‘Harmandir Sahib’ is located. The visit is of political and social significance in Canada as that country has a substantial Indian diaspora, majority of them being from Punjab. “Look forward to take Punjab’s close business as well as people-to-people relations with Canada to the next level, with a one-to-one meeting with visiting Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Amritsar on Wednesday,” Amarinder Singh said. The Chief Minister, who has already issued instructions to the state administration to roll out the red carpet for the visiting dignitary’s visit, said on Monday that he looked forward to the meeting. “Look forward to meeting Canadian Prime Minister @JustinTrudeau in Amritsar on Wednesday. I’m hopeful that this meeting will help strengthen the close Indo-Canadian business ties as well as the deep-rooted people-to-people relations between our two countries,” he posted. There was uncertainty over Amarinder Singh’s meeting with Trudeau as the Punjab Chief Minister had last year courted controversy when he had refused to meet Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan, the first Sikh Defence Minister of a western country, during a visit to Punjab in April last year. Amarinder Singh had gone public to label Sajjan and other ministers of Indian origin in the Trudeau government as “Khalistani sympathizers”. In a change of tone now, Amarinder Singh expressed the hope that his meeting with Trudeau would help strengthen the bilateral relations in context of the diaspora. While trade and business will be the key focus area of the meeting, the two leaders are also expected to discuss steps to intensify the close relations between the people of the two countries, according to a spokesperson of the Chief Minister’s Office (CMO). Punjab has deep roots with Canada, where a large Punjabi community is settled, and has always striven to strengthen the connect, Amarinder Singh said and expressed appreciation for Trudeau’s efforts in this direction. Citing Trudeau’s apology two years ago in the Canadian parliament for the 1914 Komagata Maru incident, in which hundreds of Sikh, Muslim and Hindu passengers in a ship were denied entry to Canada and forced to return to India, where they met a violent fate, he said it was a gesture that underlined the depth of the relations between the two countries, which Wednesday’s meeting would help in consolidating further. (IANS)]]>