Punjab election: A desperate attempt to win on all sides

In Punjab, beneath the calm, smiling faces of political leaders lies a creeping sense of despair, mainly because their future is uncertain. The two main parties in the state, the Congress and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), are unsure of victory, and there is an underlying threat of a hung Assembly. They are reassured by their economic power, which has been the key to success in some constituencies, but which may not prove decisive in this election. Now it seems the political tide took a slightly different turn in favor of the Aam Adami Party (AAP), a phenomenon quite similar to the 2017 election in Punjab. However, even the AAP leaders seem unsure of their victory as there are undercurrents beyond their control and political tactics.

As it seems, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its alliance parties might fail to influence the post-election scenario, although the future is never known. That said, the media pursues candidates from various parties and devotes its energy to understanding and interpreting their chances of electoral victory, but rarely focuses on voter behavior, conduct and ethics. I’m trying to bring out an essentially ignored but grudgingly recognized factor of voter vulnerability in some conditions. In other words, there is much discussion about the role of money in elections and the corrupt practices of candidates, but the corruptibility of voters is rarely seriously considered.

To begin with, it is essential to remember that elections are a recurring phenomenon and, like religious holidays, have an economy that provides short-term employment opportunities. A lot of money is spent on election campaigns in the form of flexible signs, placards, transport vehicles, advertisements, social media outreach, etc. During the election period, most taxis remain occupied by the work of the candidates. Most of the money comes from the pocket of the candidate, so we should assume that these candidates would like to recoup the same money through dubious means after being elected. The expenses mentioned above are just the tip of the iceberg. The most serious irregularities are committed invisibly. Although everyone seems to know it, these are not sufficiently analyzed as a gigantic system of corruption involving politicians and voters. I will illustrate this by describing the scenario in Punjab.

the Congress Party and the SAD have alternately formed governments since 1966 when the Punjabi Suba came into being. Only once, from 2007 to 2017, the SAD formed the government to two consecutive terms. The AAP is a new party that is still struggling to exert a decisive influence on Punjab politics, but the other two are seasoned players in Punjab politics. They are distinguished from other parties by their grassroots and mass support, which cuts through the villages and towns of Punjab. As elections for city local bodies and village panchayats unfold party lines, their practices are no different from the Assembly and parliamentary polls. The problem starts at the bottom and moves up, turning the whole system into a well-oiled machine.

The village was the subject of debate among politicians from the nationalist movement under Gandhi, who pointed to its glory. Most Gandhians have always accepted his position. On November 4, 1948, when BR Ambedkar moved the resolution to discuss the draft Constitution, he briefly characterized the indian village as a site of darkness in his long speech. There was a backlash against his views on the Indian village, but on 8 November Ambedkar found two supporters in Begum Aizaz Rasul from the United Provinces and Dr. Mono Mohan Das from West Bengal.

Das told the Constituent Assembly, “The local influential classes will absorb all the powers and privileges that will be given to the Panchayat system and they will use it for their selfish motives. This system will allow the village zamindars, village talukdars, mahajans and money lending classes to steal, exploit the less cultured, less educated, poorer classes in the village”. Das made a prophetic observation about the future of the villages, as this is what we are witnessing in the villages of Punjab and elsewhere.

Coming back to the assembly election in Punjab, most candidates come from families with a history of party affiliation. Most likely, a candidate’s father or grandfather was a leader, or even a legislator. For example, the father of Deputy Chief Minister of Punjab, Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa, Santokh Singh, was the President of the Punjab Congress. Navjot Singh Sidhu’s father and mother were also Congress leaders. Everyone knows that Sukhbir Badal, chairman of SAD, is the son of Parkash Singh Badal, founder of SAD and former chief minister of the state. These leaders, regardless of their political affiliations, are linked not only by psychological similarities but also by intermarriage. Bikramjit Singh Majithia’s sister is married to Sukhbir Singh Badal, whose sister is married to Adesh Partap Singh, the grandson of Partap Singh Kairon, another former chief minister of Punjab who was part of the Congress party. Typically, among Congress and Akali leaders, kinship networks transcend political affiliations.

The leaders of these two parties operate at the local level through panchayats, which are also part of the political dynamics at the state level. Punjab may be unique in terms of political divisions within villages as well as between villages. There are villages with strong alliances, either with the SAD or with the Congress party. However, most villages also have competing SAD and Congress factions. These factions existed for generations after independence. As a result, panchayat elections are held with great competitiveness and sometimes end in violence.

During panchayat elections, alcohol is distributed free of charge. And, when the Assembly elections come around, candidates and parties use the same medium. Candidates activate their support through sarpanches and other supporters. In addition to alcohol, a lot of cash is distributed to underprivileged sections of the villages. In towns, councilors perform a function similar to sarpanches in rural areas. A large number of villages have been able to get out of this economic trap, but the dominant pattern remains unchanged. As soon as an election campaign ends, money and alcohol are distributed to voters. Given the February 20 polls across Punjab, all of these things will be crucial a day before.

In light of the above, although it may seem that the AAP has the advantage over the other parties, it is difficult to predict the outcome of the elections. Given the close ties between the main leaders of the two main parties, it is quite possible that to prevent the AAP from coming to power, the Congress leaders will ask their supporters to vote for SAD. In 2017, SAD leaders did it for Congress. The system in place has proven extremely beneficial to both over the years, and the AAP may struggle to break out of this impasse. However, the story does not end there.

Suppose AAP wins the majority. Even that does not mean that he will form the government. After the election results, the Goa Syndrome would start and the haggling would happen. If the AAP wins 60 of the 117 seats, newly elected lawmakers will likely switch to the other party that makes lucrative bids. The other party is likely to be SAD, which can chain the BJP and its alliance partners. Therefore, only if the AAP wins more than seventy seats can it form a stable government, but we have to wait for the results on March 10 to see what factors come into play.

The author was a professor of sociology at Guru Nanak Dev University in Amritsar and former president of the Indian Sociological Society. Opinions are personal

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