They may collectively contribute just 23 seats to the Lok Sabha, but the battle for 13 constituencies of Punjab and 10 in Haryana does not lack in any of the thrill associated with Indian elections. Dynastic clashes, caste arithmetic, open betrayals and covert sabotage, warhorses pitted against dark horses—there’s plenty of it all in this high-stakes election season.
In 2014, riding on the Narendra Modi wave, the BJP had swept seven seats in Haryana and, together with its long-term ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), bagged another six in Punjab. The only blemish for the BJP was in Amritsar, where its most high-profile candidate in the state, Arun Jaitley, lost the first Lok Sabha poll he ever contested, despite the saffron tsunami. Five years later, a fresh political churning is at play in the two states, one that is causing equal unease to the established players in the field.
The electoral stunner in Punjab, in 2014, was Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Despite drawing a blank in Delhi, the city-state where it was born, AAP had won a 24 per cent vote share and four seats in Punjab. Haryana, however, treated AAP as a pariah; its candidates lost their deposits on all 10 seats of the state. Three years after the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the election to Punjab’s 117-member assembly, in February 2017, saw the Amarinder Singh-led Congress dethroning the SAD-BJP regime. AAP, meanwhile, emerged as the largest opposition party.
But, within a year, AAP was besieged with rebellion. Seven of its MLAs, led by former leader of opposition in the Punjab assembly, Sukhpal Singh Khaira formed a rival group. AAP’s star legislator, advocate H.S. Phoolka, also quit the party. Two other MLAs have now joined the Congress and there is speculation that more of its legislators may switch to the Congress or SAD in the weeks ahead.
With five rebel AAP legislators, Khaira formed his own outfit, the Punjab Ekta Party. Together with the Bahujan Samaj Party, Dharam Vir Gandhi’s Nava Punjab Party and Lok Insaaf Party, Khaira has stitched the Punjab Democratic Alliance (PDA), to field candidates on all 13 seats of the state. Punjab’s LS contest had never been so crowded. Khaira himself is contesting the polls from Bathinda against incumbent Akali MP Harsimrat Kaur Badal, besides the AAP and Congress candidates, turning the traditionally bipolar contest into a four-cornered battle.
Hardeep Singh Puri; and Dushyant Chauhan campaigning. .
But AAP is trying to put up a brave face. “Khaira and other rebels are opportunists. They will have no impact on our prospects. We are going to recover from this and will perform better than we did in 2014,” AAP’s Punjab unit chief Bhagwant Mann, who is seeking a second term from the Sangrur constituency, told Outlook. The Congress brushes aside AAP’s claims as “a fantasy”. It is convinced that AAP’s decline will strengthen the Congress, while the rebels will dent AAP on the four seats its candidates won in 2014 and the SAD-BJP nominees elsewhere. Ludhiana MP Ravneet Singh, who is seeking a fresh term, told Outlook, “AAP is finished in Punjab…the people are happy with Amarinder Singh in the state and Rahul Gandhi’s leadership at the national level.”
For the Akali-BJP alliance, the battle is one of survival. The BJP is contesting on three seats but has been wrecked by infighting for fielding “outsiders” on two of these—actor Sunny Deol in Gurdaspur and diplomat-turned politician Hardeep Puri in Amritsar. The desperation within the Akali camp can be gauged from the fact that both warhorses of Parkash Singh Badal’s clan—son Sukhbir Singh and daughter-in-law Harsimrat Kaur—are in the poll fray.
In Haryana, an even more fragmented contest is in the making. Ever since it was carved out of Punjab province in 1966, Haryana has witnessed an electoral clash between the four families that are synonymous with its caste-infatuated politics—those of Devi Lal, Bansi Lal, Bhajan Lal and the Hoodas. The AAP has joined hands with Dushyant Chautala’s Jananayak Janata Party (JJP), a breakaway faction of Devi Lal’s son, Om Prakash Chautala’s INLD, and is contesting on only three seats.
The BJP does not have within its ranks any dynast but has consolidated its position in Haryana through clever social engineering. The Jat community, with its nearly 27 per cent vote share, has traditionally dominated Haryana’s politics. The BJP succeeded in breaking this caste dominance in 2014 by consolidating the Punjabi, Brahmin, Bania, Rajput and Gujjar communities that collectively account for 32 per cent of the state’s population. It swept seven Lok Sabha seats, and months later, in October, formed its first majority government in the state.
The BJP knows that division of Jat votes between the Congress, INLD and JJP puts its non-Jat nominees within striking distance of victory. While the father-son duo of Bhupinder and Deepinder Hooda has plunged into the poll battle as Congress candidates from the Jat-dominated Sonipat and Rohtak constituencies respectively, the BJP has fielded Brahmins against them. The Hoodas were largely seen as architect of the 2016 violent Jat agitation which had strongly hit businesses run by non-Jats across the state. The BJP hopes to capitalise on the anti-Jat anger and division of Jat votes between the Congress, INLD and JJP in Sonipat and Rohtak.
Manohar Lal Khattar, the first Punjabi chief minister of Haryana, told Outlook that the BJP “is set to sweep the polls in Haryana because people are satisfied with my government and have immense faith in Modi”. But, Bhupinder Hooda believes that the Congress is on a “definite revival”. While the BJP remains positive of victory in Jat-dominated seats, its leaders agree that the non-Jat constituencies will “be difficult to win”. “In Ambala and Sirsa, the BJP is facing anger from Dera Sacha Sauda followers who believe that the incarceration of their chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim in rape cases was a failure of the Khattar government.
Unlike Punjab, the AAP seems set to score a blank in Haryana once again. “After the Congress turned us down, we had to ally with the JJP. The JJP has an existing voter base among Jats due to the Devi Lal and Chautala legacy but on seats that AAP is contesting, there is a non-Jat majority. Also, we don’t have a clear poll plank in Haryana and talking about Kejriwal’s Delhi model of governance may not win us many votes, except perhaps in Faridabad,” an AAP strategist for Haryana said.
With Haryana set to vote on May 12 and Punjab on May 19, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is set to address multiple rallies in these states over the next week. Given that the two states are a robust recruiting ground for the armed forces, one can expect Modi to vociferously rake up the Pulwama terror attack and the Indian Air Force’s Balakot response. In both these states, there is no dearth
of livelihood issues—unemployment is rampant, the stalemate over the inter-state SYL canal project lingers, law and order are still volatile. Yet, these are largely missing from the election rhetoric, which is still buzzing with talk of dynasties, castes and personalities. The scenario isn’t expected to change much after Modi launches his blitzkrieg.