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Assembly Polls 2022: Is Punjab Really Headed Towards A Hung Assembly?

AAP may have emerged as a formidable political force in the border state but political analysts believe the “untainted” party is unlikely to touch the majority mark

Assembly Polls 2022: Is Punjab Really Headed Towards A Hung Assembly?
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The ruling Congress party encountered two peculiar challenges in the run up to this Punjab state assembly election, says a Chandigarh based party worker, who was on a team that made arrangements for the party’s major rallies in the state. While the party couldn’t deny tickets to most of its underperforming MLAs fearing poaching by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and Punjab Lok Congress, the old timer confides that during its electoral campaign, the party had a hard time owing to financial crunch that followed Capt Amrinder Singh’s exit months before the election.

“The challenge before the state unit was to save itself from further fragmentation. So it had to retain several dead woods. There was shortage of the funds despite the fact the party was in power for five years,” he maintains, adding both the factors are likely to dent the party’s poll prospects. He admits that Amrinder Singh was the main fundraiser for the party’s state unit.

But there is a third factor as well: Malwa region in Punjab determines the government formations in the border state with 69 seats out of the total 117 state assembly seats. This time, the Deras, which exercise massive influence in the Malwa region and some parts of the other two regions of Majha and Doaba which send 25 and 23 representatives to the state assembly respectively, are not supporting the Congress unlike previous state assembly polls, observers say. A considerable number of Dera leaders have gone to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s fold, they say, adding that the BJP has remained successful to a large extent in consolidating the Hindu votes, weaning them away from the Congress. 

Talking about the political undercurrents in the region and overall mood in the Deras of Punjab, political analysts tell Outlook that although the BJP and the Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) have parted ways yet they seemed to have been secretly united by a common political interest.

According to them, there seems to be a silent understanding between the BJP and the Deras that the latter would either support the saffron party or the SAD but not the Congress or the AAP.

Some pre poll surveys have predicted that just like Goa, the assembly poll in Punjab is also going to deliver a fractured mandate with the AAP and the Congress as the front runners. However, the observers tell Outlook that the SAD could emerge as the second biggest party next to the AAP.

“Many voters were disillusioned with the previous 10-year rule of the SAD and the Captain-led Congress. They were looking for a fresh style of governance in Punjab. So they naturally got drawn to AAP,” says Dr Ronki Ram, the Shahid Bhagat Singh Professor of Political Science at Panjab University. “But this vote base got divided once the farmers’ Samyukta Samaj Morcha jumped into electoral politics and changed all the previous calculations.”

“The split in the ‘swing votes’ and the ‘anti-incumbency votes’ is directly going to benefit the traditional cadre based Shiromani Akali Dal-Bahujan Samaj Party alliance and the Congress,” he remarks, dismissing the Shiromani Akali Dal (Sanyukt), Captain Amarinder Singh’s Punjab Lok Congress and the BJP as three party alliance.

Aarish Chhabra, a journalist turned academic says, “AAP has lesser-known people fighting on several seats. What works for AAP is that the declaration of Bhagwant Mann as CM face has at least given it a local face everywhere.”

“Also, AAP has visibly corrected its mistakes from 2017: It dispelled the apprehension that a Hindi-speaking ‘outsider’ (Arvind Kejriwal) might take the CM’s chair; it ran a less noisy campaign, so it did not peak too early; it kept immediate pre-poll infighting to almost nil; and it made no outlandish claims that would make its volunteers complacent,” says Chhabra, who has worked as a journalist with the BBC and the Hindustan Times for over a decade in Punjab. 

“But what is easily being interpreted as an ‘AAP wave’ is the overall feeling of ‘change’ visible in the state. The state seems to have completely consolidated behind this in the week before polling,” he says.

However, the Congress had spotted this yearning for change quite early when it removed Capt Amarinder Singh as chief minister, he points out quickly. “The party made a bold claim to ‘badlaav’ (change) after running a government for four-and-a-half years as, first, Navjot Sidhu proclaimed that it’s time to oust the ‘two-family rule’ of Amarinder and Badals,” he says, adding, “the party made a Dalit man from a humble background, Charanjit Singh Channi, the CM to make that claim even stronger. And Amarinder’s truck with the BJP made the claim of ‘new Congress’ stronger still.”

Pointing to the Congress’ constant and crass infighting, he adds, “These factors seemed to underline that it’s the ‘same old, same old’ style of power-grabbing. But Congress continues to have strong individual candidates, though.”

Many observers believe that with the declaration of Charanjit Singh Channi as CM candidate, the Congress hasn’t remained successful in complete consolidation of the scheduled caste votes, which is around 32 percent, but it certainly has risked alienation of the Jat Sikhs and Hindu voters.

Ashutosh Kumar, who is head of the Political Science department at the Panjab University, says, “This is my gut feeling that the AAP — which is being viewed as an ‘untainted’ party unlike other parties — will reach closer to the majority mark and form the government. But I don’t predict a landslide victory.”

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On the speculations regarding a hung assembly, he says, “This sounds good on paper. It sounds logical and scholarly but I am afraid it may not happen on the ground.”

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