National

Chak De Change: A New Trend In Punjab's Politics

There is a new churning in Punjab politics and the Bharatiya Janata Party is diving in with an eye on the 2027 assembly election

Photo: PTI
Fluid Political Matrix: BJP supporters at a 2024 Lok Sabha campaign meeting at Hoshiarpur, Punjab Photo: PTI
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In March 2024, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) officially announced its decision to contest the 2024 general election in Punjab on its own, the party’s decision was neither sudden nor unexpected. The decision to go solo was linked to a deeper dynamics, largely capitalising on the State’s changing political matrix, which is in the throes of a dynamic transition—both generational and cultural. After three decades as a junior partner of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), an ideologically divergent ally, the BJP contested all 13 Lok Sabha seats in Punjab’s new four-cornered political landscape, but did not win any. However, even in its failure, there is a silver lining for the saffron party, which already governs at the Centre under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, now serving his third term. During the election campaign, Modi sought to connect with Punjab’s voters by criticising the ruling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) for drug trade and economic challenges, while also targeting the Congress.

At a rally in Hoshiarpur, he claimed, “The government’s authority doesn’t prevail here; instead, it’s the sand and drug mafia along with shooter gangs.” When he assumed office after the polls, Prime Minister Modi swiftly appointed Ravneet Singh Bittu, a former two-time Congress MP who lost the Ludhiana Lok Sabha election, to the Union cabinet.

In the 13 Lok Sabha seats, the Congress, despite being part of the INDIA bloc, won seven seats, one less than in 2019. The AAP secured three seats, while the Akalis won one in Bathinda. The SAD’s attempt to regain farmers’ trust amid ongoing protests backfired. Worse, their vote share fell from 27.45 percent in 2019 to 13.42 percent in 2024, with 10 out of 13 candidates losing their security deposits.

The Congress won seven seats—Amritsar, Jalandhar, Ferozepur, Patiala, Ludhiana, and Fatehgarh Sahib—capitalising on anti-incumbency against the AAP and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Its traditional vote share dropped from 42.01 percent in the 2022 assembly polls to 26.02 percent, attributed by analysts to Congress stalwarts’ exodus to the BJP. The Congress, once a beneficiary of bipolar politics, no longer dominates the northern State.

In this scenario, Avinash Rai Khanna, a former BJP MP from Punjab, outlines the party’s determination to engage more proactively in Punjab and build up their machinery with an eye on the 2027 State assembly election.

BJP leaders believe Modi appointed Bittu to his cabinet for his ability to address Punjab’s popular challenges and advance the party’s agenda. The appointment also aims to bridge the party’s existing gulf with the Sikh community, an ideal desired by the late SAD patriarch Parkash Singh Badal. Badal passed away in 2023 and the SAD parted ways with the BJP in September 2020 amid farm protests. Contesting separately in the 2022 assembly election, AAP emerged victorious with 92 seats, surpassing the SAD and the Congress, the traditional power players in the agrarian State.

Bittu’s oath as Minister of State in Modi 3.0 is politically significant for the BJP. This move aims to project him as a future party leader and to counter the Congress in the State.

The Akalis and the Congress suffered heavy losses in the last State polls, with heavyweights like Parkash Singh Badal, Charanjit Singh Channi, Captain Amarinder Singh and Navjot Singh Sidhu losing their seats. Punjab’s political landscape has shifted with emerging new alliances.

Khanna, a former State BJP president, admits to the “new churning” in Punjab politics. “With an 18.5 percent vote share in the 2022 polls, up from 9.63 percent in 2019 after ending ties with SAD, our party led in 23 assembly constituencies and secured second place in six others. This is highly encouraging. We aim to form the government in Punjab by 2027. You will witness many positive developments for the BJP in Punjab.”

Bittu’s oath as Minister of State in Modi 3.0 is politically significant for the BJP. The deliberate move aims to project him as a future party leader and to counter the Congress in the State. Bittu, the grandson of slain CM Beant Singh, opposes separatism and drug issues, aligning with the BJP’s Punjab agenda.

“Beant Singh was one chief minister who eliminated militancy from Punjab and also sacrificed his life. Bittu represents his legacy and happens to be a popular leader who can make an impact in the State due to his own popular base and experience,” according to Khanna.

His inclusion ensures Sikh representation in the cabinet, addressing diversity concerns and boosting the BJP’s visibility in the border State. This comes amid debates over the election of two Sikhs accused of radicalism and alleged Khalistani sympathies, and their impact on Punjab’s peace.

Professor Ashutosh Kumar of Punjab University, Chandigarh, views the election of Amritpal Singh from Khadoor Sahib and Sarabjit Singh Khalsa from Faridkot as worrying. Khalsa is the son of Beant Singh, an assassin of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. He and Singh, both associated with separatism, highlight lingering wounds from past unrest and unmet demands of the Sikh electorate. “Their wins can also be attributed to people’s growing alienation with traditional parties like the Congress, the SAD and also the AAP,” Kumar says.

Radical Sikh preacher Amritpal Singh, 31, who is currently jailed under the National Security Act in Assam’s Dibrugarh, won by 1.97 lakh votes, the highest margin in the State. His family has sought his temporary release to let him take the parliamentary oath.

According to Kumar, the BJP has adopted a strategy that it has used to the hilt in States like Odisha, Bihar, Karnataka and Maharashtra. The strategy, he says, involves initially aligning with powerful regional parties as a junior ally before establishing itself as a viable force.

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Despite challenges like the farmers’ agitation and opposition from farmers, the BJP’s 18.5 percent vote share indicates its appeal to both Hindu and Sikh voters, even in rural areas. Previously limited to urban areas, the BJP now shows strength independently in Punjab, cutting across urban and rural regions. When Sunil Jakhar, the BJP State president had announced the party’s decision to go solo in the 2024 polls, he said that the “decision was based on feedback from its workers and the public in general.”

Jakhar, who led early Congress defections to the BJP before the 2022 assembly polls, now heads the State unit. With Bittu and other former Congress and AAP leaders in the BJP, the party strategically expands across the Malwa, Majha and Doaba regions. The surge in vote share signals a promising future. “Our eyes are set on the 2027 assembly election,” Jakhar maintains.

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Jagtar Singh, a veteran Punjab journalist says, “The 2024 Punjab election is not all about statistics. The statistics don’t provide much insight into the changing electoral dynamics of the State. Of the poll’s key-takeaways, the most notable is the increase in the vote share of the Congress and the BJP—both national parties.” He predicts, “The BJP entered the Punjab arena with a bang in this election, although it has not won any seats. It has succeeded in entering even the rural areas, despite strong opposition from farmers’ organisations. This is the party that is eyeing the 2027 assembly election.” The SAD, the second oldest political party and once the voice of the Sikhs, he says, is in ideological confusion, while the AAP lacks local roots as well as a future vision beyond freebies.

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Bittu emphasises Modi’s development focus despite his electoral loss in Punjab, adding that he will address farmers’ issues in co-ordination with the Centre. “Even when I was with the Congress, I always spoke for the national interest on several issues, be it our relations with Canada and Pakistan, or drugs. Punjab is a border State with several issues. I will be a bridge between the people of Punjab and Delhi.”

(This appeared in the print as 'Chak De Change')

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