National

Punjab Manifesto: Switching To Populist Policies

In the 2022 state elections, all political parties focussed on welfare schemes. The results were mixed

Victory Signs: Punjab chief minister Bhagwant Mann waves at his supporters
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On October 12, 2015, more than 110 Angs (pages) of Guru Granth Sahib were found lying on the ground in front of a gurdwara in Bargari in Faridkot district of Punjab. A bandh was announced and protestors blocked a major highway intersection. Police personnel were deployed to prevent any violence. In October, several more incidents of desecration were reported from various places in Punjab.

Captain Amarinder Singh from Congress demanded the resignation of the then Chief Minister of Punjab, Shiromani Akali Dal’s (SAD) Parkash Singh Badal, and the imposition of President’s rule in the state.

Two years later, ahead of the 2017 Punjab Assembly election, Captain Amarinder Singh took a pledge to bring to books the culprits of the Bargari desecration case. He also promised to provide justice to the family of the two people who allegedly died in the protests.

Congress won the 2017 election. Badal lost. One of the reasons cited was that for SAD, Bargari desecration was not a central issue. In fact, it was alleged that they tried to suppress the protests. While the 2017 election was fought on the issues of religion and culture, the 2022 election was different. There was a change in the script of party manifestos. Most focused on development and welfare schemes. The results were mixed. What worked for some parties in 2017 did not in 2022.

“In 2022, it happened for the first time that instead of raising religious and cultural issues, political parties focused on development issues and talked about the same in the campaigns,” says Hameer Singh, a senior journalist, who has been covering Punjab politics for long.

The many issues pertaining to religious sentiments raised in 2017 were missing in the 2022 election, he says. “In Punjab, religious or communal issues have never been raised. Even the BJP has to be subtle about it,” he adds.

In the recent Karnataka elections—which the Congress swept—the general trend was that many hard line party workers refrained from commenting on religious and cultural issues. In Punjab, these issues don’t impact the elections the way they do in the rest of the country. The 2017 and 2022 state elections were a proof of this.

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BJP workers at a rally Photo: Getty Images

In the state, emotional issues like justice have had an advantage over other issues. This worked for the Congress in the 2017 state elections. But, did not in 2022. The promise of providing justice in the Bargari desecration case started bothering the then Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh as the days of the elections were approaching. He had lost his seat almost three-and-a-half months before the elections and the issue of providing religious justice did not remain as poignant in 2022 elections as it was in the last election.

The elections were scheduled for February 2022. A few days ahead of the elections, the media was joking at the press club that both the Congress and the opposition party, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), had probably forgotten to release their election manifestos. Congress rectified its mistake two days later. Even after the publication of this news in several newspapers, AAP did not release its manifesto. The party made many verbal promises, but not in any written format.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) tried to draw attention to the issue of national security while other parties tried to lure the voters by providing freebies through their populist approach.

Congress promised Rs 1,100 per month and eight cylinders per year to women. While AAP promised to give Rs 1,000 to women, Akali Dal promised to give Rs 2,000 per month to blue card-holders.

Almost all the parties promised free electricity and a fixed sum to women every month. The Congress and SAD promised to end sand and liquor mafia. The BJP promised to bring new excise policy and give mining authority. AAP did not make any promises on those fronts.

“In the run-up to the elections, many protests were organised that talked about providing economic benefits to women, and focused on education and welfare of farmers,” says Jagrup Sakhon, professor of Guru Nanak Dev University.

“Some politicians did try to raise issues of religion and culture but they could not garner much support. People were looking for a permanent solution to the rural economic crisis. However, the entire election campaign, instead of focusing on the economic front, paid more attention to populist approach. Election manifestos have become more of a formal thing now. Even the senior party leaders don’t bother to read them,” he adds.

The impact of farmer protests of 2020-2021 was very much evident in the election. Every party talked about it in their election campaigns. How­e­ver, only the BJP and SAD manifestos mentioned in detail the exhaustive programmes meant for the farmers. The Congress, BJP and SAD promised to provide minimum support prices for pulses, oilseeds and maize.

The BJP, which had suffered for a year because of the protests, among other things, had promised a complete loan-waiver for farmers with less than five acres of landholdings, and Rs 6,000 to landless farmers. Akali Dal had promised to provide diesel for irrigation purposes at Rs 10 less than the market price. However, AAP did not make any promises in written form.

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However, just after the state elections, Simranjeet Singh Mann, who was responsible for fanning the religious sentiments of Sikhs, won the Sangroor by-elections. Similarly, by the end of the year, Amritpal Singh gained popularity for raising unresolved cultural and religious issue.

Narrating an interesting anecdote, Gurshamsheer, a Punjab-based journalist, says: “The 1997 state election is considered to be a cooling phase after 1984. That time Akali Dal had won the elections and raised issues like the release of Sikh political prisoners, human rights violations and fake encounters of Sikhs in their manifesto. These issues have not been addressed till date. It is quite apparent that the healing touch that the state requires on cultural and religious issues has not been provided for. As a result, these matters keep coming up again and again.”

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(Views expressed are personal)

Mandeep Punia is an independent journalist

(This appeared in print as "Populist Policies")

(This piece was translated from Hindi to English by Kaveri)

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