Will SAD-BJP be third time lucky?

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PM Narendra Modi in Bathinda.Will Congress under former CM Capt Amarinder Singh break its losing streak with a win in Punjab? Or will it be Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janta Party alliance that would be third time lucky? What were the reasons for the sudden rise of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) like a meteor and fall like phoenix?

It is said that fortune turns like a wheel and one can see that first it was AAP that appeared to be the front-runner in Punjab that would go to polls on February 4. The wheel of fortune then started
turning in favour of the Congress with the popularity of Capt Singh, party’s CM face going up the popularity graph.

Now Shiromani Akali Dal and BJP combine that was facing anti-incumbency, seems to be making a desperate bid to emerge third time lucky with completion of many developmental projects.

However, all eyes are on Prime Minister Narendera Modi set to visit the state on a whirlwind tour to turn fence sitters in favour of the ruling alliance. This raises a question whether the Congress would be able to come out of |oblivion and end the BJP’s dream of a Congress-mukt Bharat? The ruling alliance is also banking heavily on the split of “anti-incumbency” votes among Congress, AAP and the proposed fourth front.

Sadly, AAP has been undergoing one crisis after the other. Alittle over an year, two of its four MPs rebelled and have been speaking against the party and its leader Arvind Kejriwal. Following the Delhi CM’s flap with leaders such as Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav, a section of the AAP split. The reason AAP has lost the plot is their internal fights. Expelling Yogendra Yadav, Prashant Bhushan, Bhai Baldeep, Sucha Singh Chotepur, Jassi Jasraj and their two honest MPs Dharamvira Gandhi and Harinder Singh Khalsa has done irreparable damage in their respective constituencies.

Nobody knows the exact moment when AAP started falling. Some in Punjab believe the AAP started losing its touch after booting out Sucha Singh Chhotepur and slamming the door on cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu, creating the impression that its Delhi leaders were opposed to local Sikh heavyweights. There was more trouble in store for AAP when it decided to keep local leaders such as AAP’s State Convenor Sucha Singh Chhotepur out of the selection process, which led to a revolt. Allegations against Chhotepur of accepting money from prospective candidates, added fuel to the fire.

Overconfident in his belief that his party would pocket Punjab, Kejriwal had shut the door on Sidhu, forcing the cricketer to flirt first with the option of floating his own party, then withdrawing his fledgling unit from elections and finally knocking on the Congress doors. It is quite likely that Kejriwal will rue his decision of keeping Sidhu out of AAP when the election results are announced. In fact, when Sidhu resigned from the Rajya Sabha, it was widely believed that he would lead the AAP campaign. But Kejriwal left him stranded. A setback for Kejriwal in Punjab would immediately thwart his expansion plans and position the Congress as the BJP’s principal adversary in states where elections are due next.

Post the Anna Hazare movement of 2011, the AAP usurped the anti-corruption discourse and scored an unexpected electoral success in its debut 2013 Delhi Assembly elections. But in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, it lost its deposit in 413 of 432 seats that it had contested. The only exception to the trend was Punjab, where it won four seats out of 13 Parliamentary constituencies. Political analysts ascribed AAP’s victory to the phenomenon of ‘double anti-incumbency’, which adversely affected the Congress at the national level and the Akali-BJP combine at the state level. This is apart from voter disenchantment with the current regime for its perceived complicity in drug running, agrarian distress, rampant corruption, de-industrialisation and rising unemployment. There are four main reasons for this. There appeared to be a strong anti-Akali sentiment running across the three sub-regions of Punjab, Malwa, Majha and Doaba, though the sub-narrative differs across the three sub-regions and social constituencies. Malwa region accounts for almost 60 per cent of the total Assembly seats (69 of 117).

The Jat-Sikhs, a dominant social community and traditional support base of Akalis in the Malwa and Majha regions, are angry with the incumbent government in view of the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib and subsequent police firing upon protesting Sikhs in 2015 have angered the Panthic (religious) minded Jat-Sikh voters. The ‘drug menace’ affecting the Malwa and Majha region in general and the border districts in particular has further compounded the post-Green Revolution agrarian distress, leading to the loss of a generation in many villages. The popular perception of senior Akali leaders patronising and downplaying the illicit drug trade had further alienated the voters.

Congress upbeat

However, Congress, guided by election strategist Prashant Kishor, is awaiting a change in its dipping fortunes. Ever since modern Punjab’s boundary was redrawn some 50 years ago when Haryana and Himachal Pradesh were carved out of it, Punjab has witnessed a straight, two-way contest between the Congress and alliance partners SAD and BJP. After AAP’s debut win of four of the 13 Lok Sabha seats in 2014, the party became the third major force in Punjab and a three-cornered contest was on the cards in the ensuing Assembly elections. Now with Capt Amarinder Singh given the command of ship in Punjab and suave and articulate Sunil Jakhar and former CM Rajinder Kaur Bhattal lending him full support, the Congress seems to have edged past opponents. The Indian betting market is a reliable political weathercock. And, it has been reflecting the changes on the ground in Punjab. Just couple of months ago, bookies were predicting a landslide win for AAP (around 70 seats) and a Congress whitewash. But, the trend has reversed over the past three weeks. The odds now favour Congress winning 50-55 seats, followed by SAD-BJP and AAP a distant third.

SAD-BJP hopeful

Political analysts point out that the combine has 35 per cent permanent vote bank. In 2014 too, SAD-BJP got six Lok Sabha seats against strong anti-incumbency though their vote share was only 29 per cent. Political pundits say that things have improved over the past some years, many persons who voted for AAP this will surely swing eight per cent to nine per cent vote share in SAD-BJP’s favour. Many projects in Punjab are on the verge of completion and people have started to realise that there is no power shortage, water shortage, good roads, good law and order, new airports, new flyovers, no delayed salaries and many populist schemes such as Atta-Dal. The only competitor is Congress. It got highest vote share in parliamentary elections in 2014 that is 33 per cent, but got only three seats. The Congress too can come up with a surprise like they did in Ludhiana, Amritsar and Jalandhar in the Lok Sabha elections in 2014. AAP’s vote share of four per cent to five per cent can swing towards Congress too.

Coupled with developmental projects under the tutelage of Deputy CM of Punjab Sukhbir Singh Badal and the Prime Minister’s charisma and two of his actions taken in the closing months of 2016 — Indian Army’s strike across the Line of Control (LoC) at terror launch pads in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) and demonetisation — make for a recipe for success for the BJP-SAD combine in the forthcoming Punjab Assembly elections.

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