2017 Indian Assembly Elections

Punjab: Congress and Strong Regional Leaders

22 Mar, 2017    ·   5252

Niharika Tagotra considers how state elections work differently than national elections, using Punjab as an example

The Punjab state assembly election results, declared on 11 March, gave a clear mandate to the Congress. Congress secured 77 of the 117 available seats, emerging as the single largest party in this crucial border state. The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)-Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) alliance won with 18 seats, just two short of rival Aam Aadami Party (AAP), which secured 20 seats. Congress’ overwhelming victory came despite the prevalent political wave favouring BJP at the national level, and AAP’s success in Punjab during the 2014 parliamentary elections. This demonstrates that in India, state elections still work differently than national elections.

Punjab proved to be the last man standing for the Congress party, and there are several key takeaways from this election result. Captain Amarinder Singh’s leadership has been endorsed by voters cutting across caste and community lines, evident from the Congress’ vote share among both the Sikh and Dalit voters. The Congress dominated the Majha, Doaba and Malwa regions, winning 22(out of 25), 15 (of 23) and 40 (of 69) seats respectively, outpacing both the Akalis and the AAP. AAP was expected to put up a strong fight in Malwa, but was unable to secure the necessary support from the region’s Dalit voters, winning only 18 seats. The fact that Congress won despite a weak central leadership can be largely attributed to Singh’s popularity in the state. Moreover, the central leadership’s decision to announce Singh as the chief ministerial candidate only a week before the elections were to commence shows why even less credit should be given to them for this success. This holds important lessons for the Congress, which is staring at a “full blown political crisis” nationwide. Strong regional leaders like Singh need to be given greater prominence for the party to regain its credibility and popularity in the country. The party must reach out to its peripheral leaders and consolidate its regional votes. Singh as an obvious alternative to the corrupt Akali BJP regime, despite AAP's strong presence in the state, could signal a chance for Congress' revival. Only, it will have to move away from the top-down hierarchical command chain that it has established for itself.

The Punjab election results also delivered a blow to AAP’s aspirations in the state. The party’s disastrous performance can be attributed to a host of reasons. Primarily, the failure to project a local face as a chief ministerial candidate cost AAP dearly. The fact that later in the campaign, Arvind Kejriwal was projected as the potential chief minister (CM) gave strength to the “outsider-as-a-CM” narrative, significantly undermining its electoral prospects. AAP’s internal politics, such as the party’s state chief and crowd puller Sucha Singh Chhotepur's unceremonious exit, and revelation of AAP’s linkages with the Punjabi diaspora, who were earlier accused of funding militant groups in the state, also dented its image. The bomb blasts that rocked Bhatinda on 31 January, killing five, were also indirectly attributed to the Kejriwal’s close ties with Gurinder Singh, a former Khalistani militant. The party was accused of trying to mainstream the extremists and give more political space to the Khalistani movement to fulfil its own political ambitions; something that evidently did not go down well with the voters in Punjab.

Finally, the anti-incumbency factor weighed heavily against the Akalis in the state. With a tally of 15 seats, SAD performed worse than in 2002, when the party lost the elections but won 41 seats. The decade-long Akali regime in the state was accused of large-scale corruption. Despite the claims of boosting urban and rural developmental projects, the state suffered from a lack of governance. The Badal government has also been held primarily responsible for Punjab’s massive drug problem. The alleged involvement of Akali state parliamentarians, including Bikram Singh Majithia, in a drug scam as well as allegations of nepotism and severe maladministration contributed to the massive anti-incumbency.

That Punjab resisted the “Modi wave” successfully is an important indicator of the voter mindset, which works differently at the state and national levels. In the 2014 parliamentary elections, Akali-BJP was able to secure 5 out of the 14 seats, while the AAP managed 4, and the Congress could garner only 3 seats. The result in the 2017 state elections has been the complete opposite of 2014; a scenario that will require  introspection by both the winners and the losers. A border state with strong separatist undercurrents and increasing economic problems presents the country with a multitude of security challenges. This scenario presents the next government with opportunities and challenges in abundance.