In an evenly poised battle in Punjab where the ruling SAD-BJP alliance is fighting a strong anti-incumbency, the Congress and the AAP are fighting the internal dissidence
Regardless of the outcome of the Feb 4 Assembly elections in Punjab, it would be curtains on electoral politics of two senior-most politicians in the state. Even if either of them becomes chief minister of Punjab or not, it is the last election in their illustrious political career that they are fighting.
Both, Chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, who is also a patron of the Shiromani Akali Dal, and his arch rival former chief minister and Punjab PCC president Capt. Amarinder Singh are contesting the last election of their life. And as the chance would have it, both are locked in a direct contest at the Lambi Assembly seat for one
While Amarinder, at 74, has publicly proclaimed that this would be the last election in his political career, Badal at 89 has not made any such commitment publicly, but it would be well nigh improbable to see him contesting in the next Assembly elections in 2022.
The Sidhu factor
After keeping the entire state guessing for a few months Navjot Singh Sidhu finally settled down for “home coming”, and home to him was not the BJP, the party that gave him a political birth, but the Congress, with which his father was shyly associated. His father Bhagwant Singh was never an active Congress leader, but was advocate general of Punjab during the Congress rule.
Lambi happens to be Badal’s home constituency from where he is running fourth consecutive term as an MLA. Amarinder, whose home seat is in Patiala, has chosen to contest from Lambi just “teach Badal a lesson”.
While five-time chief minister Badal has never stirred out of his home turf all through his political career, Amarinder has been making forays in different parts of the state to establish his political credentials. In the last Lok Sabha elections in 2014 Amarinder left his Patiala Lok Sabha seat to contest from the Amritsar Lok Sabha seat against the BJP stalwart Arun Jaitley, whom he trounced convincingly.
In order to reaffirm his political credentials Amarinder is contesting from two constituencies, Lambi and Patiala Urban, and he is the only political leader in the state to do so.
Keeping a close eye
Chief Electoral Officer VK Singh, IAS, said for the first time in Punjab would run the voter-verified paper audit trial during the elections.
The fierce contest between the two stalwarts would also see the AAP party pitching in in a formidable manner, threatening to disturb the apple cart of the two.
In all, 1145 candidates, highest in the recent times, are in the fray for 117 Assembly seats. The Congress has fielded candidates on all the 117 seats while new entrant AAP has nominated 112 candidates leaving five seats for its alliance partner, Lok Insaf Party.
The ruling Shiromani Akali Dal has 94 contestants whereas its ally, the BJP, has 23 candidates in the field. At the same time the BSP has fielded 111 candidates and the All-India Trinamool Congress has 20 contestants.
Drugs, corruption and demonetisation are the main issues that have shaped the high-octave election campaign of the Congress and the AAP, whereas the ruling SAD-BJP alliance has been trying to cut into anti-incumbency by offering more sops to voters and trying to highlight achievements in governance.
More than 280 companies of para-military forces have been deployed all over the state to prevent any law and order situation in the high-voltage campaign trail.
Besides Lambi, where the chief minister is fielded against the PCC president Amarinder Singh, the other key constituencies are Jalalabad where deputy chief minister Sukhbir Badal will be taking on state AAP senior leader Bhagwant Mann, who is also an MP from Sangrur Lok Sabha seat, and Amritsar, where Navjot Sidhu is in
The ruling Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP alliance, which has been in power in the state for the last ten years in succession, faces a strong anti-incumbency wave.But with the Congress being far too fractured and the AAP embattling with fissures
within, the electoral contest looks to be evenly poised.
In the outgoing House the ruling alliance has 71 members in the 117-member House, whereas the Congress has 45 seats and one independent.
The AAP being a political debutant of sorts in the state Assembly elections would be a critical factor to count on. In the last Lok Sabha elections in 2014 the party had shocked poll observers by winning four of the 13 Lok Sabha seats. Punjab, incidentally, was the only state in the country to give representation to the AAP in the Lok Sabha to help the party find a foothold in the Parliament.
But ever since the party has been sliding in popularity. While two of its four MPs quit the party in 2015, subsequently it kept landing itself in one controversy or the other, thus injecting disillusionment among voters. The party's failure to project a popular face as a chief minister has been a big dampener. None of the faces in the forefront have been able to evoke voters' confidence, leaving the field open to conjectures whether Arvind Kejriwal himself would become the chief minister candidate in Punjab handing over Delhi to deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia.
The ticket distribution in the party has also bred resentment leaving the entire structure in fissures. Kejriwal remains the only crowd puller for the party, but would he be carry the boat single-handedly, is a moot point.
The Congress, on the other hand, is a divided house within. The party leaders' faith and trust in PCC president Amarinder Singh has been not just wavering but crippling, especially for the reason that he has led the party to two consecutive defeats in the Assembly elections held in 2007 and 2012. But in the campaign he has emerged as the party's popular mascot who could be announced the chief minister candidate any time.
Two strong positives in its favour this time have been, one, the party has made sure that tickets are distributed well in advance so that it can take care of last-minute dissidence, and two, the PCC chief himself has been slogging in campaign for the last two months.
The PCC president coming from an erstwhile Patiala royal family has been unpopular for his inaccessibility as much as for his laid-back style of campaigning. How much of his efforts to reach out to voters is converted into votes could be anybody’s guess at the moment.
The Akali Dal-BJP alliance has set a record of sorts by being in power in Punjab for ten running years. More than the BJP, it is anti-incumbency against the Akalis which has pitted the odds against the alliance.
While the BJP stands to consolidate its position due to the NDA’s Performance at the Centre, it is the much-too heavy odds against the Akali Dal which is an overwhelming challenge. More than chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, it is the image of deputy chief minister Sukhbir Badal that seems to have become a drag on the alliance.
In a way, all three major contestants seem to be evenly poised with their baggage. If the clue from last elections is taken then if AAP dents traditional Congress votes as it did in Delhi, the SAD alongwith BJP can still fight the anti-incumbency. SAD has a strong hold over rural Punjab with agragarian voters, BJP consoladiting in urban centres can give the ruling alliance a upper hand.