Written by Gurharpal Singh

The Congress party under Captain Amrinder Singh has secured a landslide victory (77 seats out of 117) in the Punjab Legislative Assembly elections held in February 2017.  Riding on a popular anti-incumbency wave against the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) coalition government, it has also seen off the challenge of the Aam Aadmai Party (AAP). The victory is high in symbolism: it restores Congress’ popular governance in a state where its history is chequered with victimisation of the majority Sikh community and, perhaps, more importantly, provides a bridgehead for the revival of the grand old party’s fortunes in the central states. Masterminded by Prashant Kishore, an ex-Modi strategist and his 7,000 strong Indian Political Action Committee, Congress has succeeded in capturing the majority of the rural Sikh, urban Hindu and the Dalit vote.  It has once again emerged as a catch-all party with 38.4 per cent of the popular vote, though its overall vote share actually declined by 1.5 per cent from 2012.

Whilst in government the SAD deflected many of the challenges which emerged from Sikh politics by maintaining a rigid control of the party and the SGPC. It is extremely unlikely that the Badals will be able to maintain this monopoly for much longer. No doubt new voices and formations will emerge, not least at the pent up frustration in some quarters against the SAD leadership that sidelined panthic issues.

The AAP failed to make the decisive breakthrough as the ‘third force’ in the state. Although it captured 23.9 per cent of the vote, the party secured only 20 seats and almost one-third of these from reserved constituencies (for Scheduled Castes). The failure to transform the May 2014 Lok Sabha election performance, when it secured 4 MPs and led in 33 Assembly constituencies, has been attributed to the high level of factionalism and divisions in the party’s campaign, mismanagement, and insensitivities to regional interests. AAP’s high-voltage media campaign drew dividends in the Malwa belt, but its overall impact was to peel-off the SAD vote to the advantage of Congress. The AAP has gained a foothold, but not the instant capture of a state that it was anticipating. It remains to be seen, as with Communist vote in the past, whether the AAP fizzles out as a protest vote.

For the SAD this is a humiliating setback. Besieged by charges of nepotism, corruption, fiscal mismanagement, the collapse of the agrarian economy and the proliferation of drugs in the state under its watch, the party put up a brave front, but has lost most of its frontline leaders. Nonetheless, its vote share has not collapsed, despite a 10 per cent decline since 2012.  Doubtless the SAD will be rebuilt – with or without the Badal clan – but the real challenge before the party  is what kind of leadership is likely to emerge from the ‘Sikh political system’ – the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) which oversees the management of Sikh shrines –  that the Badals have astutely managed. A round of blood-letting and a possible turn to militancy cannot be ruled out.

Probably most disappointed by the outcome is the otherwise triumphant BJP. The party’s share of the vote declined from 7.5 to 5.2 per cent and seats from 12 to 3. Urban Hindu voters shifted in large number to the Congress. As a minor partner in the coalition government, the BJP’s relationship with the SAD worked best when they were both fighting Congress. Post-May 2014, it was fraught with tensions, and BJP’s senior leaders remained at arm’s length from the SAD during the election campaign.

The Punjab election result is interesting not for the outcome – the defeat of the SAD-BJP coalition was a forgone conclusion – but what it portends.  For the Congress it will be seen as a bridgehead to revive the party’s fortunes in the central states. While the party’s leadership might relish this opportunity, Captain Amrinder is unlikely to be willing to play this role, particularly if it means devoting less of the energies to the pressing challenges in the state.  Punjab’s massive fiscal deficit overhang which consumes almost a third of the state’s revenue expenditure is likely to limit the new government’s room for manoeuvre. Measures to make the fiscal adjustment necessary are unlikely to be popular at time when industry and investors have found Punjab an unattractive destination. Real economic imagination will be required to take difficult decisions and wean Punjab’s politicians off fiscal populism, even within the Congress. The collapse in agricultural prices, moreover, is soon likely to produce a significant backlash which will be difficult to deflect in any anti-Haryana posturing over the Satluj-Yamuna link canal decision of the Supreme Court.

Yet perhaps the real challenge facing the new Congress government is likely to be how it will manage the ‘Sikh political system’. The SAD is down but not out. Whilst in government the SAD deflected many of the challenges which emerged from Sikh politics by maintaining a rigid control of the party and the SGPC. It is extremely unlikely that the Badals will be able to maintain this monopoly for much longer. No doubt new voices and formations will emerge, not least at the pent up frustration in some quarters against the SAD leadership that sidelined panthic issues. What course these events take within the ‘Sikh political system’ will determine not only the future of the SAD, but potentially, of the Congress government itself.

The main paradox of the result is that in order to address the governance crisis created by the SAD-BJP, the Congress party will have to shed its national pretentions and behave like a regional party. For too long Congress has viewed Punjab as its backyard where political excesses can be justified. If it is truly to rebuild its trust with the citizens of the state, it will have to fight broader battles with the national government on centre-state relations and the economic drivers that have engendered the fiscal crisis.  In this respects, the challenges before the Congress government are not too dissimilar from the SAD-BJP government. The real difference is having raised expectations, can the party deliver where in the past it has failed so miserably.

Prof. Gurharpal Singh is the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities and Professor in Inter-Religious Relations and Development in the Department of Study of Religions at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. Image Credit: CC by Captain Amarinder Singh/ Wikimedia Commons

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