SAD-BJP combine harps on voter loyalty, Congress banks on anti-incumbency.
The fight in Punjab, which goes to the polls on January 30, while overtly between the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party combine and the Congress, is essentially a battle of supremacy between two families — one led by incumbent chief minister Parkash Singh Badal and the other being the Patiala royalty led by his predecessor, Amarinder Singh.
Even as anti-incumbency feeling looms and the fight between Sukhbir Singh Badal, the CM’s son and himself deputy chief minister, and his cousin, Manpreet Singh Badal, former finance minister, is taking a toll, the SAD is hopeful of a second term. It is banking on having nurtured voters through a number of populist schemes. Senior party members say the infighting in the Badal family could have hit hard, but the veteran CM has aggressively countered this. Government sources say by providing pulses at Rs 20 per kg and wheat flour at Rs 4 a kg to those below the poverty line, especially targeting scheduled castes and backward classes, the government has managed to woo voters well.
“We are providing Rs 15,000 for a girl's marriage under the Shagan scheme and have made dharamshalas for people of SC/ ST and OBC communities in villages. This is the first time they have actually got a place to sit in the village, which is a big development,” said Balwinder Singh Bhunder, party general secretary and MP. “Free electric meters and utensils have been provided, the first time poor villagers have had decent utensils to eat food..”
The Badal government, he added, had made 33-ft wide roads and converted four-lane stretches into six-lane ones, beside working on a plan for world-standard airports at Ludhiana, Mohali and Bhatinda. And, yet, there was not a single corruption charge against the ruling SAD, he claimed.
Also, says Sher Singh Ghubaya, another Akali MP, “the government has been giving free power supply to farmers of weaker sections (for charging tubewells). For the first time, all villages have RO systems, so that people get clean drinking water. We have also provided gymnasiums in every village of Punjab. The party also relates the various expansion plans for electricity generation -- a 1,500 Mw plant in Rajpura, a 1,200 Mw one in Goanwal, 800 Mw at Shahpur-Khandi, etc.
Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari, also an MP from the state, rubbishes these claims. He says 4.7 million are unemployed in Punjab. An MP from the industrial hub of Ludhiana, Tewari said, “The last few years have only seen flight of capital from the state.” Administrative conditions are non-conducive to industry and no industrial house has set up any venture for some time. Another disincentive, says Tewari, is the excessively high cost of land. “Clearances are hard to come by and there has never been any effort to promote industry.”
He also points to the shamefully high female foeticide figures to argue the point about a slide in law enforcement and social mores. “The sum total of the last five years is that the condition of the state has deteriorated rapidly,” he says. “Punjab has been surviving only because of the remittance economy but that is also drying up now, due to the impact of the economic slowdown in the West. Rural indebtedness continues to be high and there is acute agricultural distress.” He points to the data on decline in crop fertility and notes that 84 per cent of the population owns less than four acres of land per head.
Confident of a Congress victory in the polls, Tewari says the anti-incumbency factor and the “total lack of governance” in Badal’s regime has added to the SAD’s woes. “The one-family rule , taking control of the political and economic resources, has troubled the common man,” he says. He also points to a source of data comfort, the general elections of 2009, when the Congress bagged eight of the 13 parliamentary seats, and within two years of SAD rule.