Congress eyes Punjab amidst contest against weak opposition

Last Updated: Wed, May 15, 2019 12:53 hrs
Punjab elections

Punjab gears up for the polls in the final phase of polling for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections on May 19. Five years ago, the state stood out in going against the Modi wave and in 2009, it resisted the Congress’ successful surge. The battle for the state will most likely come down to the Congress and Akali Dal. One of the biggest problems facing the state is a slowing economy. Unemployment, farmer distress and a drug problem mean the state hasn’t prospered under the current government.

BJP - SAD

The wave in 2014 meant the party increased its vote share in states like Kerala and Assam. However, in Punjab their vote share declined to 8.7% in 2014 as compared to 10.1% in 2009. The assembly elections in 2017 didn’t prove to be good either with the party securing 5.4% of the vote (3 seats) making it their lowest in last two and a half decades. Last time around, the BJP along with the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) won six out of the 13 seats in the state with SAD getting four.

Safe to say the state isn’t looking good for the BJP and it hopes that some of the national popularity can pay off in the state. However, this could prove a risky strategy. According to a Lokniti – CSDS pre-poll survey, Modi’s popularity in the state in -29%. Only Kerala and Tamil Nadu have higher negatives for the Prime Minister. The state has given tickets to outsiders, most notably Bollywood actor Sunny Deol. Some of the decision made by the party with respect to fielding candidates has upset certain members of the state party.

The SAD is on the back foot as well. The BJP is playing offence in the state bringing up the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. Former Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and his son and SAD chief Sukhbir Singh Badal have been blamed for the killing of two Sikh protestors during a demonstration against the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib in 2015.

Congress

The Congress is hoping to capitalise on the unpopularity of Modi in the state. It has fielded star campaigners Priyanka Gandhi and Congress leader Navjot Singh Sidhu in the state. Currently under the leadership of Congress Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh, the state has gone through tough times in terms of a stagnant economy. Coming into office, he had made promises of easing farmer debt, reducing unemployment; but delivering on these proved to be a tough task.

In a 2018 interview to the Hindustan Times, Amarinder Singh spoke of the task at hand after his first year in office saying in part, “It’s been a tough one because we took over a sinking ship. There was no money and the debt was overflowing. Salaries got delayed. The treasury only had bills.” In 2000, Punjab was ranked four in terms of per capita income. In 2015-’16, it dropped to 16. Among the key factors for this is the slowing down of the agricultural sector. In relation this is its water crisis. The Congress government in charge has been unable to deal with the problem of groundwater availability. The Tribune editorial writes on the problem –

Punjab’s woes are worsening on the water front. Water-guzzling crops such as paddy are mainly held responsible for the sorry state of affairs, but there is no action plan in place to help farmers shift to alternative crops through assured marketing of their produce. the farming community — a vital vote bank — has been pressing the government to allow early sowing, claiming that otherwise harvesting gets delayed and the yield drops.”

The Assembly elections proved to be decisive for the Congress as it won 77 out of 117 seats in. However, some of the schemes that were promised were tough to implement and farmer distress continues. What helped them was anti-incumbency in the state against the two term SAD government. In this state, Chief Minister Singh will play a key role in determining if the party can keep the state. Kamlendra Kanwar, in a column for Moneycontrol gives a layout of the Congress in the state –

There is little to challenge Amarinder Singh’s command in the state. His no-nonsense approach in keeping Congress President Rahul Gandhi and his predecessor and mother Sonia Gandhi at arm’s length, away from campaigning in the assembly polls in 2017, was appreciated by the people.”

As Kanwar points out in his column, the ghosts of 1984 are present but there seems to be have been a truce of sorts. Now that incident is back in the news as the BJP tries to bring back those memories and remind people who the perpetrators were.

Others

The AAP is contesting alone in the state. In 2014, the party won 4 seats with a 24% vote share. The campaign they ran on last time was on issues that are very much at the fore front this time as well – the drug problem and corruption. It presented itself a third option in contrast to the BJP-SAD alliance and the Congress.

In the run up to 2019, the AAP isn’t in the best position, as some of its senior leaders have quit the party after internal squabbles. The state party apparatus is hoping Arvind Kejriwal’s presence can turn things around but the road looks tough. The face of the party in the state is MP Bhagwant Mann, an actor turned politician. He’s the party’s best bet in the state. Despite emerging as the principal opposition party after the assembly elections, the party hasn’t been able to capitalise on the success and build further.