By: Devahuti Sarkar

Punjab, like many other states in India, is undergoing a moment of churning. There has been an undercurrent of dissatisfaction among the people of Punjab, some key defections, infighting within the Congress, shifting caste representation – in the backdrop of Punjab’s diminishing GDP growth rate and a slew of other issues. The 2017 Assembly elections saw the unprecedented entry of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) with 20 seats and 23.7% vote share, turning Punjab into a “multi-cornered” poll. However, voting patterns in Punjab have been quite unpredictable since 2017, throwing psephologists and survey agencies for a loop. The voter turnout for the 2022 elections has been the lowest in the last 15 years at 72%. Does this indicate political apathy among the voters or a missed opportunity for the AAP?

A number of issues preceding the elections were expected to be at the front during the political campaigns in Punjab. While attempted sacrilege at the Golden Temple in Amritsar is but another recurrence in a series of attempts since 2015, the farmers’ protest against the three controversial farm laws was expected to hold a major sway over the 2022 polls.

The issue of sacrilege was a boiling point of contention in the state even during the 2017 assembly polls. It is speculated that the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) shrunk to 15 seats because of their mishandling of the sacrilege cases. Despite three similar recurrences of sacrilege in the state preceding the 2022 poll campaigns, the events have failed to become a major issue. 

The farmers’ movement also received lukewarm attention from all fronts prior to the election. One possible reason would be the institutionalization of the movement into the political party, Samyukt Samaj Morcha (SSM). This resulted in a natural monopoly of the party over farmers’ issues despite them being the first-time contenders. However, representation and allegiance of the farmers to this political front is questionable as Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM), the coalition of farmers’ unions leading the movement, dissociated themselves from the political party. With limited bandwidth and voice, the SSM failed to highlight the issue while the BJP managed to absolve itself of all accountability by revoking the controversial laws. What could have been a deciding factor in Punjab, remained behind the curtains.

What captured the pre-poll public discourses were changing alliances, Dalit consolidation, AAP’s promises, and corruption allegations. Captain Amarinder Singh’s resignation from the Congress was a game changer as it managed to redirect the anti-incumbent sentiment against the former. The Congress managed to evade all questions of poor performance and slowing economy by exploring a new caste dynamic in Punjab through their Chief Ministerial candidate Charanjit Singh Channi. Initially considered as a token gesture for making him the Chief Minister (CM) for a short period of time, the party decided to stick with him despite the infighting with Navjot Singh Sidhu. It remains to be seen whether the Dalit representation can hold enough sway over the 32% of the population officially recognized as Scheduled Castes (SC). Despite having the highest concentration of Dalits in the country, Punjab has been a failed state for the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which created their bastion in Uttar Pradesh instead. This is

because the Jat Sikh population, despite being an estimated percentage of only 21%, have been a dominant and economically strong caste in Punjab, and a major vote bank for the Congress and Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). According to Professor Surinder Singh Jodhka, Channi’s nomination as a CM face makes quite a number of people uncomfortable. Not only is a reluctant Punjab made to confront with the issue of caste representation but parties like AAP and BJP have also had to promise an SC Deputy CM if they win the elections. Thus, Dalit mobilisation so far has not been a dependanble calculus in Punjab and this is another way that the state defies traditional understanding around caste-based voting.

After the AAP managed to bag four seats from Punjab in the 2012 Lok Sabha elections, 2017 seemed to be an opportune time for the party to emerge victorious. Opinion polls such as Huffpost-CVoter, VDP Associates, TV24 News and psephologists had predicted an overwhelming number of seats for the political party. However, the results showed a different fate for Punjab. Despite receiving 23.7% vote share, the party had failed to translate it into seats and remained stuck at 20. Having practically no footprint in the Majha and Doaba regions, it won 18 out of 20 seats from Malwa. The good news for the party is that Malwa has always been politically the most significant. Preceding CMs Charanjit Singh Channi, Captain Amrinder Singh and Parkash Singh Badal have been from this region. However, it is to be noted that 11 out 20 seats had a victory margin of less than 10 percent – a very close win for AAP.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, AAP won only 1 seat from Punjab. This could either mean dwindling influence of the party or strategic voting by the people. Many states in India exhibit different voting patterns in Lok Sabha elections and State Legislative Assembly elections. However, the low turnout in 2022 was unexpected as statistics show rising turnouts in Indian elections in the last decade, especially in Punjab. While this may not necessarily indicate a change in regime as traditionally understood, this could benefit certain older parties more than newer ones. Cadre-based parties are known to perform well in lower turnout, which is the case in Majha and Doaba regions with 67.89% and 67.45% respectively. AAP’s prospects in the Malwa region, especially in rural constituencies, seems brighter with 73.16% turnout and hitherto established groundwork.

It remains to be seen whether AAP’s groundwork, impressive promises of handouts and performance in Delhi will give them an edge over Congress’s caste calculus, BJP’s trump card in the Captain, or the SAD-BSP alliance. Following are the reasons why AAP may not win enough seats to form the government.

First, the Congress loyalists may come through for them along with the Dalit votes that Channi will draw this time. The Tribune reports in its post poll analysis that many people also see merit in Channi’s developmental initiatives in his short tenure.

Second, the perception from the previous election that AAP cannot win the election may further discourage voters from supporting the party.

Third, lower voter turnout may work more in favour of older parties like the Congress and SAD.

Thus, the question stands whether this moment of churning in Punjab will amount to any conclusive change for the state. While AAP has equal chances of sailing through, a failure to do so may damage its chances in the long term. If Punjab chooses the status quo, it would be a massive loss for AAP. If Captain Amarinder Singh’s allegations of corruption against the Congress stand true, it would also be a missed opportunity for Punjab.

Devahuti Sarkar is Election Studies Intern at Centre for Public Policy Research. Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.

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