The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), which was the oldest ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), exited from the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) on 26 September 2020 over the three controversial farm laws. The SAD’s member in the Union Cabinet – Harsimrat Kaur Badal – had quit her post a few days earlier. Even though SAD’s exit does not have an impact on the Modi Government at the Centre, this could seriously affect the BJP’s prospects in the upcoming Punjab State Assembly elections.

 A WEAK BJP GETTING WEAKER

The BJP in Punjab, unlike in several other states in north India including the neighbouring Haryana, is comparatively weak. It has largely relied on SAD and its machinery for garnering support and votes. The SAD-BJP alliance won two consecutive terms in the state in 2007 and 2012. The BJP, which contested 23 seats in both these elections, had faced a consistent fall of the vote and seat shares, as the 19 seats in 2007 reduced to 12 in 2012. This underlines the fact that the BJP, single-handedly, was never in a position to rule the state.

Considering that 40% of the state’s population is engaged in the agricultural sector [1], the farm laws will be the one big choke point that the BJP would be trying to resolve. Although this is a huge chunk of the population, the opposition to the farm laws need not be restricted to this 40% alone. The protests against the farm bills and the many incidents that followed, including the farmers’ march to the Red Fort during the Republic Day this year, would possibly have its maximum impact in Punjab than anywhere else in the country. Farmers from Punjab were the first to oppose the three controversial laws and continue to be one of the strongest voices in the protest. Perhaps the magnitude of the impact of the farm laws is evident from the snapping of ties between the SAD and the BJP. 

OTHER PLAYERS IN THE FRAY

Although it is clear now that the BJP-SAD break-up has adversely affected BJP’s prospects in Punjab, one must also look at the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) stature in Punjab politics. The AAP entered Punjab politics in 2017 and performed remarkably well. For a debutant, achieving the status of the principal opposition party in a state with other powerful parties is a rare feat. The AAP managed to achieve this feat in 2017 by winning 20 seats on its own, which is greater than the combined 18 seats of the SAD-BJP alliance. With the promises of 300 units of free electricity per month, waiver of pending electricity bills, and 24-hour supply of electricity in the state, the AAP is hoping to improve on its 2017 performance.

The SAD has, after 25 years, tied up with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). The last time they came together was during the 1996 Lok Sabha elections where they together won 11 of the 13 seats. This time, the BSP would contest in 20 seats and the SAD in 97 seats. There is also speculation that the SAD is in talks with the CPI and the CPI-M (PTI, 2021). This suggests that the SAD is broadening its support base by trying to rope in different communities. However, the BSP, CPI, and CPI-M have a negligible base in Punjab, and thus, allying with them may adversely affect the SAD’s prospects since the SAD would need to convince the electorate, especially its ‘vote-bank’, to vote for its allies. Those who may have voted for the SAD may not necessarily vote for its allies owing to ideological differences that may exist. For instance, in the recently concluded Tamil Nadu elections, one of the reasons attributed to the AIADMK’s loss was its alliance with the BJP which took away some of the voters of the AIADMK to the DMK-led alliance. In this respect, the SAD’s saving grace in Punjab could be carefully curated caste calculations.

A HOPE FOR THE CONGRESS

After much in-fighting and factionalism within the Punjab state unit of the Congress party, a truce was brokered by the central leadership between Navjot Singh Sidhu and Captain Amarinder Singh. Pictures of them on the stage together at Sidhu’s oath-taking ceremony as the State Unit Chief have, at least for now, brushed under the carpet any harm that the Congress might inflict upon itself.

The 2022 election has become a four-way fight now. The AAP, when it made an entry in 2017, had ‘eaten’ into the vote-shares of political parties across the spectrum. This time around, one could expect the AAP to take in a significant part of the anti-incumbency votes, with the rest going to the SAD-BSP alliance. The BJP is unlikely to have any major impact other than dividing  the Opposition votes. Nevertheless, the Congress is likely to benefit from the four-way fight since this would split the Opposition votes. Notwithstanding that, the 2022 election is still half a year from now and a prediction at this point of time will be largely misplaced. With the present situation on the ground, the Congress seems to be well-placed for a second term.

Although a divided opposition will always help the incumbent, it would be amiss to say that the Opposition does not stand a chance. The SAD’s vote-share dropped in 2017 after being in power for ten years. The Congress, which saw its own vote-share decline, could not take these votes; it was the AAP that benefitted. Thus, the prospects of the Opposition parties are still bright, provided they build a strong narrative against the other parties. The AAP seems to be on this mission.

References

PTI. (2021, July 21). After alliance with BSP for 2022 Punjab polls, SAD is now trying to rope in CPI(M), CPI. Retrieved from The New Indian Express: https://www.newindianexpress.com/nation/2021/jul/21/after-alliance-with-bsp-for-2022-punjab-polls-sad-now-trying-to-rope-in-cpim-cpi-2333410.html

This article is written by Jedidiah Asriel (Election Studies Intern), guided by Goutham K A

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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