India til urnene: Unprecedented in Punjab

Interview with Professor Nicholas Martin, Südasienwissenschaft, Universität Zürich. Prof. Martin is an anthropologist with extensive fieldwork experience from both Pakistani Punjab and Indian Punjab.

Q: Please give us a bit of context for the upcoming elections – will it be business as usual? What are the voters concerned about?

The situation in Punjab is unprecedented.  A new contender, the Aam Admi Party (AAP), has emerged and cut into some of the core support of the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), as well as to some extent that of the Congress Party. The SAD has alternated with the Congress to be the ruling party of Punjab ever since the state’s split from Haryana in 1967, but it is currently facing a strong headwind.  Parkash Singh Badal has been chief minister four times, and his son is currently deputy Chief minister.  He and his family are also widely reported to preside over a huge business empire with huge stakes in the energy sector, construction and farming to name but a few. Parkash Singh Badal has been in power for 15 of the last 20 years, and his rule has increasingly come to be associated with the game of power politics.  Voters blame the SAD and its leadership for a deepening farming crisis and a spate of farmer suicides, youth unemployment, corruption and criminality, the flourishing trade in opiates, and police high-handedness against regime opponents. Many also feel that the party’s long years in government has exacerbated factionalism at village level. There is a widespread sense of government resources being distributed in ways that are increasingly partisan, that government functionaries are harrassed by partymen, and that voal regime opponents are silenced with fabricated police charges. Partisan government has given exacerbated factionalism at village level, and has paralysed village councils and hampered development efforts.

Q: Who is likely to benefit from the SAD’s decline?

In normal circumstances it is the Congress party that would have benefitted from the groundswell against the SAD, but the rise of AAP has fundamentally changed the electoral balance in Punjab.  People are fed up with the SAD and its ‘rule of thugs’ but they aren’t particularly fond of the Congress Party which they consider to be part and parcel of the same corrupt and elitist status quo as the SAD.  Moreover many Sikhs are unlikely to vote for the Congress party because of its association with the attack on the Golden Temple in Amritsar, and with the anti-Sikh riots that followed Indira Gandhi’s assassination.  Furthermore the Congress Party is beset with factionalism, which may further weaken its bid to power.  Finally the BJP will harvest votes from within sectors of the Hindu minority in the state, but is unlikely to make much of an inroad beyond that. The  SAD has been in an alliance with the BJP, but Akali voters tend to merely view the BJP as useful ally against the Congress Party at the centre and don’t identify with its Hindu nationalist ideology.  All of this indicates that AAP may benefit from the anti-incumbency factor more than anyone else.

Q: What are the prospects for the AAP who did so well in Punjab in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections?

Those who have shifted over to AAP include dissaffected Sikh nationalists who accuse the SAD leaders of having abandoned its original nationalist agenda in favour of their business interests.  Leftists and Maoists, lacking any other political outlet because of the decline of the Communist party in the state, have likewise flocked to support the AAP. Finally many Dalits, whose vote has traditionally split between the Congress Party and the SAD, are also reportedly shifting their support to AAP. However AAP faces a number of problems. To begin with, the sharply contrasting ideologies and backgrounds of those joining AAP means that it is unclear what the party stands for other than its being against corruption.  There is also a power struggle between Kejriwal in Delhi and some local leaders representing a variety of different and locally rooted ideologies and agendas.  Kejriwal is seen as remote from these local agendas and ideologies, and has even been accused of being insensitive to Sikh Issues.  Under his leadership the party angered many Sikhs by comparing the party manifesto to the Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh Holy Scripture), and by publishng a poster depicting its symbol—the broom—hovering over the Golden temple. The consensus seems to be that AAP has taken more of a share of the SAD’s vote than that of the Congress Party. But this is still open to debate, and the huge uncertainty is reflected in the election surveys. One survey suggests that the SAD/BJP coalition will take 18-22 seats, which another one suggests 50-58 seats. Some surveys suggest the AAP will gain more than 50 seats whereas others predict less than 20.  Some pollsters suggest that the Punjab will have a hung parliament. The gaps partly reflect the impredictability in the first-past-the-post system as well as the Indian voters’ natural coyness, but they also reflect the uncertainty added by the new entrant.

People are in the mood for change, and they are so fed up with the corrupt status quo and its representatives—embodied in both the SAD and the Congress Party—that they may decide to leap into the unkown and give AAP a majority, regardless of the party’s shortcomings.  The alternative, if voters are more risk averse, may be a weak Congress victory, or a hung parliament.  What seems unlikely is an SAD victory, and a decisive SAD victory even less so.

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