February 06, 2012

THE STATES THAT MATTER - PART III


BATTLEGROUND PUNJAB

THE CONTENDERS AND THE ISSUES

Referred to as ‘Sapt-Sindhu’ in the ancient Vedic literature, Punjab – the land of Sikhs has played a prominent role in the transformation of India from an agrarian community to an economic powerhouse. It was here that Guru Nanak Dev preached the principles of love and peace and laid the foundation of Sikhism in an era marked by violence and political instability. Great sons of Mother India like Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Shaheed Bhagat Singh etc who so valiantly fought for freedom hail from this state. Known for their bravery, courage, fun-loving ways and bindass attitude, the Punjabi people are an integral part of the Indian armed forces and entertainment industry.

However, today the state of Punjab is witnessing a slow decline in its fortunes. Known as ‘the wheat bowl of India’, the state, along with neighboring Haryana has been a leading contributor towards meeting the country’s food requirements. Over the years, the issues related to farmers have remained unresolved and many of them are in debt, taken primarily from private money lenders. While agricultural woes continue to grow, the IT sector is yet to make it large in the border state. Rampant corruption, lack of infrastructure development and bad governance under successive regimes has taken people’s faith off the political class. As such the 30th January polls are crucial as the people’s mandate will decide who will rule the Punjab Vidhan Sabha for the next 5 years.

Punjab CM Prakash Singh Badal (left) with son and Deputy CM  Sukhbir 

The incumbent Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal will be seeking a fourth term in the upcoming polls. At 85, the senior Badal has made it clear that it, if elected, it will be his last term in office and that he will pave way for the younger generation of Akalis (i.e. his son Sukhbir Badal) to takeover. A veteran in state politics, Badal has groomed his son, Sukhbir, a three time MP and Deputy CM of the state to lead the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and take the family legacy forward. Sukhbir’s wife, Harsimrat Kaur has emerged as a key strategist for the party and beat high profile Congress candidate Raninder Singh to win the Bhatinda Lok Sabha seat in 2009.

Forget the CM’s chair, it will be very difficult for the sitting CM to retain even his assembly seat of Lambi as he is facing stiff competition from two of his kin. While his own estranged younger brother, Gurudas Badal will contest on a PPP ticket, the Congress has fielded Mahesh Inder Singh Badal from this seat. SAD president Sukhbir Badal will contest from Jalabad while former civil servants former DGP, P S Gill and ex-principal secretary to CM, D S Guru are fighting on Akali ticket from Moga and Bhadur respectively.

Considering the fact that the state has a history of voting out incumbent governments, the Badals are trying hard to convince the voters to get the SAD-BJP alliance in power for a second consecutive term. In fact, the ruling combine had faced a disastrous defeat in the state during the 2009 Lok Sabha polls where they were reduced to a mere 5 seats whereas the opposition Congress got as many as 9 seats.        
       
With the whole country rising for the Lokpal bill, the slew of corruption charges against the father-son duo may severely hamper the prospects of the Akalis in the upcoming polls. Although the Badals have been acquitted in cases of cheating and possession of disproportionate assets framed during the previous Congress regime, the manner in which the much hyped case was quietly buried after the Akalis got back in power, leaves several questions unanswered. As many as 130 odd witnesses including the Investigating Officer Surinder Pal Singh turned hostile and opposition has accused the Badals of using a lethal mix of money and muscle power to win the case. Besides, Surinder Singh has been given extension in service thrice, post retirement.

Punjab Congress Chief Captain Amarinder Singh

The Congress party will be led by former Chief Minister and Maharaja of the erstwhile state of Patiala, Captain Amarinder Singh. A former army man who took part in the operations during the 1965 war, he is seen to be a close confidant of the Congress president. In fact, at an election rally during his Punjab tour, Rahul Gandhi publicly acknowledged that Amarinder was his party’s CM candidate, putting to rest all speculations that his wife and MP Preneet Kaur may get the coveted post in case the Congress comes to power.

Continuing its ‘rich heritage’ of encouraging political lineage, the Congress has given tickets to kins of several prominent leaders of past and present. Former CM and Amarinder’s party rival, Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, who is standing from Lehragaga, has also secured a seat for her son-in-law Vikram Bajwa. Gurkirat Singh Kotli, grandson of former CM Beant Singh and former CM Harcharan Singh Brar’s daughter-in-law Karan Brar have been given tickets. However, Amarinder’s son Yuvraj Raninder Singh who is contesting from the Samana assembly seat is involved in a close fight with his uncle Malvinder Singh who left the Congress to join the SAD after being denied a ticket in favor of his nephew.

Apart from corruption, the major electoral issue for the Congress is what it calls the failure of the Badal government to successfully implement the national schemes in the state. UPA chairperson, Sonia Gandhi has accused the Badal government of using only 10 per cent of the Rs 5,000 crore that the Central government had sanctioned under the NREGA scheme for Punjab.  Like madamji, even PM Manmohan Singh blamed the ruling combine of not doing enough for the people in the sectors of health care and education. He also reminded the people the work that his government had done for the development of the state including setting up an IIT in Ropar, an Indian Institute of Science Education and Research at Mohali and the up gradation of Amritsar international airport and medical college.

A setback for the Congress may be the fact that Maharaja is known to be largely inaccessible to the general public. Also in his first tenure, Singh constantly faced rebellion from former CM Rajinder Kaur who was placated after she was made the deputy CM. The Badals, although seen as autocratic, on the other hand, are known to mingle with party workers and ordinary people. Sukhbir’s go-getter attitude seems to have been a hit with the Punjabi youth. The new kid on the block, Manpreet talks about a debt and corruption free Punjab and promises to find solution to the problems of farmers.

The greatest worry for the Congress will be losing votes to the significant number of rebels who are in the fray either as independents or have switched sides after being denied tickets. Although over a dozen Congressmen have been expelled for anti-party activities, the party will compete against its own former members in 38 out of the total 117 seats. 

PPP President Manpreet Singh Badal 

Well, for the Akalis, they have a problem of their own. Atleast 13 rebels are contesting the polls and former party leader, Manjit Singh Calcutta has thrown his weight behind the Congress. Former state finance minister and the CM’s nephew, Manpreet Badal launched his own political outfit, the People’s Party of Punjab (PPP) after a series of differences with his cousin, Sukhbir over issues relating to governance. Like Raj Thackery in Maharashtra, the ‘other Badal’ seems to have been disillusioned within the SAD after his cousin was given preferential treatment although both of them were leaders of equal capability. 

Aiming to become the third alternative to the people tired of misrule under both the SAD and the Congress, Manpreet has created an umbrella alliance – ‘Sanjha Morcha’ that comprises of PPP, CPI (M), CPI and SAD (Longowal). At the onset, prominent Akali leaders like Jagbir Singh Brar and Kushaldeep Singh Dhillon joined the PPP and the party was reportedly gaining momentum across the state. However, with a series of leaders including Brar and Dhillon defecting to the Congress, Manpreet may find it extremely difficult to get even a handful of seats. But, one thing is for sure, this flamboyant leader who is contesting from Gidderbaha and Maur, with a clean image may spoil the fortunes of several SAD candidates including his uncle.

With opinion polls suggesting that both the Congress and SAD may end up with about 40 odd seats, the performance of the BJP, an ally in the ruling combine may decide who forms the next government in Punjab. In the last elections, the saffron party did particularly well in the urban areas, winning 19 out of the 23 seats it contested. But the corruption charges against MLA Raj Khurana and the subsequent raid on his premises that have set to yielded a Porsche, Rs 15 lakh in cash and a cheque worth Rs 1 crore and serious charges of embezzlement levied against  former Forest Minister Tikshan Sud, have become a major embarrassment for the ruling combine. Though all 5 cabinet ministers from the BJP resigned after the raid, at the behest of the president Nitin Gadkari amidst the Anna Hazare movement, the BJP has given tickets to both the tainted babus. Meanwhile, former cricketer Navjot Singh Sidhu’s wife Navjot Kaur will contest from Amritsar East constituency and state BJP Chief Ashwani Kumar Sharma has been fielded from Pathankot.

BJP MLA Raj Khurana

There have been reports of friction between the SAD and the BJP, especially over the issue of development in urban areas. The BJP alleged that the Badal government diverted Rs 735 crore meant for the development of municipalities, from which it derives most of its strength. As the war of words escalated, senior leaders Rajnath Singh and Yashwant Sinha had to intervene to prevent a split. Apart from this, infighting amongst state leaders, mostly notably between Luxmi Kant Chawla and Jagdish Sahni has added to the party’s misery. Chawla, who has a reputation of being an upright leader, has stated that she would no longer contest any elections and continue doing social work. Also, the Akali Dal has fielded 11 Hindu candidates on its own and the move is being looked upon as an attempt to garner Hindu votes and reduce its dependence on its ally.

A peculiar feature of the 2012 polls has been the rise in Dalit assertion, especially in the fertile Daoba region of the state. Fuelled with money sent by kin who work abroad, the Dalits, instilled with pride, are witnessing a change in fortunes and are on the path towards progress. The attack on the leaders of Dera Sachkhand in Vienna, allegedly by a group of extremist Jat Sikhs has been a key factor in the Dalit awakening in the fields of culture and politics. The Dera has thousands of followers in the Daoba region, most of who belong to the lower classes. And looking to make the most of the situation  is India’s foremost low caste leader, Mayawati. Behenji has asked the people of the state to fulfill her mentor, Kanshi Ram’s dream of a BSP government in Punjab come true in the forth coming elections. At a time, when she is defending her crown in her own state, the very fact that she addressed four rallies across Punjab is ample proof that Mayawati is trying to ride on the Dalit wave in Punjab to expand her influence beyond UP.

Amongst the myriad Deras that have cropped up across Punjab, the Sirsa-based Dera Sacha Sauda, with an estimated 30 lakh followers in the state is perhaps the most influential. Its spiritual leader Ram Rahim Singh was in an eye of storm after adds depicting him in the attire of 10th Sikh guru Gobind Singh were published in May 2007. Although the Dera tendered multiple apologies, several Sikh organizations including the SAD had accused the guru of hurting religious sentiments and attacks were made on the baba and his followers. The Dera responded by declaring open support to the Congress in the 2007 polls and though the party lost, it made major gains in the Akali stronghold of Malwa, where a majority of Dera followers hail from. Reports of a truce between the seer and SAD are doing the rounds after the Dera refused to back any party this time around and has promised to support only those candidates who had a clean image and opposed social evils like female infanticide and drug abuse. At least 100 candidates are said to have visited Sirsa for a private audience with Ram Rahim Singh for seeking the blessing of the guru to help them win the assembly polls.

Dera Sacha Sauda Chief Baba Ram Rahim Singh

Although, politicians are using every opportunity to lure voters and score brownie points over political opponents, the actual issues that face the voters on the ground do not find resonance in political speeches. Unemployment has risen sharply and jobless youth are taking to drugs. The once prosperous state is today in a debt exceeding Rs 1.2 lakh crore and power cuts have become common. Though there is no doubt that ‘Green Revolution’ in Punjab has been a tremendous success, unplanned agricultural practices have led to a series of problems like soil erosion, reduction in soil fertility, lowering of water table, increase in number of cancer cases due to indiscriminate use of pesticides, etc. It is rather sad that farmers of a land that feeds the entire nation are living have been failed by the state politicians.

Opinion polls have suggested a close fight and a vote swing of 2 or 3 per cent may well become the deciding factor. The fate of nearly 1100 candidates and more importantly, that of 2.7 crore Punjabis is on the line. Can the Akali-BJP alliance create history and retain power for a consecutive term? Will Amarinder Singh lead to Congress back to power in Punjab? And how much impact will Manpreet Badal have in the assembly polls? We will have to wait till 6th March to see who does the Bahngra - Punjab's state dance.


SOURCES

(1) DNA - 137 witnesses turn hostilein Parkash Singh Badal
http://www.dnaindia.com/india/report_137-witnesses-turn-hostile-in-parkash-singh-badal-corruption-case_1369907

(2) India Today - Tainted babu claims Sukhbir Singh Badal framed him in graft case
http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/punjab-ias-officer-sukhbir-singh-badal-framed-corruption-case/1/169149.html

(3) In.com - Candidates in Punjab assembly polls
http://connect.in.com/parkash-singh-badal/article-prominent-candidates-in-punjab-assembly-polls-1387-3e3c86f6475f9c83fdd964ab773f5e33e9c7fbaa.html

(4) Day and Night News - Punjab polls 2012: Manmohan Singh addresses rally in Amritsar
http://www.dayandnightnews.com/2012/01/punjab-poll-2012-manmohan-singh-addresses-rally-in-amritsar/

(5) India Today - Nepotism guides Congress in Punjab polls ticket distribution
http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/nepotism-guides-congress-in-punjab-polls-ticket-distribution/1/167399.html

(6) India Today - Punjab BJP plagued by corruption charges
http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/punjab-bjp-plagued-by-charges-of-corruption/1/138275.html

(7) Times of India - Punjab polls: The tainted quotient in Punjab BJP list
http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Punjab-polls-The-taint-quotient-in-BJP-Punjab-list/articleshow/11370191.cms?prtpage=1

(8) Economic Times - Assembly Elections 2012: Three scares for Congress in Punjab

http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2012-02-01/news/31012827_1_dalit-votes-rebel-candidates-manpreet-badal

(9) Times of India - Punjab Polls: Dalit self-pride holds key in fertile Daob
http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2012-01-26/india/30666424_1_dalit-chamar-doaba


IMAGES

(1) Punjab CM Praksh Singh Badal (left) with Deputy CM Sukhbir
India Today: The Triumphant trio - http://www.indiataday.in

(2) Punjab Congress Chief Captain Amarinder Singh
Amarinder Singh: Official Site - http://www.myamarindersingh.in

(3) PPP President Manpreet Singh Badal
Indian Express: Manpreet begins Jago Punjab Yatra - http://www.indianexpress.com

(4) BJP MLA Raj Khurana
Day and Night News: Raj Khurana resigns as Punjab CPS - http://www.dayandnightnews.com

(5) Dera Sacha Sauda Chief Baba Ram Rahim Singh
IBN Live: CBI ready to nail Dera chief in murder, rape - http://www.ibnlive.com