In-Depth: Captain, Caste, And Coalitions In Punjab’s Assembly Elections

by Tushar Gupta - Oct 21, 2021 02:15 PM
In-Depth: Captain, Caste, And Coalitions In Punjab’s Assembly Elections Captain Amarinder Singh with Union Home Minister Amit Shah (Pic Via Twitter)
  • How Punjab is shaping for its Assembly election in 2022.

Until a few weeks ago, the Assembly Elections of 2022 were a dead rubber. Captain Amarinder Singh, as he confirmed recently to a journalist in a candid interview, was to sign off with a bang by winning the elections and then handing over the reigns to Navjot Singh Sidhu, thus catering to his political ego and his party’s long-term plans.

On paper, it was a fairly simple plan. Stick around until the elections, cash in on the prevailing sentiment, engineer a transition, and everyone goes home happy. However, Rahul Gandhi ushered his political Midas touch.

There is little doubt now that whatever Rahul Gandhi and Co. touch, politically, turns into gold, giving them the title of Midas. However, it turns gold for every other party, mainly the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and definitely not for the Congress.

In Punjab, Rahul Gandhi, with great success, has reversed the fortunes of the BJP. From not being anywhere in the reckoning to being in a position of kingmakers in 2022, the BJP are not only looking to lose the political baggage of the farmer protests, but have also found themselves key allies.

The author has called Captain Amarinder Singh ‘A Failed Nationalist’, and not without reason. While no one in the Congress and many within the BJP cadre and supporter base cannot doubt the patriotism of the Captain, his self-inflicted political wounds have corroded his nationalism. For a political stalwart with over fifty years in political life after a decorated career within the forces, to toe the party line on issues of Article 370, Citizenship Amendment Act, and most recently, the farm laws, was a political miscalculation.

In his ongoing interview spree, he confessed in one of the interviews that it had not been for the proverbial attacks on him, which he has taken personally, he would have been happy to retire as a loyal Congressmen at the cost of his nationalistic legacy. Turns out, Rahul Gandhi denied him the legacy of a failed nationalist by discarding him like cheap political trash for Navjot Singh Sidhu who he then discarded for Charanjit Singh Channi.

The end result of all this?

Congress has managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and engineered an underlying political fight between what was assumed to be a scapegoat/transition Chief Minister and State Congress Chief Navjot Singh Sidhu who is being assumed as the Congress face for the post of the CM a couple of months from now.

However, the worst outcome is Captain Amarinder Singh openly declaring his ‘likely’ alliance with the BJP, independent factions of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the farmer unions. Talk of plot twists.

The alliance between Captain Amarinder Singh and the BJP will require a seat sharing arrangement, and more importantly, a resolution on farm laws, as the former as stated in public.

While the exit of Parkash Singh Badal-led SAD from the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) leaves BJP with ample room for a seat sharing arrangement with its new alliance partners in the state, the arrival of Captain on the scene may also bring in many Congress leaders jumping ship and joining the alliance. For instance, many are betting on Manish Tewari and Sunil Jakhar to shift their loyalties soon.

Then there is the question of farm laws. Turns out, minus the politics, both the BJP and Captain have the same approach towards agriculture in Punjab, be it privatisation or crop diversification.

In a move to diversify the state’s cultivation pattern, an Amarinder Singh government, in 2002, introduced contract farming at a government level. The objective was to decrease the share of cropped area under wheat and paddy. In the state Economic Survey of 2019-20, the current Congress government reiterated their two-decades-old objective and called for a greater participation of the private sector through investments and infrastructure.

Within the Act, the state had left the implementation to Punjab Agro Foodgrains Corporation (PAFC). The PAFC, as a government body, was supposed to procure from the farmers and then trade across the country. In its initial years, the programme did encounter some success. PAFC began with an area of around 22,000 acres in 2002, but by 2005, it had close to 250,000 acres. However, the success was short-lived, and by 2011-12, the area was reduced to 12,000 acres, and consequently, the scheme was discontinued.

So, are the Captain and the BJP a formidable challenge for the other coalitions?

A lot will depend on if they are able to work out a solution to the ongoing farmer protest, for it has riled up a lot of anti-BJP emotions amongst the Sikh electorate comprising 60 per cent of the total voters.

For the two factions, an ideal solution to the deadlock could be by ensuring an annual minimum procurement guarantee for a specific period, say ten years; two, by ensuring that no private sector player can procure MSP crops at a price lower than the APMC price, and three, by giving the states the right or will to tax private players operating in a state.

All these recommendations, in some form, were offered by the government to the farmers in their engagements. To complement this success, the two factions could pitch their nationalist agenda for Punjab, focussed on cross-border narcotics trade, terrorism, and an economic future for the state which has been plagued with anti-business practices for over a decade now.

Where does it leave the alliance between SAD and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the Congress and its possible ally, the Aam Aadmi Party?

This is where the caste factor takes over.

The first point of contention would be the Dalit vote, comprising of roughly one-third of the total voting population. For the Congress, Charanjit Singh Channi will be making a strong case, given his elevation. Channi, even with a transition role, has been active on the ground for the past month, is asserting himself as a plausible candidate for the Congress, and may find resonance amongst the otherwise politically alienated Dalit Sikh community.

For Congress, however, this will also culminate into a problem. How do they approach the Jat Sikh voters while presenting a Dalit Sikh CM, or how do they approach the Dalit Sikh voters, while promising Sidhu as the next CM. In both 2007 and 2012 elections, where Congress lost, its Dalit-Sikh voter base remained consistent at around 50 per cent. However, in 2017, AAP dented that voter base, reducing Congress’ share amongst the Dalit Sikh voters to 41 per cent from roughly 50 per cent in both 2012 and 2007.

Thus, for the Congress, the first move would be to secure that vote bank. Then follows the problem of the Jat Sikh vote. Truth be told, Congress has never been the first choice for the Jat Sikh voters as evident by the last four elections. In 2002 and 2017, where the Congress won, they could only attain 23 and 28 per cent of their votes against 55 and 37 per cent of their votes garnered by the SAD-BJP alliance. In 2007 and 2012, where SAD-BJP won, their Jat Sikh vote shares were 61 and 52 per cent respectively. In 2017, it came down to 37 per cent because AAP dented it completely.

Thus, for the SAD-BSP, getting more than 50 per cent of the Jat Sikh vote bank would be critical, given a weakened AAP and the resulting polarisation due to the recent events at Singhu border and Congress opting, possibly, to rally behind Channi.

What both the factions would be looking to target is the OBC Sikh vote as well. However, again the polarisation may work against the SAD-BSP alliance and in favour of the Congress. For SAD-BSP, getting the OBC Sikh vote would be critical, as they were essential in securing the 2007 and 2012 election. Interestingly, in both these elections, the OBC Sikh vote was equally divided between the Congress and the SAD-BJP. In 2017, AAP dented the vote share for both factions, but it did end up hurting the losing alliance more.

Next in line would be the pursuit of the Non-Dalit Hindu vote. Interestingly, even with all its Hindu credentials in order, the BJP could not add much to the alliance in terms of the Non-Dalit Hindu vote. In 2007 and 2012, even while winning, the majority of the Non-Dalit Hindu Vote went to the Congress, or perhaps, the leadership of Captain Amarinder Singh.

From 2002 to 2017, across all four elections, Congress’ vote share of the Non-Dalit Hindu vote was roughly 50 per cent. The 23 per cent of the Non-Dalit Hindu vote that went to AAP in 2017 will also be sought by the new alliance of Captain Amarinder Singh and the BJP. They would want to extend their reach into the Hindu-Dalit vote which has also favoured the Captain in the last four elections.

Thus, for Channi’s Congress, the Dalit vote is the primary focus. For SAD-BSP, the Jat Sikh vote and whatever Dalit vote they can garner in the name of BSP. For the Captain-BJP alliance, the Hindu vote would be critical, both upper caste and Dalit. For Congress and SAD-BSP, the challenge would be to curb the vote share of both Dalits and Jats that may be drawn towards the new alliance, especially if the farmers’ protest sees a solution.

There is also the question of the Aam Aadmi Party which many have declared to be the frontrunner for 2022. None can question the spectacular start AAP had in Punjab in 2014 with 4 out of the 13 state MPs in the Lok Sabha. They also emerged as the biggest party in opposition in 2017, but the party’s fall in the state was reflected in the national elections of 2019 where the total vote share of the party was merely 7.3 per cent.

If one discounts the win in Sangrur, the party’s only Lok Sabha victory, the party was a distant third in 6 of the 12 constituencies and fourth in the rest, even trailing BSP in 2 seats, and Lok Insaaf Party, their once ally, in 2 seats.

Barring Sangrur, their vote share across the state was less than 5 per cent. Thus, how does a party go from securing this percentage of vote to being a frontrunner two years later with zero work on the ground, pandemic-induced political break, and a crowd of coalitions warrants an urgent explanation.

However, if the AAP does manage to secure enough of the Dalit, Jat Sikh, and Hindu vote share to win the election, it would warrant a case study in the marketability of socialism.

This is a different election in Punjab for a lot many reasons. Firstly, for a very long time, and fortunately so, no election has been this polarised in terms of Hindu and Sikhs, or even amongst the different caste factions amongst the Sikhs. Two, the last four elections referred to here were mostly binary. Even in 2017, the competition was between AAP and Congress, with SAD-BJP being an obvious loser after 10-years of government plagued with numerous issues.

Thus, with three factions in the fray (obvious Congress-AAP alliance, SAD-BSP, Captain-BJP and whoever they can find), and a polarised electorate, there is every possibility of a hung assembly and this is where the Captain-BJP alliance may emerge as the kingmaker, but there is a problem there too. How does one accommodate both the Akalis and Captain in a single post-poll alliance, if at all?

The other alliance is no longer favourite too, for how does one trust Congress, divided between Channi and Sidhu, to cross the 59-seats mark, and if they fail, can AAP revive itself enough to be kingmaker? Also, how will the two factions counter the narrative on nationalism, given they both have been guilty of getting cosy with the separatist elements.

It is a long political winter in Punjab, but as of today, if there is anything one can be certain of, it is Rahul Gandhi’s political Midas touch, an irked Captain wanting to repair his legacy of a failed nationalist, and that the BJP has managed a silent manoeuvre during its biggest crisis in the State.

A comedy of errors amongst coalitions of convenience.

Tushar is a senior-sub-editor at Swarajya. He tweets at @Tushar15_
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