On Valentine’s Day this year, when lovers all over the world will exchange affection and greetings, voters in the Indian state of Punjab will elect a new assembly. For the first time, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will contest the election on its own, without riding on the shoulders of its oldest ally the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). Both of them parted ways last year on the issue of adoption of three farm laws, seen as helping the corporates. Congress, which is currently ruling the state, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and farmer union-led Sanyukt Samaj Morcha (SSM) also in the fray, overall, it becomes a five-cornered contest.
Out of around 27.7 million, Sikhs represent 57.69% and Hindus 38.5% of the population in the province bordering Pakistan. Muslims comprise just 1.93% of the population. As BJP is no more in alliance with the SAD, analysts believe that the party was adopting a similar strategy as it adopted for Jammu and Kashmir in 2014. The party is attempting to consolidate Hindu voters and divide Sikhs to claim a big chunk in the 117-member assembly. They say that it was a similar strategy that Congress led by Indira Gandhi used to adopt in the 1970s and 1980s to combat SAD. The coincidence is that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is using similar tactics as used by the late Mrs Gandhi and for which the country and she herself paid a heavy price. The BJP leaders are using the threat of Khalistan and invoking the Pakistan card, not only to consolidate the Hindu vote bank but also to carry a message – particularly in Uttar Pradesh, which is also going to polls.
Prime Minister Modi’s security lapse in Punjab last week continues to make news in India. It is alleged that Modi’s convoy was stopped at a flyover by a group of protesting farmers while he was going from Bhatinda airport to Ferozepur to address a poll rally. After being stranded atop the flyover for about 20 minutes, his convoy had to make its way back to Bhatinda airport. As reported by the Indian news agency ANI, Modi is learnt to have told some airport staff to convey to the state Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi, “Apne CM ko thanks kehna, ki mein Bathinda airport tak zinda laut paaya” (Thank your CM, at least I have returned to Bhatinda airport alive).
The reason for this security lapse is still under investigation by multiple committees set up by the Home Ministry, Punjab state government as well as Supreme Court. While it is yet to be ascertained whether it was the framers or workers of the BJP who were blocking the road, but Modi’s one statement and a battery of BJP spokespersons and national media has successfully sent the message across to the entire country that there is a threat to Modi’s life in Punjab.
BJP spokespersons and television debates were quick to link this breach to Khalistan activists and Pakistan Intelligence agency ISI, who, they claimed, wanted Modi to be dead and dreamed about destablising the state of Punjab. While 3 crore (30 million) Punjabis are not happy with these manufactured allegations, the mere mention of ISI, Pakistan and Khalistan has acted as fodder in Uttar Pradesh, where BJP is seen struggling to hold ground. Uttar Pradesh is one of the most important electoral states, with the highest number of seats in the parliament.
From the Ferozepur rally, BJP had hoped that it would help gain some ground in the state and will also send a strong message that despite repealing the farm laws, Modi continues to remain undefeated. However, empty chairs on the venue gave a clear message to Modi and the BJP that the road to Punjab is still far.
Redoing Indira Gandhi in Punjab
“This is exactly what the Congress and Mrs Gandhi used to do in Punjab to milk the benefit elsewhere in the rest of the country,” said retired Professor BS Sandhu, who was an important leader of the Sikh movement led by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.
As SAD had not only opposed the emergency but had given refugee to the opposition during the days of emergency in 1975, Mrs Gandhi wanted to take revenge, which had cascading effects and created a long and complicated situation, leading to militancy and then Operation Blue Star and then her assassination.
Like today’s BJP, Congress also polarised voters on communal lines back then. The contrast was that the BJP, now seen as a Hindu party, used to ally with the SAD and was backed by the Sikh vote bank. It was only after the Congress allowed the scion of Patiala Captain Amarinder Singh to become the chief minister in 2002 and then anointed another Sikh Manmohan Singh as the prime minister in 2004, that the Sikhs started returning to the Congress fold.
First multi–cornered election in Punjab
In 2017, with the entry of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), the Punjab election had become a triangular one for the first time. But this time it is not about Congress vs SAD or BJP vs AAP. Multiple political equations continue to unfold in Punjab. BJP is going solo for the first time. Its longstanding ally SAD has joint hands with Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the party that represents the Dalits. Till 2017, SAD and BJP contested together and depended on the Sikh and Hindu vote to gain power. In BJP’s absence, SAD hopes that it will be able to sway the Hindu votes. The state has some 31.9% Dalit population. Fearing a backlash from the Sikh farmers over the three farm laws, SAD has allied with the BSP, hoping to win the race.
The Congress too after showing the door to Captain Amarinder, choose Charanjit Singh Channi, a Dalit, as its CM. The party hopes that this move will help garner the Scheduled Caste vote. This move of the Congress high command may have left its state party chief Navjot Singh Sidhu sulking, but has also blunted the SAD’s Dalit strategy. While Sidhu continues to target Channi and his own party, many in Punjab feel that he has lost his credibility and is nothing more than a crowd-puller turned spoiler. “He appears over ambitious and is too selfish to be a politician. He has switched from one party to another and has remained thankless and disloyal to all. Congress will make a major mistake if it announces him as its Chief Minister candidate,” said a veteran Congress loyalist, who now lives a retired life in Malerkotla and does not want to be quoted.
Meanwhile Captain Amarinder Singh finds himself brooding after the failed Ferozepur rally. It has demolished the little bit of political ambition that he had after quitting Congress and floating his own political party, Punjab Lok Congress (PLC), which has joined hands with the BJP.
After a political career spanning over 40 years, the Captain can now hang his boots. The Captain, while contesting the 2017 elections, in an interview had announced that it was his last election that he was contesting. “Captain Amarinder and his party does not have much in the way of stakes in Punjab. He is nothing more than a spoiler. He has joined hands with the BJP to write his post-retirement script. He might get governorship of some state,” explains Professor Rajender Singh Bara of Punjab University Chandigarh, who has a keen eye on Punjab’s politics.
Farmers’ unions have also floated their own party. The Sanyukt Samaj Morcha (SSM) under Balbib Singh Rajewal hopes to ride on the farmers’ vote. However, barring BJP all other parties in Punjab are projecting themselves as pro-farmer and as political forces who stood with the farmers during the protests on the gates of Delhi. And while the Bharatiya Kisan Union led by Joginder Singh Ugrahan has decided neither to contest the election, nor support any group, SSM may not get the desired support from the farmer community and can only be a spoiler.
AAP that had got 20 seats in 2017 has lost trust amongst the Punjabis. Time and again for pollution in Delhi, AAP’s chief Arvind Kejriwal blames Punjabi farmers. This does not go down well with them.
“Most of AAP’s MLAs have quit the party, the Punjabi NRIs who had backed Kejriwal in 2017 too have rejected his style of politics. His Hindu politics in the rest of India has not gone down well in Punjab. AAP’s contestants and voters want the party to announce its CM face. But the party continues to remain quiet,” said a senior journalist, who was once Kejriwal’s close aide.
Covid restrictions and coalition government
Punjab for the first time has shifted from a two-party contest to a multi-cornered one, where, as of now, no party seems to be getting an absolute mandate. Also with Covid restrictions and absence of public gatherings and rallies, it is not easy to understand the mood of the people. “If the Congress manages to put its house in order and can discipline its leaders in Punjab and try to bring Channi and Sidhu on the page, it can have an edge,” added the veteran leader.
Evolved Sikh Muslim relationship and Muslim votes in Punjab
In this multi-cornered Punjab election, where every party is trying to grab the vote base of the other, the 23 lakh (2.3 million) Muslims of Punjab could play an important role. Contrary to the rest of India, where Muslims have been targeted by the Hindu majority, Punjab continues to be the safest state for the Indian Muslim. The Sikhs have come forward in their support when Muslims have faced a political backlash in the rest of the country. And while the right-wing Hindu tendency has been plotting to bring down one mosque after the other, Punjab has returned its mosques to the Muslims. At the time of partition in 1947, Muslims had left for Pakistan, leaving the mosques abandoned. These mosques were taken over by one group or the other. The late Zubair Raza, once a patron of Rauza Sharif in Sirhind, had told this journalist a few months ago, “Now in villages across Punjab where Muslims have re- established homes, local institutions are not just handing over and restoring mosques, but are also building new ones if needed.” Most of the Muslim population in Punjab consists of migrants from the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, who come in search of work.
Indian Punjab used to be a Muslim-dominated territory till 1946, where Muslims made up to 33 percent of the population. However a year later, after partition and migration, there remained less than 1 percent Muslims in Indian Punjab, mostly confined to the Malerkotla and Pathankot belt. Like in Pakistani Punjab, where Sikh gurudwaras and Hindu temples were left abandoned and unattended, mosques and madrassahs in India remained neglected.
However, over the years, the relationship between Sikhs and Muslims in Punjab has evolved and matured and the common Punjabi sentiment has grown stronger. Recalling what Raza had shared, “Sirhind had seen a massive bloodbath. The Nawab of Sirhind, Wazir Khan had pronounced the death verdict of the two youngest sahibzadas of Guru Gobind Singh and the Sikhs from Banda Singh Bahadur onwards till 1947, took revenge from the Muslims of Sirhind. Even our family was forced to flee,” he recalled.
Over the years, the relationship between the two communities has matured to an extend that the Gurudwara built in the memory of martyrdom of the two sahibzadas and the Mazar of Rauza Sharif that are located just 500 meters away, every year participate together in the Urs at Rauza Sharif and the Shaheedi Jor Mela organised by the gurudwara. “We provide accommodation and food to their congregation and likewise the Mazar. We live in complete harmony and brotherhood,” said Karnail Singh Pinjoli, of the Grurdwara.
Ludhiana, one of the biggest industrial belts in Punjab, is the home of some five lakh (500,000) Muslim migrant labours. The Shahi Imam of Punjab Maulana Usman Ludhianvi has demanded from all political parties that in the Pathankot, Malerkotla and Patiala belt where the Muslim vote share is greater, the parties should field Muslim candidates. Ludhianvi, who is also president of the Majlis-e-Ahrar Islam Hind Party, has demanded that Muslims should be given at least six seats in Punjab.
Sowing seeds of hatred
“After a yearlong farmers’ protest, the discourteous attitude of the Modi government towards them, and their main demands still pending, Punjab will be a rough road for the BJP,” said Professor Rajender Singh Bara of Punjab University based in Chandigarh.
Professor Brar also added that Punjab and Punjabis have become mature states post-1990s and “these poll stunts” of the BJP will have little effect on Punjab. “Punjab of the 1980s is different from Punjab of today. The BJP can continue to bring issues like Pakistan and the Khalistan factor, which may help the party to get mileage in other states, but will not have any significant impact in Punjab this time,” he said.
While the BJP may not make many inroads in Punjab for now, but its patron organisation the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has been quite active in the state over many years, intending to anoint a Hindu chief minister. RSS has been using Hindu seers to demand amendments in the constitution to subsume Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists into Hinduism. The Dalits may choose Congress over the SAD-BSP alliance. The Sanyukt Samaj Morcha, which led the farmers’ agitation, has also thrown its hat in the electoral ring.
Political analysts say that BJP this time will not even be able to consolidate Hindus as their votes will also get divided between different parties – but the seeds it is sowing will have a long-term cascading effect on the politics of Punjab. Therefore, analysts conclude that the state was turning a full circle and returning to the electoral and political mathematics of the 1980s.