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HIGH STAKED PUNJAB ELECTIONS: On offer are Menu-festos

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Dr Pramod Kumar

Electoral politics in Punjab has come of age as the Akali-BJP alliance in 2012 assembly elections broke the death knell of anti-incumbency. The Sikh dominated Akali Dal could win this election on development, non-Panthic plank and effectively used social engineering by facilitating 11 urban Hindus and 21 Scheduled Castes to win on Akali ticket. However,, in the 2014 parliament election, the Akali at the state level and the Congress at the Centre in view of strong anti-incumbency gave a fillip to a third political formation Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).

AAP  won 4 Parliamentary seats notwithstanding the fact that the people who voted for AAP were not anticipating that they would capture power in the parliament. It was a warning to the Congress and the Akali-BJP to reform or perish. In other words, they parked their votes with AAP hoping that the Congress, the Akali and the BJP would learn their lessons. The 2017 assembly election will demonstrate  whether these established parties have reformed; or the AAP has joined their bandwagon.
Punjab is witnessing a phase in which politics has become a matter of popular ratings of leaders (in any sphere) and not political parties, blatant promises to send competing leadership to jail for their perceived or alleged misdeeds rather than activising and institutionalising justice-delivery system – empty or false promises (like debt waiver of the farmers, one government job for each family), trivialisation of agenda (comparing them with most sacrosanct scriptures like Gita, Guru Granth Sahib, Bible) in total negation of vision and agenda for bringing paradigm shift in Punjab.
In continuation with the Parliamentary elections 2014 and Delhi assembly election 2015, the overall approach has been to use cocktail of doles and promises containing something for everyone’s taste. So we have in this election Menu-festo rather than Manifesto. There is a menu card for farmers, traders, students, Dalits, industrialists, women, etc., to cater to everyone’s taste replacing Manifesto which is by definition a declaration of principles, policies, intention and of course, ideological commitment. The credit for this invention goes to AAP. It is reinforcement of the thought that it is the voters perception which constitutes reality. It does not matter who is the leader and what he believes in. It matters how he is perceived by the voters. The focus is to market that image of a leader which voters want the most.
Another distinct feature; having de-credited the political class, there is a competition amongst political parties to poach singers, comedians, journalists, human right activists to look credible. Earlier, these celebrities were used to gather crowds for politicians and now many of them have transformed themselves as politicians – the Ghuggi’s have become Warraich’s. (one of the comedians changed his last name to sound serious). He is the convenor of the AAP in Punjab.
Interestingly, for the first time in electoral history of Punjab all the three main contestants have hired professional managers to connect them with the people. Elections are being treated as events, where voters have to be managed and candidates are presented as products. It has liberated political parties from holding any ideological position.
Historically, Punjab elections have been a bipartisan affair. The main opposition is supposed to be the major beneficiary of anti-incumbency vote. However, this time there is also a third party, i.e. AAP and a third front consisting of AAP dissenters, wayward Akalis and religious fundamentalists and do-gooder politicians. This election is also different as all three political formations have high stakes. The Congress party’s resurgence at the national level largely depends on Punjab. It is the only window available to the Congress to remain afloat till 2019 elections. For AAP, victory in Punjab will provide the much needed fodder to Kejriwal’s ambition to launch himself in 2019 as a prime ministerial choice and the defeat will push him on the borderline of Indian politics. For Akalis, it is a fight for their survival and to save its alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party.
As a consequence, there are claims and counter claims; a showcasing of performance versus promise of a golden performance. A snapshot to impress the voters that each party represents, if not the anti-thesis of the other, at least a different agenda and style of governance. But scratch the paint of rhetoric and the work of event managers and each shows the carbon copy of other. Unlike the Akalis and the Congress, the new incumbent AAP does not have historical baggage and, therefore, does not have historical advantage either. Another AAP disadvantage is that unlike Delhi, Punjab does not have a large footloose population – as people have their culture and history. Both the Congress and the Akalis have regional flavour to their advantage and the AAP is yet to evolve a regional identity of its own. The only advantage it has is anti-drug and anti-corruption political stance. How far it will help to win is a moot question?
Further, the recent judgment quashing the 2004 Water Termination Act passed by Punjab Legislature has added another dimension to political theatrics. How the voters in the forthcoming 2017 elections will respond to the resignations of the Punjab Congress party’s legislatures and Capt. Amarinder Singh from Parliament in protest and the Akalis open defiance of the judicial verdict remains a debatable issue. Interestingly, the termination of all agreements including that of 1981 by Punjab Assembly in 2004 did not make the Congress Party loose elections in Haryana in2 004 and win elections in Punjab in 2007. In a way, after 50 years of dispute people have become indifferent to political rhetoric, judicial diversions and administrative ad-hocism.
An assessment survey in Punjab by the Institute for Development and Communication (October, 2016) has shown that one-third of the voters have approved of the Akali-BJP performance on issues, but rated its top leadership negatively. Whereas, in the case of the Congress party, they viewed its top leadership, i.e. Capt. Amarinder Singh positively, but their agenda of elections less favourably as compared to the Akalis and the AAP.  AAP-a large section identified with their agenda of being anti-drug and corruption, but rated leadership of Capt. Amarinder Singh higher than that of Mr Arvind Kejriwal or Bhagwant Mann.
If these findings are to be believed, it has posed a real challenge for the hired professional managers. When a political party’s DNA, leadership choices and agenda are undercutting each other, what can the hired managers construct for their clients to make them win? Neither the leadership nor the political parties on their own has the capacity to pull through the votes required. Their choice would be to select faceless politicians and celebrities as candidates based on winability criteria and in turn create chaos in each constituency specifically when the contest is going to be five cornered. This is symptomatic of erosion of the ideological support base of parties, political leadership deficit and absence of transformational agenda.
(Prof. Pramod Kumar is Director, Institute for Development and Communication (IDC), Chandigarh)

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