Can Punjab CM Amarinder Singh deliver a captain’s knock?
Singh has limited the poll rhetoric of nationalism. Will that keep the SAD-BJP from breaching Cong's defences?
The approach of the Congress veteran — who is referred to as Captain because of his stint in the Indian Army — has been to isolate the Lok Sabha election debates in the state from the rhetoric seen in other parts of the country. The attempt has been to keep the cross hairs trained on local issues. After all, it is advantageous to the Congress so long as the spotlight is on a Singh versus Badal battle, while keeping PM Narendra Modi and Congress president Rahul Gandhi at bay.
The Badal family had suffered a major jolt two years ago when their party managed to win a mere 15 of the 117 seats in the assembly elections — way below the Congress’ 77 and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)’s 20. The baggage of SAD’s 10-year governance (2007-2017) continues to haunt the party. This helps Captain negotiate the political minefield better despite his government’s shortcomings, such as farm loan waivers reaching only 5.8 lakh farmers (as on March 31, 2019) and the suicide of 140 farmers a year, according to state government data.
But a wrong step could blow a hole in even best-laid plans, a hole big enough for votes to slip through. The focus now is on such votes that had earlier helped the AAP breach the Congress-SAD wall in Punjab.
The AAP had managed a vote share of 24.4% in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls and 23.7% in the 2017 assembly elections. But infighting and other problems haunt the party now — though it is said to have a fighting chance in Sangrur Lok Sabha seat. The battle for the other 12 of 13 Lok Sabha seats has turned bipolar. The question everyone is asking is which side will AAP defectors go, as that may largely decide who wins when the state votes on May 19, the last of the seven-phase elections.
While the Congress is fighting the polls alone, the SAD has fielded candidates in 10 seats and left Gurdaspur, Amritsar and Hoshiarpur to its ally, the BJP.
ET Magazine visited six constituencies - Anandpur Sahib, Jalandhar, Ludhiana, Patiala, Sangrur and Bathinda -covering 1,000 km on road to gauge the political mood in the state.
A striking difference in the atmosphere from that of neighbouring states such as Haryana or Rajasthan was the absence of ultra-nationalistic talk in core election campaigns. This despite the BJP succeeding in crafting a narrative around nationalism - especially after the Pulwama terrorist attack and the subsequent airstrikes in Pakistan's Balakot. This overarching theme has largely overshadowed debates on job creation, economic growth and the growing turbulence in the Kashmir Valley.
"The BJP has been trying to project itself as if they are the ones who can flex the muscles," says the chief minister of Punjab. "This is rubbish. It is the Indian defence forces who did the job."
He says he is proud of the military's air strikes in Pakistan. "The wing commander who anchored the operation (in Balakot) and I come from the same National Defence Academy," says Singh, determined to ensure the BJP and its ally do not monopolise the slogan of nationalism in Punjab.
At the SAD camp, the strategy is exactly the opposite. The party knows that higher the decibel on nationalism-related issues, the better its prospects.
SAD's game plan has been to shift the focus away from the Captain versus Badal battle and to remind voters of the Congress' role in the 1984 riots that claimed thousands of Sikh lives. The violence began when the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards. Her son Rajiv Gandhi had said "when a big tree falls, the earth shakes - a comment that the Sikh community has not taken kindly.
"Modi is a symbol of change. If Sajjan Kumar is behind bars today for the sins he had committed during the anti-Sikh riots (1984), it is because of the Modi-led NDA. Rajiv Gandhi's Congress had made him a minister," says Bikram Singh Majithia, an Akali leader and former minister, on the sideline of a neighbourhood poll meeting at Bathinda.
Majithia, an MLA from Majitha, is the brother of Union minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal. Her husband is former deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal, who heads the SAD. While Harsimrat Kaur is contesting from Bathinda, Sukhbir Singh is fighting the elections from Ferozepur. Last week, Prime Minister Modi had also shifted the focus from Balakot to Rajiv Gandhi by calling the former PM "Bhrashtachari No 1".
Will the BJP's plan to reopen old wounds to corner Congress president Rahul Gandhi succeed? Or will Captain be able to stave off the attack? The answers will become clear when votes are counted on May 23.