It’s late afternoon at Pullu Khera and Punjab CM Prakash Singh Badal is addressing his 12th public meeting of the day in his home constituency of Lambi. “If you elect me, you will once again have me as the chief minister of the state...and no one else.” He needs to say this now, more than ever before, because the old warhorse has realised that though son and deputy CM Sukhbir Badal had all but anointed himself as the next chief ministerial candidate of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), it hasn’t gone down well with the ranks. In fact, Junior ended up ruffling so many feathers, it became crucial for the chief minister to take the lead once again and assure everyone that the son won’t be calling the shots.
The chief minister pulls out a scrap of paper and reads an account of the money spent on Pullu Khera. “Look, Rs 1 crore for your water works, 40 lakh for repair of canals, your school building has been repaired. And is everyone getting old age pension?” In village after village, Badal pulls out records of the money spent during his tenure. He reminds people that they have benefitted only because of him. He refrains from talking about estranged brother Gurdas Badal, who is contesting against him as a candidate of the newly formed Peoples’ Party of Punjab (PPP). At 85, as Badal fights what could be his last major battle at the hustings, it’s a SAD and emotional campaign.
As Punjab prepares to go to the polls on January 30, it’s vastly different political scenarios that confront the two major parties, the ruling SAD and the opposition Congress. Early last year, when the CM’s brother, and nephew Manpreet Badal, broke away to form the PPP, the SAD received its first blow. Nine months down the line, the PPP has put up the Sanjha Morcha, an alliance with the CPI, CPI(M) and SAD (Longowal), led by the wife of former Tamil Nadu governor Surjit Singh Barnala. Though the fledgling party is hampered by inadequacies in its organisational structure, its agenda has drawn much appreciative attention. It begins with a promise to do away with vip culture, the state’s top heavy bureaucracy and to have zero tolerance for corruption. The PPP talks of getting a Lokpal from outside the state, Lokayuktas in the districts and commitment to allocating 5 per cent of the budget to education. “We are here to change the status quo. Punjabis are today acutely embarrassed at the decline in their growth,” says Manpreet. That his candidates are mostly graduates or postgraduates is part of his ‘fresh approach’ message. His appeal lies among the young and the 50 lakh new voters. Though not considered a serious contender, Manpreet’s PPP has succeeded in changing the bipolar character of Punjab politics and the Akalis—more than the Congress—are worried at the damage that he could do.
The Congress camp, upbeat till tickets began to be distributed, is now wracked by rebellions which, if not arrested, may derail its post-poll party. Rebel candidates denied tickets have reared their head in some 30 constituencies. In Jalandhar Cantonment, Gurkanwal Kaur, the late chief minister Beant Singh’s daughter, is threatening to quit the party if the ticket is given to Jagbir Brar (a turncoat who quit the SAD for the PPP and later joined the Congress).
In Phagwara, three-time Congress MLA Joginder Singh Mann has declared that he will contest independently because the party gave the ticket to Balbir Raja Sodhi, who is known for his role in communal riots in the Doaba region. The Congress, led by ex-CM Amarinder Singh, is now banking heavily on a strong anti-incumbency wave against the ruling Akali Dal-BJP combine. Amarinder’s personal charisma and the chord he strikes with farmers, rather than any cogent development agenda, is what the party is taking to the electorate.
The Congress is also taking hope from its performance in the 2007 elections, in which it got just four seats less than the Akalis but registered a higher voting percentage. The Akalis got 48 seats in the 117-member assembly with 37.19 per cent votes, while the Congress won 44 with 40.94 per cent votes. The BJP had helped the Akalis with its 19 seats to form the government. This time, the BJP, contesting 23 seats, has dropped four sitting mlas and is fielding eight new faces, including Dr Navjot Kaur, wife of Amritsar MP and ex-cricketer Navjot Singh Sidhu.
The political scene, though, is still to crystallise, for political turncoats in all the major parties have made it murky. From the Congress to the SAD to the PPP, politicos are party-hopping like never before. As election hits a fever pitch in the next few weeks, Punjab will see hectic campaigning, given that new players like Manpreet Badal are also in the fray.