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Punjab polls a cliff-hanger between AAP & Congress. Silent voters hold the key

Rajeev Khanna | Updated on: 11 February 2017, 5:43 IST

The stage is set for one of the most closely fought political battles in Punjab when the electorate exercises its right to franchise on Saturday in a single phase poll exercise. Preparations have been made for casting of votes by 2,00,29,610 voters across 22,615 polling station in the state.

The polling is to be held for 117 assembly constituencies spread across 22 districts and three geographical regions of Malwa, Doaba and Majha. The share of these three regions in terms of constituencies is 69, 23 and 25 respectively.

Punjab is witnessing a three cornered fight with the new entrant Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) rattling the two traditional powerhouses - Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)-BJP combine and the Congress.

A wave against SAD?

With the SAD-BJP facing a heavy anti-incumbency, Congress and AAP are locked in what seems to be an extremely close contest.

A number of events in the last one month have made it clear that the SAD-BJP combine has become the object of public ire and, despite the favourable pre-campaign arithmetic, are likely to be voted out of power.

In the last one month there have been instances of the masses coming out openly to express their anger against the combine that included pelting of stones on the cavalcade of SAD president Sukhbir Badal, hurling of a shoe at chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, people standing up to disrupt the speeches of Akali leaders countering their claims and villagers showing black flags and placards carrying slogans against them. There have been audio clips doing the rounds where Badal is literally pleading for votes.

The BJP too has paid the price of having continued with its alliance with the Akalis. It's national leadership gave no attention to a section of its cadres that had been pleading that the party goes it alone. This section believes that the party will have to go solo with a detailed programme if the party has to grow in Punjab. This time too the party stuck to the seat sharing arrangement with the Akalis where it is contesting 23 seats while the SAD fielded its candidates on all others.

Narendra Modi's demonetisation policy is also proving to be an obstacle for the BJP as the voters are very annoyed with its impact. This was evident in the poor response to the rallies of Modi and the BJP national president Amit Shah where they failed to announce anything that was Punjab specific.

The SAD-BJP combine has approached the electorate on the development plank pointing to the building of infrastructure in the state. But the combine is being targeted on the issues of farm distress, farmer suicides, drug menace, spiraling religious violence and its failure to bring to book those responsible for the instances of sacrilege of holy texts.

AAP vs Congress

This leaves the field open to AAP and Congress who stand neck and neck at this point of time after having carried out a high pitched campaign both against the SAD-BJP combine and against each other.

For AAP, its biggest strength has turned out to be the support it has managed to get across the Malwa region. The possibility of AAP forming the next government hinges on how well it can do in this region. Led by Sangrur MP Bhagwant Mann and its national convener Arvind Kejriwal, the party has successfully carried out an electrifying campaign in the region drawing massive crowds to their rallies. For the last two years AAP volunteers have worked hard across the state but most of its highly localised campaigns were carried out in the Malwa region that has been the epicentre of farmer suicides and farm distress. Having come out with impressive sector wise manifestos, the party attacked the Akalis and the Congress for being hand in glove and having plundered the state.

But its challenge remains on getting more seats from Majha and Doaba regions that can take its tally across the halfway mark of 59. These are the regions where the party has faced internal rebellions. It had done reasonably well in Doaba in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls in terms of vote share. Its campaign has been fueled by a large number of NRIs who descended on the region recently.

Diverting from its stand, AAP is fighting these elections in alliance with the Lok Insaf Party led by Bains brothers (Simarjeet and Balwinder Singh) with the latter fielding five candidates in Ludhiana and adjoining areas.

The Congress remains the biggest challenge to AAP. Claiming to be reasonably well placed in Malwa, the party is banking on Majha and Doaba to give it the push required to form the government. It remains the strongest in Majha and well placed in Doaba. Its campaign was built around its state president Captain Amarinder Singh by its poll strategist Prashant Kishor and his team. The party has very high stakes as its plan for a national revival can take off from Punjab if it is able to form a government here. It was towards the end of the campaign that the party vice president Rahul Gandhi declared him the chief ministerial candidate of the party. Its biggest advantage lies in the fact that majority of the voters want Amarinder as the chief minister despite there being a ground swell in favour of AAP.

The Congress campaign has been around the issues that have led to the heavy anti incumbency against the Akali-BJP combine interspersed with Amarinder also taking on the BJP's national leadership on demonetisation, creating war hysteria etc from time to time. Along with the Akalis, the party has tried to project AAP as a force backed by the radical elements and outsiders while constantly attacking Kejriwal.

Silent voters

With both AAP and the Congress having decided on a strategy to field big guns against the top Akali leaders, the poll results could throw up some major upsets. Badal is engaged in a triangular fight with Amarinder Singh and AAP's former Delhi MLA Jarnail Singh in Lambi. Sukhbhir is pitted against Bhagwant Mann and Ludhiana MP Ravneet Bittu of the Congress. Sukhbir's brother in law Bikram Singh Majithia s also facing a stiff challenge from Sukhjinder Singh Lalli Majithia of the Congress and Himmat Singh Shergill of AAP. A hot contest is also on the cards in Amarinder's home turf of Patiala where the AAP candidate Dr Balbir Singh has gained considerable ground. The Akalis have fielded former Army chief General (Retired) JJ Singh on this seat.

Observers are also not ruling out the possibility of a hung assembly in case both the Congress and AAP do equally well. While Punjabi voter is never known to have been confused and has always voted clearly in favour of one party, the fact is that Punjab never had the presence of a strong third force till now.

With the controversial Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh extending his support to the Akalis at the last moment, the dynamics are expected to change in the Malwa belt where the Dera followers have a lot of influence. Observers say that this will indirectly help the Congress as the Dera supporters are mainly the Dalits and marginalised who have till now aligned with AAP at many places. The Dera followers have the capacity to influence results in at least 20 seats in the Malwa heartland.

In the villages of Punjab, it is the silent voter that is keeping the parties guessing and on their toes. This is the voter who has attended rallies and events of different parties, be it the road shows of the Congress, the entertainment and satire laced meetings of Mann or the Sangat Darshans of the Akalis but has never shouted out his choice. It is he who sits holding the key to the results that will come on March 11.

First published: 3 February 2017, 6:18 IST