Shahkot bye-poll results: Is Punjab going back to a bipolar polity?
The results of the Shahkot Assembly bye-poll are set to redefine the political equations in Punjab ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. They point to certain deep-rooted changes that have taken place in the state polity in a short span since the 2017 Assembly polls and these changes are set to have a major role in how things unfold in about 10 months from now when the Lok Sabha polls are held.
To begin with, these results are a further pointer to the phenomenon of the state fast moving back to a bipolar polity. At this point, the Congress with a resounding win in Shahkot stands as the dominant pole while the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) emerging as the second pole although on a weak wicket at present. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which is at present the main Opposition party in the state Assembly, continues to slide fast into oblivion with another humiliating defeat.
One just needs to look at the figures that have emerged after the Shahkot results. The victorious Congress candidate Hardev Singh Laddi Sherowalia polled 82,745 votes, which is far more than the 42,008 votes secured by the party in the 2017 assembly polls in this Akali stronghold. Akali candidate Naib Singh Kohar who was banking on sympathy after his father and ex-minister Ajit Singh Kohar’s death that had led to the bye-poll. But he could poll 43,994 votes that is 2,969 votes fewer than the party's tally in 2017. But the biggest surprise has been the dismal performance of AAP candidate Rattan Singh Kakkar Kalan who could just poll 1900 votes as against 42,008 that thee party candidate had polled in 2017.
The mathematics signals that the AAP vote shifted totally towards the Congress.
Now what does this mean for each party? Let's begin with AAP. This defeat is an addition to the series of poor performances that the party has come up with after its rout in the state Assembly elections. The cadre in the state stands disillusioned and demoralised even as its leadership still continues to grapple with issues of autonomy for the Punjab unit.
Many describe AAP in Punjab to be a classic case of a party letting down a massive support base of common people where over ambitious leaders faltered at the last hurdle in the race to the finish in the state Assembly polls. After all, the party was threatening to form the government in the state at one point of time.
The people had ensured victory for its candidates on four of the 13 Lok Sabha seats and giving others substantial number of votes. Does this mean that it is time for AAP to pack up its bags?
The party will have to take some radical measures if it wants to retain its four seats or increase its tally, both of which remain far fetched at this point of time. It will have to redraw its blueprint for the state. All that its co-president Balbir Singh could say after the Shahkot debacle is that the party will discuss with the volunteers and office bearers to find out what went wrong against it. He said the party will try hard to shun the mistakes made in the past and said that new plans and strategies will be made to reach out the voters at booth level.
For the SAD which is in alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the loss in its stronghold comes as a disappointment as its tally has got further reduced to just 14 seats out of 117. The BJP has three members in the assembly. But SAD President Sukhbir Badal carried out a good campaign for the bye-polls making sure that the narrative against the Captain Amarinder Singh-led Congress is well crafted.
Ever since the Assembly polls, it is Sukhbir-led Akalis who have been acting as the main Opposition party because of AAP being in disarray. On majority of issues, mainly the Panthic ones, the face-off has primarily been between the Akalis and the Congress.
Sukhbir took potshots at AAP saying, “The state of AAP can be measured from the fact that it did not even open its account in many villages. It has ceased to exist as a political entity in Punjab.”
He claimed that the Shahkot election was fought in trying circumstances with the Congress government riding roughshod over all democratic principles to use excise, sales tax, panchayat and electricity board officials besides the police force to intimidate voters. He said despite this the SAD put up a good fight and there was a groundswell of support in its favour.
He said the result was however not commensurate with this effort because civil and police officials toed the Congress line and even election code violations like entry of illegal liquor in trucks into the constituency were overlooked.
“We will force the Congress government to fulfill the promises made to the people of Punjab and will not let them run away with excuses,” he added.
The BJP continues to stand on the margins of state politics. With its support bank of small Hindu traders having shifted towards the Congress after the demonetisation introduced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi which was followed by shoddy implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST), the party has failed to reclaim its support base.
The attitude and treatment of its central leadership, particularly the fountainhead of RSS, towards minorities has led to even the Sikh supporters of Akalis being miffed with the party. Observers are of the view that the Akalis would have nothing to lose if they walk out of the alliance with the BJP as the latter remains confined to small Hindu pockets in urban Punjab. Dalits, particularly of Doaba, that had supported it at one point of time also feel alienated after the Supreme Court's alleged dilution of the Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. It needs to be underlined that Punjab has around 32 per cent Dalit voters
For the Congress, the winning spree continues despite the public perception at large that the government remains far from an ideal state of functioning and Amarinder is not taking keen interest in presenting forward a model of governance for the Congress to showcase in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. But still it is a resounding victory because Sherowalia's campaign had started on a negative note with a case being registered against him for alleged illegal mining. The people chose to ignore these charges. It remains to be seen how Amarinder leads the charge for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.