Opinion: BJP is facing a test as it is contesting elections alone after 27 years, 7 reasons why Punjab is different from the politics of the North

Ronit Kawale
Ronit Kawale - Senior Editor
7 Min Read

Writer- Ashutosh Kumar
Arguably, all states of the Indian Union are 'mini-democracies' in their own right because of their different electoral choices and party systems. This is why they have emerged as the preferred analytical units for election studies. While Punjab has many similarities with other states, it also breaks trends in many ways. This reinforces the 'Punjab exceptionalism' thesis. Let us look at the reasons why it is called the most isolated state of the North. First, even in the early years after independence, its party system could never be called the 'Congress system'. In the early years, unlike other states, the Congress always faced stiff competition from the Akali Dal and the Jan Sangh in Punjab. This explains the period of coalition governments after the reorganisation of the state in 1966. Secondly, while most states have seen the rise of middle and lower castes in terms of political power in the last three and a half decades, Punjab is a state where the social base of power has remained numerical despite nearly a third of the population being Scheduled Castes. Since then, the strong and landowning Jat Sikh farmers have been in possession of the land. This appears to be a failed last-ditch effort by the Congress leadership to fight anti-incumbency sentiment by appointing a Dalit chief minister just months before the 2022 assembly elections.

Third, like the Jan Sangh, the BJP has also not been able to make its electoral presence felt in the state despite its long-term alliance (1997-2021) with the Akali Dal. Be it in terms of seats or percentage of votes. This is different from other states, where the BJP, finding itself weak, first allied with a locally powerful regional party as a junior partner and then became a winning party.

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Fourth, the landmark decisions and issues taken by the Congress and the BJP in recent years in Punjab have never had an impact. The BJP's attempts to fight elections on national issues such as security, Article 370, citizenship, India's high status on the global stage have not had much impact in the state so far. In contrast, local issues have been decisive even in parliamentary elections.

Fifth, Punjab is the only state where the Aam Aadmi Party managed to open an account in the Lok Sabha. Till date, no Lok Sabha candidate of any party has been able to win from the state. In its debut in the 2014 elections, the then two-year-old party won four out of 13 seats. It became the main opposition party in the 2017 assembly elections and then won an unprecedented victory of 92 out of 117 seats in the 2022 elections. It is also making a strong claim in the current Lok Sabha elections.

Sixth, Punjab seems to have been largely untouched by the ideological shift from centre-right to conservatism, reflected in the rise of cultural nationalism in the plains and hills of north, central and western India. This is despite the fact that it has a significant Hindu population. Despite incidents like Simranjit Singh Mann's victory in the Sangrur Lok Sabha by-election or the Amritpal Singh episode, there are no signs of a resurgence of radicalism in the Sikh community.

Seventh, unlike many states, regional parties are not doing well here either. The Akali Dal, an over 100-year-old ethno-regional party, has been setting the state’s political agenda since colonial days and claims to be the sole representative of the Sikh community. But it is in a steady decline. That too not because of the BJP, but because of its own strategic mistakes and organisational/leadership issues.

Coming back to local issues, the state is dominated by a powerful farming community that owns the largest number of farms. But the severe crisis in the agriculture sector in post-Green Revolution Punjab is a matter of concern. Farmers have been camping at the Singhu border for more than three months, reminiscent of the 2020 agitation against the three farm bills.

The big question is whether Punjab will remain isolated in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. The BJP is contesting the elections alone after a gap of 27 years. It will be interesting to see its performance in urban constituencies like Ludhiana and Jalandhar, where the party is contesting for the first time and where the Hindu population is significant. Then, there are constituencies where the BJP has won earlier in alliance with the Akali Dal: Gurdaspur and Hoshiarpur (5 times each) and Amritsar (3 times). It will be interesting to see if the Modi magic finally works in the state.

Also, all eyes will be on the performance of the beleaguered Akali Dal, as another defeat will severely impact the leadership of the Badal family. Since there was no AAP-Congress alliance in the state unlike Delhi and neighbouring Haryana, the results will determine the hold of Bhagwant Mann, who is leading the campaign. His leadership skills will also be on display in keeping the flock together in the face of electoral turmoil, especially when most of the party's top leaders are in jail or facing trial. Similarly, the Congress will have state-level leaders like Raja Waring, Pratap Bajwa, Sukhjinder Randhawa, who will not only have to win their respective constituencies but also share the burden of leading the campaign, as after Captain Amarinder Singh joined the BJP, the party has no leader with a statewide support base.

(Ashutosh Kumar is Professor of Political Science at Punjab University. The views expressed in the article are personal.)

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