The Congress, despite its decline in the rest of the country, won in Punjab because the personal appeal of Amarinder Singh transcended that of the party. The AAP and the SAD-BJP combine lost the plot by ignoring the region’s needs. The state needs progressive governance.
To make sense of the recent Punjab Assembly elections, one can ask three different, though inter-related, questions: Why did the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance lose? Why did the Aam Aadmi Party not win? Finally, why did the Congress win? I will start by making a counter-intuitive statement that it is not a victory of the Congress party in Punjab. It also is not a revival of the Congress. Viewed as a long-term trend, the Congress party in Punjab, as elsewhere in India, is witnessing a decline. In Punjab, it is primarily the victory of Amarinder Singh. He is, on the whole, an exceptional Congress leader from Punjab.
All Congress leaders of Punjab, including Partap Singh Kairon who is sometimes presented as the tallest Congress leader Punjab has ever produced, have been servile to the central Congress leadership. Amarinder Singh has been different. He resigned from the Congress party and the Parliament as a protest against Operation Blue Star in June, 1984, the Army action at the Golden Temple ordered by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. It is said that Indira Gandhi had called him "an emotional fool" for taking that step while the Sikh population the world over, traumatised by that ghastly operation, had hailed Amarinder Singh’s step as an assertion of dignity and collective pride of the community.
Later on, as the Chief Minister of Punjab (2002-07), he got the river water use treaties relating to Punjab, which he viewed as patently unfair to Punjab, annulled in the Punjab Legislative Assembly. Due to this action, which in Punjab was hailed as a bold step, at that time a storm had blown against him in the political and media circles in Delhi but he stood his ground. The Manmohan Singh-led UPA government was in power at the Centre. The Congress chief Sonia Gandhi had refused to meet him for six months, as was revealed recently by Amarinder Singh himself. Due to these acts of defiance, he is respected by large sections of the Sikh population in Punjab and even outside. No other Congress leader in Punjab is respected in this way.
Some aspects of his unconventional lifestyle, including those relating to his personal relations, give him an image of a modern and open-minded person. Upper-caste urban Hindu voters do not view him as some kind of a fundamentalist, in spite of the fact that he had protested against Operation Blue Star. This unique combination, enabling acceptability in the two main religious communities of Punjab, has ensured that the Congress under his leadership has managed impressive victories in the Sikh-majority rural constituencies as well as in the Hindu-majority urban constituencies. If after five years, he leaves the political scene, as he has publicly said he would, there is no one in the Congress party in Punjab who can occupy that space. He, therefore, represents a temporary stop-gap interregnum for the eventual decay and disintegration of Punjab’s Congress party which is in tune with the decay of the party in the rest of the country.
In the light of this electoral success of the Congress party in Punjab which Amarinder Singh has ensured, it is sad that he has not totally abandoned the Congress culture of sycophancy when immediately after his victory; he chose to thank Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi for supporting him. Any observer of Punjab’s electoral scene would know that both the Gandhis have no electoral clout in Punjab, though it must also be added that they have reasonably distanced themselves from Indira Gandhi (at least when they come to Punjab) and do not evoke the visceral hatred that she evoked among the Sikhs due to her decision to launch the Army action at the Golden Temple. Given the drubbing the Congress is receiving, it is the central leadership of the party which should feel indebted to Amarinder Singh’s regional leadership in Punjab for whatever political credibility the party has been left with. The regional leadership should not bow before the central leadership. In the medium to long term, there would emerge the necessity of a new, Punjab-based regional party out of the turmoil that the Congress party will be faced with when he quits the political scene. Such a regional party ought to bring a range of activists together who are not together at the moment but exist in all parties in different degrees. This gives us a clue to answer the other two questions raised in the beginning. One of the main reasons the AAP did not win as well as it could have was because the over-centralised operations from Delhi damaged the party in Punjab organisationally. It also hampered its growth ideologically and politically. Most of its leaders who have won — H.S. Phoolka, Kanwar Sandhu, Sukhpal Singh Khaira, and Baljinder Kaur —have won mainly because of their own strong political profile and constituency-level work.
Similarly, the Shiromani Akali Dal lost as it never had in the past. The defeat is mainly due to the weakening of the unique regional profile of the party because of its alliance with the centrist BJP. It is due to Punjab’s regional specificity that one can explain the absence of the so-called Modi wave that has been witnessed in some other states. This wave adversely affected the Akali Dal as did some other failures of the party and the government, especially the handling of the incidents of desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib. The party dug its own grave the day the government fired on those protesting against acts of desecration. It stumbled from one blunder to another after that, and eventually lost its way.
Every election leads to a new political churning. This political upheaval too, hopefully, will give birth to a contested and progressive mode of political and economic governance in Punjab. It deserves progressive and pro-people governance and a realignment of political forces that are responsive to Punjab’s specific needs and challenges.
The writer is Professor of Economics, Oxford Brookes University, UK