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Punjab in Mood for Change as Hapless Voter Looks for ‘Lesser Evil’. Who Will Cash in on Disappointment?

Travelling in Punjab over four days, nearly 1,200 kilometres across the state’s three regions of Malwa, Majha and Doaba and speaking to at least 150 people — one thing is apparent. People are disappointed, and want a change. But who will cash in on this disappointment in elections after four months?

This key question seems an open game in Punjab ahead of the elections expected in the state in February next year. Farmers are up in arms against the BJP, and the Akali Dal by default. Locals still complain of the corruption and the drug trade prevalent in the Akali rule of 10 years from 2007 to 2017. Many people say the Congress is “all over the place”, deeply divided and Captain Amarinder Singh did precious little over four-and-a-half years. Some are not fond of Navjot Singh Sidhu too, terming him more bluster than ‘CM material’, while the jury is still out on effectiveness of CM Charanjit Channi.

“The only party against which there is no great anger is the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). But no one knows who their CM face is. Without that, it is difficult to say if they will be able to make an impact,” Sukhwinder Singh, an aged shopkeeper selling artifacts near the Golden Temple in Amritsar says. The political discussion makes some of his customers join in, who say AAP squandered a chance in the last elections and it will be difficult for the party to convince people to give it a chance again. “Punjabis opt for a new thing once but not necessarily a second time,” says Navalpreet Kaur, here from Ludhiana.

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It seems more a case of a hapless Punjabi struggling to make a choice for the ‘lesser evil’ as he seems disappointed with all. But four months is a long time in politics and certain big events till February may alter the political landscape again.

Malwa Challenge

In Punjab, it is the Malwa region where the election is won or lost as it has 69 out of the 117 seats in the state. Last time, Congress did well in this region but AAP made most of its gains here too. Traveling here to Sangrur, Patiala and Moga, locals say there is a swell for AAP but the Congress is not totally out of it. The farmer agitation is a big issue in Malwa but AAP’s promise of free power also seems to be resonating.

A Congress office in Patiala lies locked after Captain Amarinder Singh’s exit. (News18)

The Akali Dal, however, seems to be missing in the narrative as it is facing the brunt of the anger of farmers as well as impact of sacrilege and police firing cases of Faridkot. The Akali Dal had to even call off a campaign Yatra due to farmer protests.

The Congress has played its card in Malwa by choosing a Jat Sikh in Navjot Singh Sidhu and a Dalit Sikh in Charanjit Channi on its top posts, both of whom come from this region. “Channi’s entry as CM will improve Congress chances in Malwa as his influence extends in Morinda, Chamkaur Sahib and beyond in the region. His image is good. People would not have voted for Captain but may still vote for Channi and Sidhu,” a group of farmers in Morinda told News18. The Channi-Sidhu combine seem to be working on that strategy too — shift blame on Captain for all the ills plaguing Punjab and project a new order is now in place as the replacement.

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Majha and Doaba Tangle

This refrain from the Congress of a ‘new regime’ replacing the earlier one may not work so easily in the Majha and Doaba regions though. “The CM may have changed but the party is the same. They only fight amidst themselves, not for the people,” say a group of customers at Jalandhar’s famous ‘Lovely Sweets’ shop.

The two new deputy CMs come from the Majha region, the seat of which is in the holy city of Amritsar. In Majha, the impact of AAP is also modest so far given the party has little organisation. Amritsar still has a lot of support for Sidhu, given he is the Amritsar (East) MLA.

Multiple people in the Amritsar region, however, seem to tie up this support with the question if Sidhu will be the CM if they vote for the Congress. Move a bit inside the rural villages between Amritsar and Jalandhar and one can sense that the drug problem still persists with nearly every other family having a tale of either a de-addiction or police action. There is anger against both the Akali Dal and the Congress on this count in Majha region, with a belief that both parties are hand-in-glove and the big fish are free. “The addicts get embroiled in cases. The big fish still rule,” Harminder Singh, who has worked in an NGO with addicts in Jalandhar, said.

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The politics in Doaba is dominated by the SC voters and here the fight now seems intense between the Akali Dal-BSP combine and the CM Channi-led Congress. Gursharan Singh’s family in Gurdaspur has been a long-time voter of the BJP which contested seats here in an alliance but with the party now splitting with the Akali Dal, Singh told News18 that he will vote for the Akali Dal. One can never count out the Akali Dal which has a dedicated Panthic voter base in Punjab. It is the oldest party of Punjab. Urban voter of Doaba and Majha, which voted for BJP, may move to Akali Dal, the party hopes.

Four Months a Long Time in Politics

Always upfront with their opinions, many Punjabis however said much can change in four months if certain big events happen. One is expected to be action against the Badals in the sacrilege and police firing cases under the new Channi-Sidhu regime which may be a double-edged sword — it may bring some Congress voters back over the emotive issue but also consolidate the Akali voter-bank on account of sympathy. The other is the cheaper power promise rolling out if the power purchase agreements are scrapped by the Channi government. “Expensive power is a huge election issue. It affects every family in Punjab as bills are exorbitant,” said a group of morning-walkers in SAS Nagar (Mohali).

ALSO READ | X-Factor Not Ex-Factor: Scare for Sidhu as Charanjit Channi May Well be Here to Stay Come 2022

The industrialists in Ludhiana seem to have given up on the Congress, citing how they were forced to shut shop few months ago after power shortage crippled the state and how they get heavy bills. The temporary and contract employee unions are also disillusioned with the Congress over the policies, affecting a major voter base. “We don’t know how much Channi can change in four months. He is making some statements but there is no change in policy yet,” representatives of most of these unions told News18.

But no party seems to be in a position yet to cash in on this disappointment and anti-incumbency. Congress is projecting a new order to promise a new start and a trailer over the next four months. The Akali Dal feels the traditional cyclic political change in Punjab will bring it back despite all odds, amidst the implosion in the Congress. AAP is trying to capture the imagination of the people a second time and is getting some traction. But Punjab is still an open game and the reactions of people that News18 got show Punjab may turn out to be the closest fight among the five poll-bound states in 2022.

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