The New Jersey based author is in constant touch with Punjab and has an uncanny perception of political climate of the State.
Ireached Punjab in the last week of February 2014. Electoral scene had not yet warmed up in the state. The general public was a thoroughly scared lot. The fear of the government was writ large on their faces. They were unhappy at the current political situation due to a number of reasons, but no one could muster the courage to speak the truth.
The ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) cadres, workers and Jathedars were quite upbeat and they were the only players in the field. The main opposition party, the Congress in Punjab was living in complete fear psychosis generated by their strong arm opponents. Some of the elected legislators of this Congress, with strong business interests, were appearing as sitting ducks, completely at the mercy of the ruling party. Their businesses were being crippled for lack of patronage, or put frankly, due to blatant official discrimination. About a dozen of them were ready to cross over to the ruling party.
The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) was new to Punjab. It had a lack luster enrolment drive. No one was giving it a chance. I visited some parts of Ludhiana, Fatehgarh Sahib, Ropar, Nawanshahar, Jalandhar, Kapurthala, Ferozepore and Moga. All these districts witnessed only SAD related activity. It looked as if it was a complete cake walk for the SAD. As the month of March dawned, the Congress Party started some activity at the national level. Preneet Kaur, minister of state for foreign affairs at the centre appeared on the scene as a possible victor for the Congress Party from the Patiala constituency.
Her SAD opponent is a former Congress worker and a Preneet Kaur loyalist, who defected to the SAD not very long ago. A similar sure shot winner appeared in Bibi Harsimrat Kaur Badal, wife of the SAD President and the Deputy Chief Minister of Punjab Sukhbir Singh Badal and daughter in law of the chief minister Parkash Singh Badal. Manish Tewari, minister of information and broadcasting at the centre, appeared a sure shot winner for the Congress Party from his Ludhiana seat. But quoting health reasons, he expressed his inability to contest. This had a demoralizing effect on the other prospective candidates. No one including Partap Singh Bajwa, President of Punjab Pradesh Congress committee, was willing to contest.
Bajwa expressed his desire to canvass support for all the other candidates. Then the central leadership used its whip. They asked the most charismatic Congress leader in Punjab, Captain Amarinder Singh ex chief minister to contest from Amritsar. This became necessary, because the BJP fielded one of its senior-most leaders at the centre Arun Jaitley from Amritsar. As soon as the name of Captain Amarinder Singh was announced, there were spontaneous scenes of rejoicing in Amritsar. The thus far demoralized rank and file of the party, exploded fire crackers and distributed sweets to the people.
The mood became not only upbeat in Amritsar constituency, but there was merriment all over the long ignored Majha and Doaba regions of Punjab. Subsequently the Congress changed its candidate from Anandpur Sahib Constituency and fielded one of its senior leaders Ambika Soni from there. From Ferozepore constituency, they fielded the leader of the Congress Legislative Party in Punjab State Assembly Mr. Sunil Kumar Jakhar. With all these heavy weights jumping in the poll arena the morale of the grass root workers and the other candidates of the Congress Party got a huge boost.
In the meanwhile, resentment against the government was swelling as the days passed by. Due to chronic nonpayment of salaries to the government employees, none of the state employees was happy. There is rampant educated unemployment in Punjab. The minor minerals like sand and gravel are under the unauthorized “Goonda Tax” imposed by the government supported mafia. The government owned state road transport was being throttled to benefit the private transport companies owned by the people in power. Normal life all over the Punjab comes to a standstill when the people wielding real power are on a visit to any town in the state; this irks a lot of citizens. Power supply in the state was erratic in spite of ever increasing tariffs.
The industrial sector was reeling under record taxes and the urban population was feeling the pinch of heavy taxation and poor services. All the state owned and municipal roads had developed deep holes and ruts. Only the toll roads built by the central government and private builders were in better condition. Crime rate, like purse snatching and thefts, in urban Punjab was spiraling up. Government provided health and educational facilities were virtually unavailable to the poor masses.
The pent up resentment in the public was ready to explode. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) quickly announced the candidature of attorney H.S. Phoolka from Ludhiana. His honesty, devotion to duty and steadfastness make him stand apart amongst the other candidates. His candidature brought the AAP as a player in the electoral arena. The moment Manpreet Badal of the People’s Party of Punjab (PPP) decided to take the support of the Congress for his candidature from Bathinda Parliamentary constituency, Bhagwant Mann the second most popular leader of the PPP deserted him. The AAP took full advantage of the situation and adopted Bhagwant Mann as its candidate from neighboring Sangrur constituency. Bhagwant Mann’s combative style made him a formidable candidate from Sangrur seat.
In Chandigarh, the AAP announced the name of Savita Bhatti as its candidate, but she withdrew from the race citing non cooperation from the cadres of the party. She was quickly replaced by a young model actress, a former Miss India Gul Panag as the AAP’s pick for the Chandigarh seat. Gul Panag very quickly swung into action and became a serious contender for the seat from the city beautiful. Later on AAP announced candidates for almost all the seats in Punjab. Some of them are doing really well.
Now there are three cornered contests all over Punjab. The hitherto invincible looking SAD is finding it hard to fight anti-incumbency in Punjab. The election scene has transformed into a three cornered contest. The most prestigious seats are Amritsar and Bathinda, but fights are evenly poised on every seat.
The Narendra Modi wave is getting stronger all over the Indo-Gangetic India, but due to the mis-governance in Punjab, there is no such wave anywhere in the state of Punjab. Strong arm tactics will be used in plenty. Booze and drugs may be distributed quite freely and massive vote buying shall also be resorted to. But the election results due on May 16th may still spring some surprises from Punjab.