Regionalism takes a beating in AAP’s rout in Punjab polls

Jaspal Singh Sidhu | March 17, 2017 11:12 AM
Jaspal Singh Sidhu

The just held 2017 Punjab Assembly elections have not proved a different game from what the RSS brand of nationalism has played on the demographically polarized chessboard of other northern Indian states that went to polls simultaneously.

The much expected political change could not take place even as the new entrant – Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) -- made its assertive debut in Punjab, breaking the binary of traditional parties --- the Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP combine versus the Congress — which have been contesting against each other in past several elections and ruling alternatively.

The electorate's perception got hardened when hundreds of activists from the Sikh Diaspora descended in Punjab and extended emotional and material support to AAP. 

Paradoxically, the AAP, which successfully whipped up a wave in its favour, ended up in creating an unprecedented swing in votes for the Congress which romped home with 77 out of 117 seats, beating all its previous records since 1957.

Identity politics was also at play in the electoral process in Punjab earlier. And the contesting political parties played up to the fullest these identities which also included ‘deras’ (religious sects) of various denominations. Traditional contestants applied almost the same tactics in Punjab as the BJP did in playing up the Hindu communal identity in Uttar Pradesh against the sizeable “Muslim Other” present there and earned rich electoral dividends.

Experience shows that the demographic fault-lines existing in Punjab, broadly in terms of the Sikh and Hindu population segments, invariably, display their “fixed and permanent attitudes” in the electoral contests.

On all sensitive regional political issues in the past that have pitted Punjab against New Delhi, the majority of the Hindu urban population has sided with the latter, openly hailing the nationalistic agenda. At various occasions, this became the cause of an open conflict, assuming the proportion of “Hindu nationalism confronting Sikh nationalism”. And, politicking on this divide peaked during regime of Indira Gandhi in the 1980s.

Referring to such communal attitudes in operation, Dr B.R. Ambedkar rightly pointed out in the 1950s that India had achieved “a communal democracy, not a political one”.

“There is difference between communal majority and political majority” as the latter is not “fixed and a permanent majority; it is always made, unmade and remade. Communal majority is permanent and fixed in its attitudes”, Baba Saheb Ambedkar averred.    

In this election, the communal fault-line in Punjab greatly benefited the Congress as urban Hindus jealously, but silently, voted for the national party perceiving that AAP had aligned with a section of the Sikhs pursuing militant regional agenda in opposition to the Badals openly toeing the BJP’s nationalistic polity.   

Their perception got hardened when hundreds of activists from the Sikh Diaspora descended in Punjab and extended emotional and material support to AAP. A sizable section of the village youth along with a vocal section of the rural Sikhs, particularly in the southern parts of Punjab, lined up behind AAP, claiming to be fighting for a “pro-people and clean governance”.  All that virtually created an euphoria in favour of AAP and political pundits anticipated the party’s to sweep the assembly polls.

A strong resentment to the level of hate was prevailing against the “autocratic, corrupt and misrule” of the Akali-BJP government headed by the Badals. It had facilitated entry of the AAP in Punjab two years earlier in the Lok Sabha elections of  2014.  And Punjab became the one and only one state that gave four MPs to the party.

Emboldened by those developments, AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal launched the election campaign for the assembly polls in Punjab much in advance of the other parties. He ignited a hope among the Sikhs that his party could help them earn “political space” in Punjab which the Badals had squandered to the BJP in their pursuit to remain in power. Even hardliner Sikhs jumped  in support of Arvind Kejriwal, expecting AAP’s help in “freeing and insulating” Sikh religious institutions against the “prowling Hindutva” out to influence the minority in a big way. They have been accusing the Badals, who are having unconditional alliance with the BJP, of facilitating the “Hinduisation of the Sikh religion”.

The Sikhs were already upset and resentful over incidents of sacrilege of their religious scripture that took place in 2015 and the ruling Badals’ failure to apprehend and punish the guilty. A good section of the Sikhs, rather, believed that the Badals were behind the incidents and using the religious institutions for their political manoeuvring. Along with the Sikhs’ anger against the Badals raging high on this count, the latter’s “autocratic rule, corrupt and monopolistic business deals and patronizing of drug-dealers” also made them highly unpopular among the people.

On other hand, a sizeable section of the Sikhs is still nursing resentment against the Congress for its role during the army action on the Golden Temple complex and the massacre of  Sikhs in the November 1984 carnage. Congress leader Capt Amarinder Singh, despite standing for Punjab’s demands, including preserving of river waters for the state and promising eradication of corruption and cleansing the state from the drug-dealer network, he could not dissociate completely from the anti-Sikh role of his party. The past role of his party has brought Amarinder in direct confrontation with the Diaspora Sikhs who have been campaigning for action against Congress bigwigs for their “misdeeds in 1984”.

For drawing maximum support of the Sikhs, Kejriwal emerged as the common political enemy for both -- Badals and Amarinder. And they were looking for an opportunity to pin him down. Both parties propagated that NRI Sikhs, working as volunteers for AAP are, in fact, acting as “spoiler of hard-earned peace” in Punjab. And both parties blew out of proportion Kejriwal’s meeting with hardliner Sikhs and his night’s stay at a house in Moga which was once inhibited by a former Sikh militant who had migrated abroad 20 years ago. The car blast, occurring only five days before the polling date, killing five persons at Maur Mandi falling in Kejriwal’s support-base area, queered the pitch for AAP.  

All this came handy to the media in building a strong narrative a few days before the polling that AAP’s victory might facilitate the return of old “black days of Sikh militancy in Punjab”. Besides that, the RSS and the BJP are believed to have issued instructions to their cadre and workers to vote for the Congress to defeat Kejriwal, a potent threat to the BJP, as he is planning to spread his tentacles even in Gujarat.

The Congress, thus, got unexpected support from the majority of urban Hindus, comprising one-third of the state’s population, besides attracting a sizeable section of elite Sikhs who anticipated better business atmosphere and stability under  Amarinder Singh’s regime. Otherwise, the Congress, presently on the decline in other parts of the country, could not be expected to spring a miracle in Punjab as wrangling within party ranks had much delayed the announcement of candidates for the polls. The Congress high command, after announcing the first list of its candidates, held up the release of the second one waiting clearance after the return of Rahul Gandhi from abroad.

In the changed scenario, AAP could hardly manage its earlier vote share of 24 per cent it had earned in the 2014 Parliamentary polls and won 22 seats in alliance with the Bains brothers (with two seats) to become the Opposition party in the assembly as the Akali-BJP alliance trailed behind with 18 seats. The AAP with 9 Dalit and 4 OBC MLAs has, undoubtedly, dented the rural base of the Akalis whose vote share plummeted from 34.7 per cent in 2012 to 25 per cent now. And the Congress also lost its vote share by 1.5 per cent, reaching 38.5 per cent.

The Sikhs and Hindus, the two main population groupings in Punjab, are not mere distinct religious entities to be overlapped by the cultural and linguistic commonality in a Punjabi society. Rather, they form different political identities having a long history of conflict which has erupted into open confrontation on various occasions.

Right from the emergence of the Arya Samaj in Punjab in the 1870s, the communal divide had come to stay in Punjab, but with the exit of the “Muslim factor” after Partition, the two-tier divide continues to shape political perspectives of both Hindus and Sikhs. The Punjabi Hindus nurturing pan-India Hindu identity with strong nationalistic propensity, invariably, differed with the Sikhs who, too, are imbued with an intense sense of regionalism and nationalism of their own. The two segments have always remained engaged in some sort of confrontation on the social, cultural and other planes which often tend to become intense. This fault line, thus, gets accentuated at the play of power politics and that keeps the Punjab cauldron boiling.

In the unexpected defeat of the AAP, the Sikhs in villages, particularly Diaspora Sikhs, seem to be much disappointed and the Congress, wedded to the traditional type of governance, is also treading warily and avoiding display of over-exuberance on its landslide victory.

 Jaspal Singh Sidhu, an author and journalist could be reached at jaspal.sdh@gmail.com


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