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Punjab polls 2022: In a fierce, multi-cornered fight in Punjab, AAP has posed a challenge to Congress and SAD

Punjab farmers held on to a common cause as they fought the three central farm laws through the changing seasons for over a year. Yet, they won’t be pressing the same button on the electronic voting machine as the state goes to polls today. Gursahib Singh of Jalandhar, Kulwinder Singh Gill of Barnala and Swaran Singh of Moga, all farmers with sizable land holdings, have one thing in common — they offered a helping hand to their fellow farmers when they were protesting on Delhi’s Singhu border.

They did not budge an inch until the three contentious farm laws were repealed in December last year. As Punjab votes to elect 117 legislators, each of these three farmers will choose candidates belonging to dif- ferent political parties — the Congress, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). Gursahib Singh, 50, concedes that farmers who took part in the protests are a divided clan today even as he insists that they must stick together to confront future challenges. “During the farmers’ agitation, there was a camaraderie.

When my tractor was stationed on the Singhu border for 1 year, 13 days, I liberally used our neighbour’s tractor to cultivate seven acres of my land. That was the deal. But in political preferences, farmers are a divided house,” he says, adding that he will continue to vote for the Congress as the newly formed farmers’ outfit, the Sanyukt Samaj Morcha, has turned out to be a damp squib. Swaran Singh, a 65-year-old farm- er from Moga, has a similar story to tell — but with a different ending. He cultivates three crops a year — wheat, potato and rice.

He could not take his rickety 1995 model tractor to Singhu border but happily lent it to his neighbour who drove it down to Delhi. When asked about his politi- cal choices, he says, “I see a massive surge for AAP this time.” This is ea- gerly seconded by a group of labour- ers listening to the conversation. Meet the third farmer — Gill of Barnala. He is a 25-year-old farmer- cum-entrepreneur who owns a gymnasium in the middle of a vast landscape of wheat fields.

“I, along with seven of my boys (gym members), spent some time on the Singhu border in November last year, mainly to assist our el- ders. We are one as farmers. As far as poli- tics is concerned, our family has been Akali supporters and will remain so,” says Gill, who concedes that AAP has widened its reach in his district.

Earlier this week, ET travelled through Amritsar, Jalandhar, Ludhiana, Moga, Barnala and Tarn Taran districts, covering parts of the three distinct geographical regions of the state — Majha, the region between the Beas and the Ravi rivers towards the northwest, which has 25 seats; Doaba, the state’s most prosperous region lying be- tween the Beas and the Sutlej, which has 23 seats; and Malwa, which has immense political significance due to its size, population and 69 assembly seats. The rise of AAP has been the most extraordinary fea- ture of this hotly contested, multi-corner election. Arvind Kejriwal’s party is giving a hard time to Punjab’s two established players — the Congress, which is bearing the brunt of factionalism as well as its delay in finalising Charanjit Singh Channi as the CM face; and the SAD, which has lost its clout in urban pockets after it snapped its decades-long alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2020 over farm laws.

SAD has picked a new partner, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), sparing 20 seats to it, while BJP has allied with Punjab Lok Congress, a brand-new outfit floated by Captain Amarinder Singh, the former CM who was ousted from the post by the Congress high command last year.

In 2017, Congress’s campaign, “Punjab da Captain”, revolved around Amarinder. The upshot was that the party won a thumping majority, clinch- ing 77 seats with a 38.5% vote share. AAP came second with 20 seats and the SAD-BJP combo got 18. Here are the ground realities of Punjab 2022: First, unlike 2017, AAP has a CM face — Bhagwant Singh Mann, MP, former actor and comedian.

The party has gone beyond Malwa and is now well-en- trenched in Doaba and Majha. “Yahan jhadu ki zor hain (Here the broom is strong),” says Gurpreet Singh, a 30-year-old restaurateur re- siding on the outskirts of Amritsar, in the Majha region. The broom is AAP’s election symbol.

Second, caste does not take centre stage in Punjab during elections. So it remains to be seen whether the Congress’ strategy of projecting a Dalit CM will consolidate the Dalit votes. One out of three seats in Punjab (total 34 seats) is re- served for SCs. But Dalits usually don’t vote as one bloc. “Unlike in UP or Bihar, people here don’t vote along caste lines,” says Banwari Lal, 74, owner of a footwear shop on Amritsar’s Cooper Road. “The bigger question is, who will the BJP’s core supporters, predominantly Hindus and urbanites, vote for?” he adds. In the 2017 election, BJP contested in 23 seats, mostly in urban areas, and got a decent 30% vote share in the seats it had contested. The party won three seats. Third, the BJP-SAD sep- aration will impact both parties. This is the first election in 25 years that they are contesting separately.

For SAD and its founders, the Badal family, the split may prove costly as it precipitated a massive erosion of its Hindu vote base, mostly in urban pockets. In Punjab, Hindus constitute 38.5% of the population, according to the 2011 Census (57.7% Sikhs, 2% Muslims, etc). Though Hindu voters form a majority only in a hand- ful of districts like Gurdaspur, Jalandhar and Hoshiarpur, they are a dominant force in many towns and cities. “Many BJP supporters like us are happy because of this separation (from SAD). Last time, BJP suffered because of Akalis. In the next five years, BJP will be able to stand on its own,” says Sandeep Jain, 55, owner of a garment shop in Ludhiana.

It is the largest city in Punjab and famous for its apparel industry as well as bicycle and auto-parts manufacturing hubs. Fourth, key political issues have remained constant in the last five years. Drug addiction among youth, na- tional security concerns and the vexed issue of unem- ployment have echoed through the state along with poll sops once more. While AAP has promised a monthly transfer of Rs 1,000 to every woman above the age of 18 years, Congress has promised 1 lakh government jobs to the youth. SAD too has resorted to pre-poll promises o f munificent grants plus 75% reserva- tion in government and private sector jobs for local youth.

Its campaign is, however, centred on its projection as Punjab’s very own party (Gall raj di nahi, gall Punjab di). Punjab is positioned above the na- tional average in social parameters such as health and education. For ex- ample, in NITI Aayog’s health index for 2019-20, Punjab stood eighth, way above Madhya Pradesh (17th), Bihar (18th) and Uttar Pradesh (19th). What’s starkly visible, though, is a growing disquiet among youngsters who are unemployed and are desper- ate to fly to Canada, UK or the US.

Amritsar’s UT Market — dotted with coaching centres for IELTS (International English Language Testing System), touts and food joints — mirrors the Punjabi youth’s hope and despair. Gursewak Singh, who is preparing for IELTS, says he has twin challenges: to brush up his English and to arrange `20 lakh for his first year in Canada. “It includes `1 lakh as agent’s com- mission.” he says. The votes will be counted on March 10. If the winning party wants to stay longer at the crease, it will have to realise the dreams of young Punjabis — for opportunities, jobs, a better future.

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