Will new alliances influence political horizon of Punjab?

By Prabhjot Singh

Punjab has always been on forefront in political permutations and combinations. As the State is heading to elect its 16thnew Assembly, political equations, defying logic and ideologies,  are talked about. It looks all set to witness new political players, including alliances,  ready to cross swords with old power houses  staying put based on their past performances.

Struggle for power is a political necessity.  There are no cake walks until situations are tailor made  for one political party or the other to wrest the power in friendly battles of the ballot. This time, however, contests are expected to be fierce and close with new players challenging the existing power runners.

Hazy picture on Punjab’s political horizon will start clearing up by either end of the year or early next year as assembly elections draw closer. Besides ruling Congress and major parties in the Opposition – Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – already stroking the battle of ballot are Punjab Lok Congress (a breakaway group of ruling Congress led by displaced Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh) and Samyukat Akali Dal (led by former Union Minister and General Secretary of SAD, Mr Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa).

After the SAD decided to end its age old ties with its traditional and trusted political partner, BJP, new alliances look imminent. One of the new pact being talked about is between Punjab Lok Congress and the BJP as the Shiromani Akali Dal has found its new alliance partner in Bahujan Samaj Party.

The farmers agitation had given all parties nightmares as it succeeded in staying apolitical. Rural Punjab is a huge vote bank. It had been supporting existing political players in varying numbers. A number of factors have been at play ever since the agitation started. How different political parties handled those factors will now determine the political swings in the rural vote.

Equally important will be Dalit vote. It is almost one-third of  the total electoral college. This vote again is fairly well distributed among existing political players. Exceptions are in cases when the Bahujan Samaj Party itself or any of its factions join the battle of the ballot. Even in those cases, only a fraction of voters get polarised. The SAD announced that if it was voted to power, post of Deputy Chief Minister would go a Dalit. And the Congress wrested the initiative by making Charanjit Singh Channi, as first Dalit Chief Minister of the State.

Urban voter, including trader and the Hindu, always played a decisive role in deciding the political rulers of the State. There has been a demand that why Punjab should not have a Hindu Chief Minister. After Gopi Chand Bhargav,  Bhim Sen Sachar and Com Ram Krishan, Punjab never had a Hindu Chief Minister.

New political alliances need to be studied in the light of the voting patterns of previous elections. Certainly, new players and alliances will influence the State’s political horizon in a big way.

Let us  have a look at the past elections. The Akali Dal-BJP (earlier Jana Sangh) pact had been

subsequently described as the oldest and strongest alliance in the

contemporary Indian politics is now the part of the history.  No other coalition had weathered so many political battles since March 27, 1970, when Parkash Singh

Badal became the Chief Minister for the first time.

Justice Gurnam Singh had the distinction of heading the first coalition government in Punjab. In the 1967 elections, no party got a clear majority. Congress was the single largest party with 48 legislators. However, the then Akali Dal (Sant group) managed to get all the non-Congress parties and the sole Independent to form a government. So on March 8, 1967 first non-Congress government in Punjab, the United Front Ministry headed by Justice Gurnam Singh, was sworn in. It had Jana Sangh as a partner. CPI, after promising support to the government from outside, later joined the government.

Intriguingly, it was one government that had Jana Sangh (Baldev Parkash) and Communist (Satya Pal Dang) as Ministers with an Akali (Justice Gurnam Singh) heading it. But the government collapsed on November 24 leading to the second coalition and minority government headed by Lachman Singh Gill. His government, too, could not last long. It was followed once again by an Akali-Jana Sangh coalition government headed by Justice

Gurnam Singh. In between the State remained under President’s rule. The second government headed by Justice Gurnam Singh remained in office from February 17, 1969 to March 27, 1970.

In March 1970, Akalis pulled down Justice Gurnam Singh and elected in his place Parkash Singh Badal as the new leader of its legislature party. Gurnam Singh did try to win over support from Congress to stay in power but failed. On March 26, he resigned as

Chief Minister. Same day Parkash Singh Badal was sworn in as the third head of a coalition government in the same Vidhan Sabha. It was ultimately at his recommendation that in June 1971, the State Assembly was dissolved and the State was put for the second time in three years under President’s rule.

Interestingly, it was during this period that the coalition moved from multi party alliance to a more stable two-party pact. The bane of the multi-party coalition was diversity not only in ideology but also in unprincipled alliance.

Re-organisation of Punjab on linguistic lines on November 1,1966, not only saw the two oldest political powers of the country – the Indian National Congress (oldest national party) and the Shiromani Akali Dal (oldest regional party) – to part ways but also led to start of

a musical chair race for power in this trouble-torn border State.

Both have been ruling the state alternately since reorganization of the State on November 1, 1966. Their rules have, however, been punctuated with spells of varying periods of President’s rule. These Presidential interventions on recommendation of the

Governor were either because of political uncertainty or due to terrorism that engulfed the state for over two decades. It was because of terrorism that State also witnessed major

boycott of the electoral process, first in 1985 when a particular group of the Akalis stayed away. Again in 1992, the mainstream Akali Dal boycotted the elections.

In between in 1991 when Mr Chandersekhar was the Prime Minister and elections were called to restore democracy in the State, Congress decided to stay away. Intriguingly, a day before polling was to be held in the State, elections were called off as at the Centre Congress had come back to power after the minority government of Mr Chandersekhar failed to win the confidence of the people.

Punjab has been an exception. It is one of those states that has not only won against two-decade long terror-driver turbulence but is also credited for its reiteration and trust in strong democratic norms.

In 1991, Akalis had protested against the last-minute cancellation maintaining that more than 30 candidates had fallen to the bullets of terrorists while reposing their faith in democracy. Subsequently when elections were called again in February 1992, Akalis led by

Parkash Singh Badal, boycotted. Only a fraction of Akalis led by Amarinder Singh contested on 58 of 117 seats and won on three. Captain Amarinder Singh, who contested from two seats, was elected unopposed from one while from the second he not only lost but also failed to save his security deposit in an election where total polling hardly touched 20 per cent. Congress ran convincing victors with more than 80 seats.

BJP, that had been a  traditional alliance partner of Akalis, however, participated

in the 1992 elections though without much of success. Even its Hindu card did not work.

Till date, the Congress enjoyed  seven full-term governments — those of 1952, 1957, 1962, 1972, 1992, 2002 and 2017  – in the State. The Shiromani Akali Dal that made history in 1997 by becoming the first non-Congress party to complete its first full term in office since

Independence, repeated its feat in 2007 and 2012.