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Lessons from the Punjab election

The Dialogue
By Professor  

The only state which gave the Congress Party something to cheer about was the border state of Punjab. Under the stewardship of Captain Amarinder Singh, the party won a swashbuckling 77 seats, just one short of a 2/3rd majority. The only time the Congress surpassed this tally was in the 1992 Assembly election (the party secured 87 seats), when the Shiromani Akali Dal had boycotted this election. In Goa and Manipur too, the Congress emerged as the single largest party, but the BJP has managed to form the government by seeking the support of independents and local parties.

Captain Singh who took oath on March 16th along with his team of 9 members as of now including Navjot Singh Sidhu, had been CM from 2002-2007. He has immense goodwill both in the Sikh peasantry, as well as the Urban population. His resignation from the Congress Party in the 1984 in the aftermath of the attack on the Golden Temple, annulment of the SYL agreement in his earlier tenure as CM, along with smooth procurement of paddy during his earlier tenure have ensured that he is respected amongst Jatt Sikhs. On the other hand, his pro-reform orientation and concerted efforts to attract investors in his previous tenure have made sure that he is reasonably popular in Urban areas.

While Punjab has given the grand old party something to cheer about, there are a number of lessons to draw from the recent election verdict. The party needs to empower regional leaders, this was something the Punjab CM categorically stated in a number of interactions with the media.

It would be interesting to point out, that initially the High Command was not in favour of appointing Singh as the face of the Congress Party in the state. There is no doubt, that in 2012 the Congress handed the state to the Akalis virtually on a platter, and Captain Singh’s overconfidence was cited as one of the reasons for the Akali triumph. But it was Singh who trounced Arun Jaitley in Amritsar by over 1 Lakh votes in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. There is no doubt that in 2014, there was strong anti-incumbency against the local SAD-BJP combine, yet this victory was achieved amidst a Modi wave all over the country.

Interestingly, then Congress President Pratap Singh Bajwa lost his own seat. It shouldn’t have taken long for the Congress to have replaced Bajwa, but it was in 2015, after Singh warned the Congress leadership, that if they were not interested in winning Punjab, he would have to explore other options. It would be fair to say, that even when Singh took over as President, the scales were tilted in favour of AAP, until in fighting got the better of the rookie party. Aggressive campaigning by Captain Singh, and the fact that AAP lacked a face did strike a chord with the voters.

In the states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhatisgarh elections are due in 2018, and the BJP will be facing anti-incumbency, the Congress needs to empower local leaders, if it wants to give some sort of fight to the BJP in 2019, which at this point seems to be way ahead of all its competitors and is beginning to increase its sway in areas where it had no presence.

Second, the campaign has to be aspirational, effective usage of social media needs to be made. In Punjab, the party reached out to the youth who was disenchanted, and made effective use of twitter and Facebook as a result 75 year old Amarinder Singh was able to connect with the youth. In Rajasthan, Sachin Pilot a young and dynamic leader who was unfortunate to get swept away in the Modi wave, would be the party’s best bet. While recovering lost ground in UP will be next to impossible given the recent BJP victory in India’s largest state. In Rajasthan, the Congress did not win a single seat in the 2014 LS elections and a better show in the Assembly elections may help the party in improving its tally. The party should give Pilot a free hand and start preparing for the next election.

Third, alliances are no panacea, it is important for there to be some sort of chemistry between leaders. In UP, the Samajwadi Party and Congress Party lacked this.

Fourth, it would be important to set up a grouping of senior leaders who have been successful in winning state elections, and such leaders should be observers in other states. The party should make use of both sitting and Ex Chief Ministers for campaign strategies, this will bolster the election campaigns.

If one were to look beyond the Congress, it would be important to point out that the Aam Aadmi Party’s performance in Punjab was quite respectable. The fact is that AAP will be the principal opposition party, and SAD patron and former CM, Parkash Singh Badal will not be the leader of opposition for the first time in 20 years. Yet, the party was a victim of its own hype. Also, the party is making same mistakes as Congress by creating a High Command Culture by not empowering regional leaders. Rather than blaming EVMs it should take feedback from local leaders. As for the BJP, while so far the party has deflected the blame to the Shiromani Akali Dal, the party needs to introspect as to why the Modi factor did not help at all and the party could only win 3 out of 23 seats.

In conclusion, the Punjab elections have lessons for all political parties it remains to be seen what lessons they draw from the verdict.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is an Assistant Professor with The Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat.