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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 38, September 11, 2010

Lok Sabha Elections 2009: Trends in Punjab

Friday 17 September 2010

by Lakhwinder Singh Sidhu and Sumandeep Kaur Punia

India, being a federal parliamentary democracy, witnesses periodic elections to legislative bodies both at the national and State levels. Every election is different, in some ways, from the earlier ones. The electoral issues, manifestos, election slogans, campaigning techniques, voting behaviour etc. show some novelty in each election. The 15th general elections were held in May 2009. Since the 1990s, a notable feature of Indian politics has been the decline of the two main national political parties, that is, the Congress and BJP, and the ascendance of regional parties. However, this time the Congress did exceptionally well on its own as it crossed the 200 mark—its highest tally in the past 18 years. Incidentally, its victory had some striking parallels with the US presidential elections held in 2008. Like the Democrats, the Congress cut across various divides and won diverse vote-banks. The BJP, much like the Republicans, managed to hold on to only its traditional electorate, without consolidating in any new territory. The 714 million voters of the country gave this election a national shape instead of a sum-total of State elections. In a way, they showed maturity and rejected the politics of opportunism, obfuscation and obscurantism. The striking point of departure was, of course, the fact that the Indian electorate voted for continuity rather than change. Manmohan Singh scripted history by becoming the first Prime Minister after Jawaharlal Nehru to come back to power after completing a full five-year term. Upholding the national pattern, Punjab voters preferred the Congress in a majority of seats to facilitate the continuation of Manmohan Singh as the Prime Minister.

It was for the first time in the history of post-1966 Punjab that the Lok Sabha elections were held in two phases, that is, on May 7 and May 13, 2009. This was done possibly due to the apprehension raised by the Congress about the possibility of violence and malpractices by the ruling Akalis in the elections. The apprehension found substance with the Election Commission due to the unprecedented violence witnessed in the elections for the local bodies held in 2008. [Kumar: 2008] However, the elections turned out to be one of the most peaceful elections ever witnessed in the State.

The people of Punjab participated in the democratic process of the country with immense enthusiasm. The poll percentage in Punjab, except in 1992 and 1999, has been higher than the national turnout. Such a consistently high turnout in the State can be attributed to an increasing degree of competition between the two major political parties and relatively greater awareness among the voters in the State. In spite of the unusual sizzling heat, Punjab recorded 69.58 per cent polling as compared to 61.59 per cent in 2004. Interestingly, the rural areas witnessed heavier voting as compared to the urban areas.

I. The Election Issues

AFTER keeping regional issues buried for some time, the Akali Dal once again brought such controversial issues to the centre-stage in the 2009 elections. The Akalis combined their regional agenda with the issues of development and economic growth. They announced that the ruling Akali Dal would continue to fight for the inclusion of Chandigarh and other Punjabi-speaking areas in Punjab, and a fair adjudi-cation in case of the inter-State river waters. The manifesto avoided mentioning the Anandpur Sahib Resolution while demanding greater autonomy for States and a genuine cooperative federalism at the Centre. The matter raised a renewed political storm in the State with almost all national parties rallying against the Akali Dal on the contentious issue. The Akali Dal’s alliance partner, the BJP, rejected the proposal saying it had separatist connotations and was absolutely unacceptable to the party. The Punjab Congress denounced the Akalis’ demand saying it could once again vitiate the political atmosphere in the State.

Both the major political parties, that is, the Akalis and Congress, claimed in their manifestos to be concerned about the interests of the aam aadmi (common man) in general, and farmers in particular. The text of the Akali Dal’s manifesto was more or less a repetition of the contents of a document released on the eve of the 2007 Assembly elections. However, it made certain cosmetic changes by touching on some new issues, like awareness about environment. It sought transparency in the CBI and Election Commission appointments. The Akalis assured to expand schemes to improve the well-being of farmers, poor people and students in particular. Like the Akali manifesto, the Congress manifesto too was a document that sought to please all. In response to the Akali Dal’s slogan of providing wheat at Rs 2 per kg to the poor families, the Congress promised to set up subsidised community kitchens and access to sufficient food for the most vulnerable sections of the society. While the Akali Dal spoke of building residential flats to take care of the homeless people, the Congress asserted that every family living below the poverty line will be covered by the Swasthya Bima Yojna. If the Akalis vowed to reduce the interest rate of new farm loans to four per cent, the Congress pledged to extend interest relief to all farmers who repay bank loans on schedule. And if the Akalis promised that the upper limit for educational loans would be raised to Rs 15 lakhs with the rate of interest fixed at four per cent, the Congress matched it with the assurance of providing free education at all stages and scholarships or easy education loans to students on the basis of their social and economic backwardness. While the Akalis resolved to set up special courts to punish those involved in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, the Congress proposed a law to empower the National Human Rights Commission to monitor investigation and trial in all cases of communal and caste violence.

Besides the above issues, this poll also witnessed ‘personality-centric’ propaganda. While it was between Manmohan Singh and Advani at the national level, in Punjab it was Amarinder Singh versus the Badals. The leader of the BJP described Manmohan Singh as the weakest Prime Minister in Indian history. In turn, Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh rebutted the criticism by turning the tables on the BJP and Advani as the Home Minister in the NDA Government by referring to the ‘Kandhhar’ episode (in which the government had to concede certain major demands of the militants) and the militant attack on Parliament during the NDA regime. In Punjab, the Congress accused the Chief Minister, Parkash Singh Badal, and his family of looting the State to fill their own coffers. The party alleged that the Badals, instead of working for the welfare of the people, were only interested in promoting their family interests. The Congress made all efforts to cash in on issues of erratic power supply and alleged delay in the procurement of foodgrains. It also attacked the ruling combine for unleashing a rein of terror on Congress workers and described the SAD-BJP rule as ‘goonda raj’. [IE 2009: April 28] Captain Amarinder Singh pointed the finger at Sukhbir Badal for using the SAD as his ‘private company’. Attacking the Badals for controlling the sand mining, transport, liquor and cable TV businesses, he said during his regime the contracts were given to ex-servicemen and the handicapped. The Akali Dal launched an attack on the Congress by terming it as a ‘wicked’ and ‘tyrannical’ party which was behind the killing of several innocents in the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. The Akalis criticised the Congress for giving a clean chit to Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Tytler, the main accused in the anti-Sikh riots cases. They also charged the Congress with compromising the waters of Punjab and deliberately keeping many Punjabi-speaking areas from becoming a part of the State, besides uprooting the people during partition and continuously looting the State.

II. Electoral Outcome

THE contours of the 2009 election in Punjab were in tune with the overall emerging voting pattern in the country. The distinguishing feature of this election in the State was, however, the spectacular comeback of the Congress, as its performance had been dismal in the previous Lok Sabha elections. The Congress contested this election without entering into alliance with any party. With 45.23 per cent of votes polled, it got eight seats. The Akali-BJP alliance failed to reach their last general election level, despite being in power in the State. It managed to get only five seats with a combined vote-share of 43.91 per cent. The Congress led in 65 Assembly segments as against 44—what it had won in the 2007 Assembly elections. The worst loser was the BJP as it lagged behind the Congress in 17 Assembly constituencies in which it had led in the 2007 Assembly elections.

The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), despite getting 5.75 per cent of votes, could not win even a single seat. The other parties in the fray, namely., the CPI, CPI-M, SAD (M), Independents etc. were virtually rejected by the people. Only the vote-share of the Congress witnessed an upward swing while the share of all other parties declined (see Table-I). The defeat of smaller parties indicates that there are remote chances of any third party or front emerging as a challenge to the dominance of the Congress or Akali-BJP in Punjab politics.

Table-I: Election Results: Lok Sabha Elections (2009) Punjab

Party Name Seats Won Gain/ Vote Loss in Seats Gain/ Percentage Loss (%)
2004 2009 2004 2009
Congress 02 08 +06 34.17 45.23 +11.06
Akali Dal 08 04 -04 34.28 33.85 -0.43
BJP 03 01 -02 10.48 10.06 -0.42
CPI - - - 2.53 0.33 -2.20
CPI-M - - - 1.81 0.14 -1.67
BSP - - - 7.67 5.75 -1.92
Independents/Others - - - 9.06 4.64 -4.42

Source: Election Commission of India, New Delhi.

III. Changing Party Support Base

A region-wise analysis of the election outcome shows that the scene of the 2009 Lok Sabha elections was quite in contrast to that of the 2007 Assembly elections. The Akali Dal re-established its electoral hold in the core Malwa belt comprising Bathinda, Faridkot and Ferozepur constituencies. This was primarily attributed to the success of the recently introduced BT cotton and the development done in this area by the State Government. The victory of the Akali candidates (Harsimrat Kaur Badal, Paramjeet Kaur Gulshan, and Sher Singh Ghubaya) showed that the anti-incumbency factor did not help the Congress candidates here. However, the Congress defeated the Akali Dal in the rest of the Malwa region (comprising Sangrur, Ludhiana, Fatehgarh Sahib, Patiala, and Anandpur Sahib constituencies). The ruling Akali-BJP alliance wrested two Lok Sabha seats of Amritsar and Khadoor Sahib in the Majha region. However, the Congress, after a long span of 11 years, got back the Gurdaspur seat. The Congress High Command’s delay in announcing the candidates and war within the party cost a lot to the party in this area. On the other hand, the aggressive campaign, a focus on local issues and promises of development were touted as the reasons for the success of the Akali-BJP alliance in the Majha region. But the Congress retrieved lost ground in the Doaba region by completely wiping out the Akali-BJP combine. The social engineering experiment of the BSP, on the lines of Uttar Pradesh, bombed in Punjab as the party failed to win any seat even in its traditional pocket, that is, the Doaba region which has the largest share of Dalit population. The nomination of a mixture of Brahmins, Rajputs and Dalits as its candidates alienated the BC and SC voters from the party and gave mileage to the Congress in this region.

The urban and rural divide in the voting pattern was quite evident in this election. While the urban Assembly segments voted for the Congress, the Akali base was limited to the rural areas. The alliance candidates did not perform well in big cities such as Jalandhar, Amritsar, Ludhiana, Patiala and Bathinda. Earlier, in the 2007 Assembly elections, the remarkable performance of the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party combine in the urban areas, which were generally considered a bastion of the Congress party, had created ripples of concern in Congress circles. [Sidhu 2007: 43]

On the whole, the outcome of the 2009 Lok Sabha elections presented a totally different scenario. Each party fared better in its traditional strongholds, which it had lost to its opponents during the previous Assembly elections. The Akali Dal recovered its position in the Malwa region, whereas the Congress managed to get back its urban vote.

IV. Main Features of 2009 Elections

THE boundaries of parliamentary and Assembly constituencies were redrawn by the fourth Delimitation Commission. Some of the erstwhile constituencies ceased to exist and some new constituencies were created. On the basis of the 2001 census, which showed an increase in the SC population in Punjab, the Commission increased the number of reserved constituencies from three to four in the State. However, the total number of constituencies remained the same, that is, 13. The electoral rolls were updated in terms of delimited constituencies.

This Lok Sabha election was regarded as the costliest one ever to take place in Punjab. Huge sums of money were poured into electioneering. A lot of money was spent on high-pitch rallies and propaganda through the media. The advertisements were not only confined to the domestic print and electronic media, but the parties also negotiated with foreign newspapers to boost the Punjab diaspora. What is more, candidates launched e-campaign to woo the electorate through blogs, e-mails and SMS. The political parties brought in senior leaders and film stars to mobilise support. This time the main political parties avoided hitting each other in a slanderous advertisement campaign as in the past, and concentrated on the positives and achievements of their parties. However, the leaders could not restrain themselves from personal criticism of their opponents in election rallies and conferences.

A noteworthy feature of the 2009 elections was increased political awareness and partici-pation of women. Starting with a single woman contestant in the 1977 parliamentary elections, the number of female contestants increased to 13 in this election. Out of 13 Lok Sabha consti-tuencies, the maximum of five women candidates were in the race for the Faridkot constituency, while no woman contestant was in the fray from Amritsar, Jalandhar, Ludhiana, Fatehgarh Sahib, Ferozepur and Sangrur. The Congress and Akali Dal fielded two each. Five women candidates were fielded by other parties and four were independents. However, the BJP did not field a single female candidate. Interestingly, all four women contenders, nominated by the Congress and Akali Dal, made their way to the Lok Sabha. Thus, this election set a record by sending from Punjab the largest number of women candidates to the Lok Sabha than ever before. The women voters also exhibited a lot of enthusiasm in these elections. In 23 of the 117 Assembly segments, they outnumbered their male counterparts. And this in spite of the deplorable sex ratio that shows only 793 females for every thousand males in Punjab.

Another notable feature of this election was the influence of Rahul Gandhi, the AICC General Secretary, in Punjab politics. Three young candidates from Punjab were picked directly at his recommendation. Rahul not only actively campaigned but also made conscious efforts to galvanise the party machinery in support of these first-time candidates who were preferred over veterans like Ambika Soni. [Kumar: 2009] By the introduction of new candidates, Rahul Gandhi not only created a new crop of leaders but also new pivots in the party marred by factionalism. The youth experiment helped the Congress in the State in a big way—two of its three youth candidates scored emphatic victories in Sangrur and Anandpur Sahib constituencies. Even the Akali veterans were knocked out by the Congress greenhorns. More surprisingly, Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa, one of the most seasoned and senior Akali leaders, lost to the Congress candidate, Vijay Inder Singla, who was a first- timer. The young contestants made their presence felt not only in the Congress, but also in the Akali Dal. The voters’ confidence in newcomers indicated a new pattern that sent a strong message to old warhorses to make room for the younger leadership.

In the 2007 Assembly elections, the open support extended by the Dera Sacha Sauda to the Congress had given a new twist to the electoral politics of the Malwa region as the Akali Dal was almost uprooted by the former in this otherwise Akali pocket borough. In 2009, though, the Dera decided not to give vote in favour of any party en masse and left the issue of support to the ‘conscience vote’ of its followers. Yet, the turnout in the Malwa heartland once again brought into focus the role of the Dera. It was speculated that in places like Bathinda and Patiala the followers entered into a deal with the parties and voted for Harsimrat in Bathinda and Preneet Kaur in Patiala. It was observed that ‘the situation arose because the Dera needs the protection of the Akali-BJP Government after being involved in a controversy that erupted as a consequence of an advertisement in which the Dera chief imitated the tenth Sikh Guru, Gobind Singh; on the other hand it did not want to annoy its core supporters who were pro-Congress’. [The Tribune 2009: May 7]

It was not only one of the toughest and fiercest electoral battles that had the entire national political leadership of the ruling Congress-led UPA and the BJP-led NDA campaigning in Punjab, but also saw a pitched battle between two of the most powerful families of the State, the Badals and the Patiala royals. They were locked in a battle of prestige for the Bathinda seat as Raninder Singh (the royal icon) was pitted by the Congress against the Akali Dal’s Harsimrat Kaur Badal (daughter-in-law of Parkash Singh Badal). This was for the first time that both families, which have been involved in a bitter power struggle in the State, were in a direct face-off in an election. Both the contestants were first-timers and seemed to be carrying the political legacy as well as rivalry of their elders. It looked as if political issues in Bathinda were shifted to the backburner and voters had been given the choice of putting the thumb of acceptance on a political family. Though the Congress came out with flying colours in the State, the Akalis could draw solace from the fact that Harsimrat won the prestigious Bathinda Lok Sabha seat with the highest margin.

V. Analysis of the Election Results

THE 2009 elections demonstrated that there is a visible change in the perception of Sikhs towards the Congress. The party, which had become quite unpopular in the seventies and eighties among the Sikh masses, was no longer in the same position. It was clear from the election results that the Congress improved its vote-share among Sikhs in 2004 and in a big way in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections so as to catch up with the Akali-BJP combine. Apart from this, the Congress received a fair electoral support from the Dalits. Out of the four reserved parliamentary constituencies the party got success in three. This was mainly due to the failure of the BSP to mobilise its Dalit vote-bank.

Among the factors that went against the Akali-BJP alliance, the most decisive was disillusionment of the urban voters with the ruling combine. The alienation was mainly attributed to the pro-farmer image of the Akali-BJP Government. The urban voters felt that the ruling combine was giving freebies to the rural population, particularly cost-free electricity and water to the farm sector, whereas the urban cities and industrial areas continued to face acute power crisis. The marginal role of the BJP as a junior partner in the State Government also made it unpopular among the urban voters. Traders and industrialists felt that the BJP did not enjoy a significant influence over the policy-making process and was, therefore, unable to safeguard their interests. They were dissatisfied with the incumbent government and tilted towards the Congress.

Secondly, the elevation of Sukhbir Singh Badal as his father’s deputy in the government invited criticism that the Akali Dal had become a personal fiefdom (organisation) of the Badal family. A number of Akali leaders felt stifled in the existing Akali Dal set-up and switched their allegiance to the Congress after being humbled in their party. This came as a big jolt for the SAD. The saffron party also cut a sorry figure on the issue of the Deputy Chief Minister. The party flip-flopped on this issue. It opposed Sukhbir’s autocratic ways of governance, apparently aimed at sidelining the BJP leaders. Former Minister and senior BJP leader Balramji Dass Tandon said: “We have our Ministers in the government, but it seemed that they were not a part of the governance since the SAD has so much of control. The workers and party leaders at district and block levels are disillusioned because of this. As a result, they did not take much interest in these elections. The impression that was building upon the voters was that the Akali Dal and BJP had ignored them. We have paid for this.” [Dheer: 2009]

On the whole, the voters in Punjab voted for a change within two years of the Akali-BJP coming to power in 2007. The same had happened with the Congress Government in the 2004 general elections when the Congress managed to win only two Lok Sabha seats. This election once again demonstrated the fact that if poll promises are not delivered in spirit by the ruling party in the State, it is destined to be rejected in the ensuing election.

REFERENCES

1. Dheer, Gautam (2009), ‘Urban Voters Angry with Government’, Indian Express, May 19.

2. Indian Express (2009), April 28.

3. Kumar, Ashutosh (2009), ‘Punjab: Resurgence of the Congress’, Economic and Political Weekly, September 26, p. 185.

4. Kumar, Ashutosh (2008), ‘Panchayat Elections 2008 in Punjab: What Went Wrong?’, Indian Journal of Political Science, Vol. IXIX, No. 4, October-December.

5. Sidhu, Lakhwinder Singh (2007), ‘Punjab Assembly Elections 2007: Development as the Core Issue’, Journal of Government and Political Studies, Vol. XXX, Issue No. 2, September, Department of Political Science, Punjabi University, Patiala.

6. The Tribune (2009), May 7.

Dr Lakhwinder Singh Sidhu is a Reader in Political Science, Department of Distance Education, Punjabi University, Patiala, and Sumandeep Kaur Punia is pursuing research in Electoral Politics in Punjab in the Department of Political Science, Punjabi University, Patiala.

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