A new dawn in Punjab in India. For the first time since 1967, it is not the Congress or the Akali Dal who will hold sway in the state, instead the sweeping victory of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has disrespectfully relegated to the dustbin of history all incumbents who had dominated Punjab politics for decades. The new Punjab assembly with many unknown faces will look unlike anything it has in the past.
From 5- time chief minister Parkash Singh Badal and his son Sukhbir Badal, to erstwhile royal Amarinder Singh, maverick Navjot Singh Sidhu and Charanjit Singh Channi, who despite the Congress ‘Dalit’ card lost both his seats, the list of unprecedented drubbing is long and a lesson on how when you vote for change, it can be all black and white.
Punjabis take pride in holding their own — whether it is on the hockey field or the farmers agitation and wiping out traditional political parties without voting on ideology, caste or a movement, was the answer of an angry people who once lived a glorious revolution but in the recent years have been staring only at a downward graph of development indices including the great fall from first to 10th in per capita income.
Trend away from elite political dynamics
AAP’s victory has also been a trend away from the elite political dynamics of Punjab and gives rise beyond tokenism to common man politics of the kind where the son of a sweeper defeats the chief minister. It is this theme that is integral to Arvind Kejriwal’s pan India plans.
Evoking Bhagat Singh with an open invitation to the people of the state for Bhagwant Mann’s swearing in ceremony are part of the same playbook (although flattening 40 acres of standing wheat crop even if the farmers are compensated to make land accessible for the ceremony isn’t image friendly). For that matter, nor are road shows in a state that is neck deep in debt.
Once the dust of the election euphoria settles, AAP will have to hit the ground running.
The party’s central theme of the Delhi model of governance won it votes, but to think the same formula will work in a state as complex as Punjab may be naive.
Good education, 16,000 free mohalla clinics, low cost health care facilities and cheap power will be promises to keep but Punjab is no Delhi and how the party realigns to this will define its future success. The incoming government has also pledged 300 units per month of free electricity in a state where power is among the most expensive and its crisis, acute.
AAP’s poll promises also include freebies like free water connections and other popular schemes such as Rs1,000 per month to all women in Punjab above 18 years of age. But the coffers are empty and the new government has also inherited a debt of Rs3 lakh crore which will not allow for development in health and education to be as straightforward as it is in Delhi.
Economic revival of the state
The priority for Bhagwant Mann will be economic revival in a state where unemployment rate at 7.3% is higher than the national average with an estimated eight lakh people without a job, as per a report of the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE).
What is even more worrying is the lack of opportunities, investments in both the public and private sector, have stagnated in Punjab, forcing the qualified youth to migrate to countries like Canada. This resettling though is two-fold, the other is the youth abandoning Punjab’s traditional work culture of agriculture.
60% of migration to Canada is made up of Punjabis, a report in The Tribune two years ago quoted Canada’s Director of Immigration operations. Those who are left behind to till the land are increasingly from an older demographic while a bulk of the remaining population is unemployable or frustrated like the teachers who protested across the state last year demanding parity in their pay scales.
Anger against the previous Congress government was a mix of this internal discord as also the failure to save a generation from drug addiction.
Even a child in the villages of Punjab can point to where chitta (heroin) is available, it is as easy and deadly as that. 1.2% of the adult population as per surveys is addicted while the number of users is at least 4 times more.
This though could only be the tip of the iceberg, the unreported reality on the ground is even more dim and a dent in tackling corruption and opening up jobs for the unemployed will be an urgent requirement to stop more youth from wasting away.
Mistakes of previous election
Arvind Kejriwal is a shrewd politician — he has incorporated temple visits, dropped partners along the way, appropriated Bhagat Singh and B R Ambedkar along with quickly learning from his mistakes of the previous election. But company matters nowhere more than in Punjab for it is also a state that flatters to deceive.
The urgency for jobs, power and education mask the undercurrent of being a border state with a past and it is here that political inexperience maybe tricky.
AAP’s tagline in these elections was ‘hun ek mauka AAP nu.’ They have got their chance although given that the BJP in Punjab has no foothold in the state it would perhaps be too premature to label them as the next main opposition party.
Immediately after the victory Arvind Kejriwal tweeted, “Punjab will become Rangla Punjab again. Sardar Bhagat Singh’s dreams will come true.” The people of the state though have become introspective after the farmers agitation and will no longer be swayed by mere rhetoric.
AAP may have won this battle, but the war for Punjab’s survival has only just begun. The state has expectations and high hopes but as it has shown, it also has scant respect for reputation. Hopefully, AAP is ready for Punjab.