Pollsters, psephologists and pundits rely heavily on past elections to forecast an imminent one. This is often a mistake because every election is a new story. The voter is not bound by the past like the pundits are. The voter is concerned about the future.
In the 2022 Punjab assembly elections, there are so many new dynamics, so many things happening for the first time, that the pundits are utterly confused. The 2+2 kind of Maths is so complicated and overwhelming that they are quickly declaring a hung assembly.
You can travel to any part of Punjab — urban or rural, Majha, Malwa or Doaba — and you will get an unambiguous sense that the voter sentiment is with the Aam Aadmi Party. The pundits are not convinced. They tell you how complicated this election is, and foresee a hung assembly. Most such predictions see AAP being the single largest party.
So what are these numerical complications that could come in the way of giving Arvind Kejriwal a “chance”? It is difficult to fully make sense of these complications because they are first-time events with no past reference points to base one’s analysis.
So what are these first-time factors?
1. For the first time, Punjab has a Dalit chief minister
Punjab has the highest Dalit population in percentage terms — every third person in Punjab is Dalit. By virtue of being the poorest and the working class, they should have some inclination towards AAP, which positions itself as a populist, pro-poor, anti-establishment party.
But this has been complicated by the Congress party which appointed Charanjit Singh Channi as the first Dalit chief minister of Punjab. This gives the Congress some extra Dalit votes, but how many? Given that there are various divisions within the Dalit vote on religious, sub-caste and sectarian lines, this is difficult to estimate.
It is also quite clear that there is some anti-Dalit consolidation against Congress. People will tell visiting journalists from Delhi that they are not big on caste but privately some resent a Dalit chief minister.
2. For the first time since 1998, Amarinder Singh is not in Congress
Captain Amarinder Singh was removed from the chief minister’s chair in response to extreme unpopularity and falling ratings. It had been clear as daylight that people are unhappy with what they see as his poor performance and his inability to deliver on his tall promises. Yet, Captain Amarinder Singh brought the Congress a unique advantage. He was a Jat Sikh leader who appealed to Hindu voters as well. There are very few leaders in Punjab who can manage to be popular with two out of the three largest demographic sections: Jat Sikhs, caste Hindus, and Dalits.
This is hurting the Congress’ ability to do a demographic balancing act. Amarinder Singh has formed his own party, the Punjab Lok Congress (PLC). The PLC may at best win one seat, Amarinder’s own in Patiala, but its real aim is to cut votes and defeat Congress. To what extent will it damage Congress?
3. For the first time in 24 years, Akali Dal is contesting alone
The Sikh-led Shiromani Akali Dal is India’s second oldest party. It had a mutually beneficial alliance with the BJP in Punjsb. The SAD’s Sikh votes and the BJP’s Hindu votes were together a winning combination.
The alliance broke in September 2020 over the central government’s farm laws that have now been repealed. As the BJP and SAD contest separately for the first time, this could theoretically hurt both parties. The Hindu votes SAD earlier got because of the BJP alliance, and the Sikh votes the BJP got because of the SAD alliance, may now look for newer pastures.
As the SAD contests alone, will its vote share increase, decrease or remain stable? This is unpredictable because the Akalis have an unshakeable cadre vote and a strong party organisation but they remain unpopular due to the sacrilege controversy and other issues. The Akalis, likely to emerge as number three again, remain an X factor.
4. For the first time, farmers have their own party (or two)
As if things weren’t complicated enough, some farmers’ groups have launched their own party. The Balbir Singh Rajewal-led Sanyukt Samaj Morcha (SSM) and Gurnam Singh Chaduni’s Samyukt Sangharsh Party (SSP) have come out of the farmers’ movement. They may not even win a single seat but may cut enough farmers’ votes to damage both the Akalis and the AAP.
Farmers’ issues are central to Punjab politics and farmers having their own parties damages all parties’ narrative of representing farmers. But the AAP, hoping to represent all those who seek change, is particularly threatened.
5. For the first time, BJP is contesting a large number of seats
When in alliance with SAD, the BJP used to contest less than 25 seats, mostly urban pockets with sizeable Hindu voters. This time the BJP is contesting around 65 seats. Knowing that it is going to do badly and not win enough seats to fit in an SUV, the BJP is focusing on voteshare. Contesting 65 seats gives the BJP a chance to show it still has 5-6% voteshare, enough to keep it in the game for the next election.
This is again bad news for both AAP and Congress, as it will take away some Hindu votes they are seeking.
This multipolar contest is going to be very interesting to watch on result day. Perhaps the voter is also as confused as the pundits, and will avoid these complications and give a clear mandate.