Popular public opinion in Punjab, with the day of polling for the assembly elections drawing close, is clearly in favour of the Akali Dal (Badal) (ADB) forming the next government in the state. At the time of writing this, hectic negotiations are still on to strike out alliances, both clandestine and open, between the various mainstream political parties.
The regionalist Akali Dal joining hands with the federalist United Front instead of BJP might appear to be a natural choice. But the compulsions of electoral politics in the state dictate otherwise. With Sikh voters divided between Akalis and an equally formidable Congress, the ground realities dictate that both Akalis and the BJP, which again commands only a section of the Hindu base, join hands with each other leaving behind for a while their respective chauvinistic baggages. BJP, which mainly invoked Punjab bogey in the 80s to whip up Hindu chauvinism in the rest of India and which opposed even the Longowal accord, now find themselves in the arms of Akalis and it would be interesting to see how the latter would achieve their Anandpur Sahib charter while depending on the former. Of course, the BJP is more desperate these days to shed its image of being a political untouchable than about history or its own core convictions. Power, no matter more or less of it, is the main concern, and not any abstract ethnic or ideological considerations, behind the tortuous course of history in the state in the recent decades. And the class forces aspiring for power - and sometimes for more of it - are also well-defined. A point often overlooked by petty-bourgeois ideologues of communalism and ethnicity.
It was fairly easy for the Akali Dal(B) MPs to speak up in Parliament seven months back in favour of the BJP's 'thirteen-day wonder' at the centre. However, with these elections the ADB-BJP alliance is confronted with various prickly issues with diverging opinions. Characteristic of opportunist alliances between strange bedfellows, the two have toned down their stances on the contentious issues. One of the main and longstanding demands of the Akalis has been the recognition of Anandpur Sahib resolution for more autonomy to the state which the BJP has been opposing right through. It has been conveniently put on the backburner for these elections by the Akalis. Along with these there are various issues related to Sikh identity that have also been swept under the carpet. Patching up the contradictions with the BJP hasn't been smooth for the Akali Dal. Two of its senior leaders were thrown out for protesting against Badal projecting a 'secular' image different from its earlier panthic identity. BJP too has conceded ground to accommodate Akalis. In a turnaround it has supported the Akalis' demand for handing over Chandigarh to Punjab and over the question of water-sharing with neighbouring states. For the time being it has also moderated its instigations of chauvinist Hindu Punjabi sentiments in a tirade against the Sikhs.
The ADB-BJP alliance is spearheading its campaign projecting Prakash Singh Badal as the next chief minister of Punjab. Their major plank and which dominates their campaign is against the misrule of the Congress. Being the only other major political grouping in the state after Congress-BSP, the alliance is centering its campaign on this plank expecting to gain from the anti-corruption and anti-Congress wind blowing over the state. Except for the BJP trying to bring in some of its national issues in the campaign, there is little more that the alliance has promised to the electorate: for example it has steered clear off any commitment on punishment to over 65,000 policemen facing court cases for their alleged human rights violations during militancy in the state and for the more recent cases of police atrocities. Going by BJP's past performance in the state, it has been able to wean away more seats (23 in all) from Akalis than its actual voting share in the state in the previous elections could justify. Representing the interests of the rural rich, the kulaks, the Akalis are stronger in the Malwa region.
The much talked about Congress-BSP alliance is far from being satisfactorily settled though it is not a fallout of the standoff in UP. Both BSP and Congress have stongholds in the Doaba region and also have a clash over their social base. It may be recalled that in the last Lok Sabha elections Congress was routed in this region by the ADB-BSP combine winning 11 out of the 13 seats all over the state and BSP falling off with the Akalis after their tie-up with the Congress in UP. Out of the 32 seats in this region, Kanshi Ram sits pretty over 30 seats and is not willing to budge over even one seat. Claiming to be strong over these seats, the Congress has called for a minimum understanding but the BSP supremo has demanded the maximum share.
Congress, known more as a party of unruly elites under Beant Singh, has been plagued by bitter dissidence resulting in frequent changes in cabinet and also in the leadership. Rising corruption in the bureaucracy and among senior Party leaders - the judiciary indicted the chief minister while granting a stay on the distribution of residential plots indiscriminately given out from the chief minister's quota - has been one of the hallmarks of the Congress regime. The other being highhandedness and the police state justified in the name of their having successfully retrieved the state from insurgency. Punjab proved clearly that group terrorism is easier put to an end than state terrorism. The CPI-CPI(M) might have adamantly refused to acknowledge state terrorism as a category. But dramatic collapse of Congress fortunes shows that the voters are angry more about the undismantled state terror than they fear a return of the Khalistani terrorism. Unlike in earlier polls, the Congress' high-pitched clamour that an Akali rule will bring back terrorism to the state finds no takers also due to the latter's truck with BJP.
So Congress is mainly relying on some gimmicks like the recent economic package conveniently announced right before the elections by Mrs.Bhattal. Under the Election Commission's code of conduct, the chief minister was saved the trouble of implementing the populist package but reaped benefits out of the propaganda to implement it once in power. The CM has even gone to court over this to draw mileage out of this political stunt. One of the promises in the package is to subsidise the electricity bills on running pumpsets owned by farmers with less than 7 acres of land. It has also promised to remove octroi thus serving the interests of the rich farmers and traders. These are clearly designed to woo the Akali base.
Among the mainstream left parties CPI, with 5 members in the present assembly, has gone into a unclaimed understanding with Congress, the latter leaving 10 seats for the former. Even though CPI's truck with Congress has been well reported by the press and majority of its leaders in the state have shown keenness to tie-up with Congress - Satyapal Dang, the senior most party leader in Punjab has conveyed to the party high-command that a tie-up with the Congress is the only pragmatic approach in the given conditions - the high-command, facing criticism from within and from left partners despatched AB Bardhan to convince the state leaders to render the alliance 'unofficial'. CPI(M) with one seat in the assembly, though has denied any alliance with Congress, has proposed a "friendly contest" i.e. putting up a weak candidate against a strong Congress contestant and vice versa. The other UF contestants, JD and SP, are not present in the state as a major political trend and these elections would only mean not more than carrying UF propaganda into Punjab.
Akali Dal (Amritsar) led by Simranjit Singh Mann, is trying to tie-up with BSP with which it had contested the 1989 elections. With candidates for 70 seats, it still continues with its demand for a separate Sikh homeland.
We would be contesting the polls in the seats of Bhatinda City, Ludhiana Rural and 4 seats in Mansa. The campaign issues centre around the demands of the agricultural labourers and the working class, our main class base in these constituencies. The Party candidates in all the constituencies also belong to these classes. Apart from the issues of providing employment throughout the year, minimum wages to agricultural labourers, we have also raised the issue of punishing policemen for cases of repression in concrete cases and taking action against the repression by the rural rich. Issues related to youth and women are also part of the poll campaign. The increased threat to the rural poor and threat of chauvinism in the state once the pro-kulaks ADB-BJP combine come to power will also be highlighted in the campaign.
MCPI, CPI(ML)-Janashakti and CPI(ML)-TND, the other third-left parties are also contesting on some seats. Their poll propaganda usually centres around the broad goals of the communist movement and has very little to do with electoral issues.