By Jaideep Sarin
Punjab is set to see its most crucial assembly election in decades on February 4, with its undercurrent of "silent" voters likely to turn the poll arena into an uncertain event which could swing anywhere.
For the first time, Punjab is witnessing three-cornered contests on all the 117 assembly seats.
The main contest is among the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alliance, Congress and the newest entrant in Punjab's political space - the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).
That the AAP has become the main target for both the traditional parties, the Congress and Akali Dal-BJP combine, in the past one year speaks about the deep inroads that AAP has made among electors, particularly the youth and rural voters, in Punjab.
The Akali Dal, whose president and incumbent Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal has been saying that the party will rule for 25 years, is facing anti-incumbency since it has been in power, along with the BJP, for a decade (2007-2012 and 2012-2017). The Akalis are contesting 94 seats while ally BJP is fighting it out on 23 seats.
A resurgent Congress, which is hoping for a pan-India revival if it is able to come back to power in Punjab, has fallen back on old warhorse, former Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, as its chief ministerial face, but he is the party's best bet in the given crop of its leaders in Punjab and circumstances.
The Akali Dal, BJP and Congress -- the traditional parties on Punjab's political scene, are not only holding on to their existing political space but also fighting hard to ward off the challenge from AAP.
In recent weeks, the Akali-BJP combine and Congress have launched full-fledged attacks on AAP, and its leadership, with the "outsider" tag. They allege that Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, the AAP leader, wishes to be the Punjab Chief Minister.
While the Akali Dal-BJP combine is harping on Punjab's development, the Congress and AAP have been attacking the ruling alliance by highlighting major problems like drugs, massive corruption, unemployment, lack of infrastructure, police excesses among others.
Recent opinion polls and surveys have given the Congress party a clear edge in the assembly elections. The India-Today-Axis poll survey put the Congress in the lead with 60-65 seats, with the AAP coming second with 41-45 seats and the Akali Dal-BJP combine finishing a poor third with 11-15 seats.
The gains for the AAP are mainly being seen in the agriculturally-rich Malwa belt (south of river Sutlej) which alone accounts for 69 of the 117 assembly seats. This is the belt which has traditionally been an Akali Dal stronghold. The Congress had done well in the same belt in the 2012 elections.
The AAP, which emerged on Punjab's political scene for the first time only in the 2014 parliamentary polls, had started with a bang -- getting 24 per cent of the vote share in its very first outing.
In the Majha (north of river Beas) and Doaba (land between Beas and Sutlej rivers), the fight between the main political parties is intense.
The big contests are in Lambi, between Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and Punjab Congress president Amarinder Singh; the three-way fight between Sukhbir Badal and sitting MPs Bhagwant Mann (AAP) and Ravneet Singh Bittu (Congress) in Jalalabad; Amarinder Singh versus former Army chief and ex-Governor J.J. Singh (SAD) in Patiala (Urban), and the fight between former Chief Minister Rajinder Kaur Bhattal (Congress) and Punjab's Finance Minister Parminder Singh Dhindsa (SAD) on the Lehra seat.
'Deras' (sects) like the Radhasoami (Beas) sect, Sacha Sauda sect, Sach Khand Ballan sect and others have an important influence on the elections in Punjab with each one of these having lakhs of followers. With Dera Sacha Sauda openly announcing support for the Akali Dal-BJP combine, the going could be tougher for the Congress and AAP in the Malwa belt.
Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi and other top party leaders have, in recent weeks, visited the Radhasoami Beas dera and the Sach Khand Ballan dera to seek support.
The by-election for the Amritsar Lok Sabha seat, which fell vacant following Amarinder Singh's resignation over the Sutlej-Yamuna Link (SYL) canal issue in November last year, is also taking place along with the assembly elections. But the din of the assembly polls has relegated the Lok Sabha poll, which saw a big fight between Amarinder Singh and BJP leader Arun Jaitley (now the Union Finance Minister) in the 2014 parliamentary polls, to a corner.
Over 1.98 crore voters will decide the fate of 1,145 candidates, including 81 women candidates and one transgender.
There are security concerns during the assembly elections in the state this time, particularly after a car bomb blast in Maur Mandi town in Bathinda district left six people, including three children, dead on Tuesday evening. Central forces and Punjab Police personnel have been deployed across Punjab.
(Jaideep Sarin can be reached at email@example.com)
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