Can Congress take advantage of a four-cornered fight in Punjab?

Historically, Punjab has had no exclusive vote banks based on religion or caste

INDIA-ELECTIONS/OPPOSITION AAP or down?: Bhagwant Mann with Arvind Kejriwal during a roadshow in Delhi after the latter got bail in the liquor policy case | Reuters
Prof Pramod Kumar Prof Pramod Kumar

The parliamentary elections in Punjab are not in sync with the national political narrative of kamandal (Ram Mandir) and Mandal (OBC census). There is also not the seriousness to herald any change in the development paradigm or any political will to resolve the farmers’ grievances. The elections, instead, have become a theatrical battle royal of false claims and empty promises.

The electoral outcomes of the 2014 and 2019 parliamentary and the 2022 assembly elections showed that the voters were no longer bound by any political party, and in fact, functioned largely as footloose voters. For instance, in the 2014 elections, the AAP won a surprise four seats and 24 per cent vote share. But in the 2019 elections, the AAP’s vote share decreased to 7 per cent with one seat, the Congress vote share increased to 41 per cent with eight seats, the Akali Dal’s vote share was 28 per cent with two seats, and the BJP vote share was 9 per cent with two seats. Whereas, in the 2022 assembly elections, the AAP resurged with more than 40 per cent vote share and 92 seats. Surprisingly, immediately after this landslide victory, it lost the Sangrur Parliament byelection on a seat vacated by the sitting chief minister.


Historically, Punjab has had no exclusive vote banks based on religion or caste, unlike in many other states. The religio-caste categories are intermeshed. For instance, scheduled castes constitute more than 32 per cent of the population and are segmented into Mazhabis, Chamars, Ad-dharmis and Balmikis. They are not represented in politics by any caste-based party. The long-term implications of the community finding representation in mainstream Punjab has been that the Bahujan Samaj Party’s vote share has been continuously declining. It has come down from 8 per cent in 2004 to 3.5 per cent in 2019.

It is relevant to point out that the scheduled castes got representation in all political parties, including the Jat-dominated Akali Dal. This has meant that a majority of the scheduled caste legislators were elected from parties other than the BSP and the left parties.


The Akali Dal, the only major Punjab-based party in the fray, is fighting for greater autonomy for the states and asserting a moderate Sikh identity.

Furthermore, the sub-castes are intermeshed with the deras, which are shrines of the saints operating outside the ritualistic domain of the institutionalised religions. These deras have acquired moral superiority by liberating their devotees, by and large, from vices like drugs and alcohol, and have efficiently provided access to health care and subsidised food. Many of the devotees who belong to the scheduled caste community are affiliated to competing deras; for instance, a majority of the Ravidasias are with the Dera Ballan, and a section of the Mazhabis are with the Dera Sacha Sauda. The blind faith of these devotees is traded as votes by the self-styled god-men.

Politics over drugs has become more serious than the problem itself. Instead of addressing the issue, more focus is on sending political adversaries to jail and fabricating a false narrative to settle personal scores and to harvest votes.


Punjab has added its own regional flavour to caste and religious identities. This can be attributed to the role of religious reform movements, particularly Sikhism, Arya Samaj and Brahmo Samaj. This weakened the orthodox behavioural aspects of caste and inter- and intra-religious practices. The Hindus have dominant traits of Sikhism, normative behaviour influenced by the Arya Samaj and rituals of sanatan dharma. For instance, in the 2014 parliamentary elections, the BJP could not garner the votes of urban Hindus even when the hindutva wave was sweeping other parts of the country.

Punjab’s electoral politics has shown signs of blurred religious and caste fault-lines. To mobilise the people as exclusive categories, like Hindu Banias or scheduled castes, might not bring the desired electoral results, unlike in other Indian states. There is no concept of ideological puritanism. At the village level, factions shift their loyalty in opposition to the other.


Given this background, the electoral politics of Punjab has a history of mergers, electoral alliances and coalitions with even diametrically opposed political parties. Even the Congress and the Akalis merged in 1937, 1948 and 1956.

Helping hand: Congress candidate Gurjeet Singh Aujla campaigns in Amritsar | PTI Helping hand: Congress candidate Gurjeet Singh Aujla campaigns in Amritsar | PTI

In reorganised Punjab, between 1967 and 1980, four post-election coalitions were formed between the BJP/Bharatiya Jana Sangh and the Akali Dal. And in the post-terrorism phase, the Akalis and the BJP formed three pre-election coalitions. The logical inference can be drawn that the voters do not see political parties as antagonistic. Most people keep both the blue turban (Akali symbol) and white turban (Congress symbol) ready to wear as per the opportunity. However, the Congress remained capable of forming a government on its own, averaging above 30 per cent of the votes, while the Akalis needed a coalition partner to be electorally viable and politically stable.

Similarly, the BJP does not have an exclusive vote bank to win majority on its own. In the parliamentary elections between 2004 and 2019, the BJP in alliance with the Akalis could win two or three seats, with around 10 per cent vote share.

The alliance between the BJP and the Akalis became strained as the former did not conform to alliance dharma. For instance, in the 2017 assembly elections, an unusual understanding between the BJP and the state Congress, led by Captain Amarinder Singh (who later joined the BJP), to defeat the AAP changed electoral dynamics. It was “unusual” as there was a formal alliance with the Akalis. This can be easily discerned from the shift in the urban vote share, which is the BJP’s traditional vote bank. The urban vote share of the Congress went up from 43.5 per cent in 2012 to 49 per cent in 2017. And, the urban vote share of the BJP declined from 28 per cent in 2012 to 19 per cent in 2017. It can be safely concluded that the understanding between the Congress and the BJP helped the former.

In the 2019 parliamentary elections, there was no pact between the Congress and the BJP. The urban vote share of the BJP increased from 19 per cent in 2017 to 27 per cent in 2019. And, the Congress’s urban vote share declined from 49 per cent in 2017 to 45 per cent.

Ironically, in the 2022 assembly elections, the BJP entered into a pre-election alliance with the breakaway groups―the Punjab Loktantrik Congress (Amarinder) and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD Sanyukt)―and not with the Akalis. The BJP won two seats with around 7 per cent vote share. The Akalis had not allied with the BJP because of the farmers’ protest. Both parties faced their worst-ever defeat.

This was mainly because the Sikh Jat peasantry lost its hegemonic control on politics, as well as on the economy. In the agricultural economy, it has moved from the seller’s to the buyer’s market. And in politics, the Jat Sikh peasantry support base became fragmented between competing political parties and the urban Hindus and the scheduled castes aspired for a greater share in power. Interestingly, between 1997 and 2022, the representation of farmers in the state legislature reduced from 42 per cent to 18 per cent and in the state cabinet from 40 per cent to 26 per cent.

These developments have taken Punjab from a two-party rotational system to multiparty contests leading to the crowding of the electoral space. Its cultural terrain and unique religio-caste fault lines have made the urban Hindus and the scheduled castes the game changers.


Elections have been reduced to a ritual of democracy and just a matter of perceptions and popularity ratings of the leaders, though not of the political parties. And, the only slogan audible is badlaav (change). Change for whom and for what remains ambiguous.

PTI05_14_2024_000291B Reaching out: BJP candidate Taranjit Singh Sandhu during a door-to-door campaign in Amritsar | PTI

Having shed their ideological positions, a culture of personalised politics is being nurtured and even institutionalised. For example, for prominent Congress leader Navjot Singh Sidhu, [Former Pakistan prime minister] Imran Khan became ‘Farishta’ (angel) and Rahul Gandhi, ‘Captain’. In anti-Badalism, he moved from the BJP to the Congress. When in the Congress, he talks 2002 (Gujarat riots), and while in the BJP he remembers 1984 (Delhi anti-Sikh riots). He is an ideologically free and politically mobile leader. This is applicable to many politicians and political parties that have been reduced to dharamshalas (resting places).

Derogatory language

The electoral discourse as usual shows that there has been an erosion of ideological support bases, a deficit in political leadership and an absence of a transformational agenda.

Along with this, the use of derogatory language has also become a norm. If we look back at the 2019 parliamentary elections, most of the remarks made about the candidates were sexist, misogynistic and communal. This time, too, there have been demeaning remarks. For example, Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann of the AAP likened Congress leader Partap Singh Bajwa to a ‘class ka nalayak baccha (useless student)’. He also called opposition leaders opportunist turncoats who shed crocodile tears. During a discussion on the Centre not releasing funds, Mann said Governor Banwarilal Purohit was “vela baitha (sitting idle)’ and kept sending ‘love letters’. Sidhu uploaded an old picture of Mann touching his feet on stage with a comment, “Bhai Bhagwant, santra kitna hi bada ho jaye, rehta tehni ke niche hi hai (No matter how big an orange grows, it still hangs under the branch).”


The AAP created a new binary in the 2022 assembly elections―traditional parties versus ‘a party for change’. It claimed all the traditional parties were looters and corrupt, and created an aura of freshness around itself. The AAP did not have historical baggage. But now, after two years in power, the party appears to have lost the plot. The multifaceted development promise remained visible only in advertisements, to the dismay of the electorate, said Ronki Ram, a professor of political science at Panjab University.

Its performance in the elections would largely depend on its paternalistic welfarism. For instance, how far would the implementation of free electricity for all up to 300 units benefit the AAP? Chief Minister Mann has claimed that his government had worked for the people by opening mohalla clinics, schools of eminence and free teerth yatra (pilgrimage), and this would help his party sweep the elections.

However, Manjit Singh, a sociologist and farm activist, said, “The AAP has lost its sheen both in the urban and rural areas because of the recent farmers’ wrath and two years of accumulated anti-incumbency.”


The alliance between the AAP and the Congress could not be finalised as the latter’s Punjab unit opposed it. The state Congress believes it has a substantial support base and it would be political suicide to barter its support base for a short-term advantage at the national level.

Mann, on the other hand, compared the Congress to an “old model of a Fiat car”, and dared Bajwa on the floor of the house to tell Sonia and Rahul Gandhi to break the pre-poll alliance in Delhi, Gujarat and Haryana.

PTI05_13_2024_000488A The homegrown force: Shiromani Akali Dal president Sukhbir Singh Badal with party candidate N.K. Sharma during a roadshow in Patiala | PTI

Notably, the Congress has suffered a double disadvantage. First, the AAP lodged a number of corruption cases against former Congress ministers. Second, the alliance talks between the AAP and the Congress weakened the position of the Congress as the main opposition party. The question is, will the Congress gain from the anti-incumbency against the AAP?

Arpan Kaur, a student from Sangrur, said, “There are no jobs. Our youth have to migrate to other countries and face challenges. I have nothing to say about the AAP, but Rahul Gandhi should be given an opportunity this time.”

On the other hand, Sonu Verma, a businessman from Fazilka, said there was infighting within the Congress, and that he did not trust either the Congress or the AAP, as they were in alliance outside the state.

The only major Punjab-based party in the fray, the Akali Dal, has lost two successive assembly elections. The party, under the dynamic leadership of Sukhbir Singh Badal, is in revival mode. It is making efforts to occupy the regional political space, fighting for greater autonomy for the states and asserting a moderate Sikh identity. It has the historical advantage of fighting for the cause of Punjab and having contributed to the development of the state by building premier education and health institutions, and other infrastructure. It also helped the state get surplus power and was known for its citizen-friendly governance. Angrej Singh, a school clerk in Tarn Taran, said that the Akalis had done better compared with the AAP and the Congress. “At least people received rations as the local municipal councillor ensured doorstep delivery,” he said.

Verma agreed: “Akalis did good work it terms of roads and citizen-friendly governance reforms.”

The BJP, on the other hand, is overconfident because of its religio-corporate mixed worldview, though the same has failed to find many takers in Punjab so far. It does not have a Punjab-specific agenda, particularly for the Punjabi Hindus who do not suffer any minority persecution. And merely implanting turbaned Sikh leaders might not transform it into a Punjab party. However, it has the advantage of having Sunil Jakhar―a pro-Punjab, no nonsense leader―as the party’s state president. He was earlier the state Congress president.

“The farmer’s protest leaders are using the youth of Punjab as fodder,” said Jakhar. “We assure the farmers of Punjab that if they give us the list of crops they would like to grow, legal guarantee shall be given for those crops.”

The political narrative on the eve of the elections will influence the results. The AAP is losing its sheen, the Congress and the Akalis are struggling to reclaim their electoral space and the BJP is hoping to be an accidental beneficiary of this flux. But, in a four-cornered contest, the division of votes might work to the advantage of the Congress. It could also help the AAP, which is fighting massive anti-incumbency, save face.

The writer is chairperson, Institute for Development and Communication, Chandigarh.