Will Alternative Parties Break SAD-Cong Stranglehold in Punjab?
By speaking up for human rights victims of 1980s & 90s, candidates like Khalra & Giaspura are shaking up SAD & Cong.
A closed party system is one in which the political competition in an area remains restricted to a fixed number of parties. What often happens in such systems is that even while competing with each other, the political parties often collaborate to keep the system closed and prevent the entry of new players.
For the past couple of decades, Punjab has been operating under exactly such a system, in which power is essentially divided between the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party combine on one hand and the Congress on the other.
At the top of this system lie a handful of influential families that are linked across the political divide and have dominated the state’s politics: the Badals, Majithias, Kairons, Brars and the royal family of Patiala. But it is also built on an entrenched structure that includes Halqa in-charges, Sarpanches, police and administrative officials as well as some religious leaders.
This is Punjab’s permanent establishment that remains in power irrespective of the party that wins the elections.
Built in the aftermath of the Khalistan movement, this system greatly benefitted from the lack of accountability that it gained on the pretext of maintaining “stability” and fighting “terrorists” or “radicals”.
Of course, the system does redistribute resources to some extent through sops and government schemes but the public remains essentially disempowered.
The Akali-Congress Political System and its Challengers
Electorally, this can be seen through the gradual decline of the vote share and seat share of parties other than the SAD, BJP and Congress. In the graph below, green indicates vote share of alternative parties and red indicates seat share in every election since 1989.
In the 1989 Lok Sabha elections, which were hailed as a “resumption of the political process” after the insurgency, saw “alternative” parties winning 11 out of 13 seats in Punjab.
Simranjit Singh Mann was elected from the Tarn Taran constituency in absentia as he was still in jail after being charged for conspiring against the state. His party won 6 seats in the elections.But after the complete takeover of the Akali Dal by Parkash Singh Badal in the 1990s, the influence of “alternative” parties began to reduce consistently and the two party party system of the SAD-BJP and Congress became entrenched.
The opponents of this system came from three strands articulating three distinct sets of grievances:
- Panthic parties like Mann’s SAD (Amritsar) demanded justice for victims of police atrocities and raised issues related to Sikh identity. Essentially, it was based on a demand for the implementation of the Anandpur Sahib resolution that Badal deviated from.
- BSP which highlighted the concerns of Dalits who form 32 percent of Punjab’s population
- Left Parties: which brought forward the concerns of farmers, particularly in the relatively backward Malwa region.
But the Left declined in Punjab after the 1990s and the BSP had an alliance with the Congress for a while and gradually lost much of its support to the party.
Another dimension for alternative politics got added in the run-up to the 2012 Assembly elections through Manpreet Badal’s People’s Party of Punjab - the call for probity in governance and opposition to the large-scale use of money and muscle power. But even this experiment failed and Badal gradually moved towards the Congress.
It was in this scenario that the Aam Aadmi Party burst into the scene in 2014 winning four Lok Sabha seats, all in the Malwa region. In the region, AAP gained from two out of three sources of alternative politics: Panthic Sikhs and farmers.
Faced with a new, formidable challenger, the existing parties are said to have tacitly helped each other to stop its rise.
In the 2017 elections, Hindu voters of the BJP decisively shifted to the Congress to defeat AAP. This was partly due to propaganda that AAP is close to pro-Khalistan elements.
Though it still retains some influence in the Malwa region, defections and splits have weakened AAP. To the disappointment of many Punjabis, yet another political alternative stands at the cusp of failure.
Punjab’s New Alternative
However, Punjab’s desire for political change is still alive and it is coming precisely from the three sections that have driven political alternatives in the past: Panthic Sikhs, farmers and Dalits.
Many Sikhs are angry with the Akalis due to the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib that took place in Bargari in 2015 and the subsequent police firing on protestors in Kotkapura which killed two people.
However given the Congress’ history of police atrocities in the 1980s and 1990s, Panthic Sikh voters might be reluctant to back the party. This leaves a huge vacuum which three outfits are trying to fill:
- Aam Aadmi Party, which still has a chance of winning Sangrur and Faridkot
- The SAD (Taksali) which was recently formed by rebel Akali leaders like Ranjit Singh Brahmpura, Ratan Singh Ajnala and Sewa Singh Sekhwan.
- The Punjab Democratic Alliance (PDA) that comprises former Leader of the Opposition Sukhpal Khaira’s Punjabi Ekta Party, the BSP, Lok Insaf Party, Left parties like CPI and Revolutionary Marxist Party of India and Patiala MP Dharamvira Gandhi’s Punjab Manch.
Among the three, it is the 6-party PDA that best represents all the three strands of opposition against the established parties.
“The PDA represents different elements, strands highlighting Panthic, Dalit and farmers issues. Their success would depend on how they balance these concerns.”Tridivesh Singh Maini, Jindal School of International Affairs.
The PDA is likely to do well in seats like Khadoor Sahib and Patiala. It might make an impact even in seats like Hoshiarpur and Jalandhar where the sizable Dalit population could help the BSP.
Battle for Khadoor Sahib
The constituency that symbolises this battle against the Akalis, Congress and BJP is Khadoor Sahib.
Challenging the Congress and the Akalis here is Bibi Paramjit Kaur Khalra of the Punjabi Ekta Party.
Khalra has extensively worked with families whose members were killed or forcibly abducted by the police during the 1980s and 1990s.
Her husband Jaswant Singh Khalra was a prominent human rights activist, whose efforts exposed several cases of encounters, abductions and human rights abuses that were carried out by the police in the name of fighting the Khalistan insurgency.
Jaswant Singh Khalra himself was picked up by the Punjab police on 6 September, 1995 and he was never seen again. Bibi Khalra fought a long legal battle demanding justice for her husband.
In 2005, six Punjab police officials were convicted and sentenced to seven years imprisonment for Khalra’s abduction and murder. In 2007, the Punjab and Haryana High Court extended it to life imprisonment.
Bibi Khalra fought the 1999 Lok Sabha elections from Tarn Taran as Khadoor Sahib was called before delimitation, but could secure only six percent votes.
However, this time she has a realistic chance as Punjab has changed considerably since then. In 1999, the SAD was the first choice of an overwhelming number of Sikhs in Punjab. However now, there is considerable anger against the Akalis among Sikhs due to the Bargari and Kotkapura cases as well as the corruption that characterised their rule in the state.
Dalits form over 30 percent of the population in Khadoor Sahib and the BSP’s support could help Bibi Khalra get at least a chunk of the votes.
During the campaign, Bibi Khalra hasn’t raised identity issues to a very great extent, instead focussing on highlighting human rights abuses, farmers issues and also criticising the BJP’s communal politics.
She will also gain from the support of SAD (Taksali), especially sitting MP from Khadoor Sahib Ranjit Singh Brahmpura. The Taksalis withdrew their candidate in Khalra’s favour.
Her main rivals are Jasbir Singh Dimpa of the Congress and Bibi Jagir Kaur of the SAD. Jagir Kaur, former head of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandhak Committee, is a controversial figure and was earlier accused of being involved in the “honour killing” of her daughter.
Dimpa, however, is a tougher opponent.
Unlike Congress candidates like Manish Tewari in Anandpur Sahib and Ravneet Bittu in Ludhiana who kept raking up the insurgency era during the campaign, Dimpa remained silent on it.
Instead, he is mostly raising local issues, attacking Akalis and relying on the Congress’ strong organisation and party’s nine MLAs in Khadoor Sahib.
Considered a Panthic seat, the last time Congress won Khadoor Sahib (earlier called Tarn Taran) was in 1991. Dimpa is being mindful of this history and hopes to capture a chunk of the anti-Akali Panthic vote in addition to a majority of Dalit and Hindu votes.
What This Means for Punjab
It’s not just Bibi Khalra, there’s another candidate who needs to be talked about: Manwinder Singh Giaspura, the PDA (Punjab Democratic Alliance) candidate from Fatehgarh Sahib. Giaspura is a survivor of the 1984 pogrom and he helped identify the perpetrators behind the massacre of 32 Sikhs in Hondh Chillar in Haryana’s Rewari district.
Candidates like Khalra and Giaspura are important because they represent the victims of one of the darkest eras in the history of Punjab, particularly for Sikhs.
It is on the debris of that dark era that the Akali Dal, Congress and BJP built a closed political system in Punjab. This system may have maintained a semblance of stability but this stability came at the cost of justice for the victims of this dark era.
By speaking up for these victims, Khalra and Giaspura are shaking up the system.
If the PDA manages to win a seat and come second in a few more, it could pave the way for a much stronger Panthic-Dalit-Left challenge in the 2022 Assembly elections.
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