An era in Punjab politics came to an end earlier this month with Captain Amarinder Singh resigning as the chief minister of Punjab. Captain and Shiromani Akali Dal chief Parkash Singh Badal have been ruling Punjab for the past 24 years, spanning much of the post-conflict phase in the state.
To their credit, both these leaders did bring some kind of stability to Punjab after the traumatic 1980s and early 90s that saw Operation Blue Star, an armed insurgency, encounters, mass disappearances etc. But it was at the cost of several compromises.
Like most post-conflict societies, 'stability' in Punjab basically involved close convergence of state and elite interests and the creation of a patron-client network headed by these elites.
Even though the day-to-day life in Punjab became a bit more secure, many of the policemen who were accused of excesses, politicians, industrialists and middlemen who gained out of the conflict continued to wield clout under both these leaders.
Despite their political rivalry, the success of both Badal and Captain lay in their ability to keep the following entities happy: the central government, security establishment (both central and state), big industry, big farmers (mostly Sikh) and traders (mostly Hindu). That both Badal and Captain are from an Akali background also helped create the impression that Sikhi will continue to be respected.
While Parkash Singh Badal maintained this coalition with the help of the BJP, presenting it as a "Panthic-Dharmic alliance", for Captain Amarinder Singh the social coalition was within the Congress — as a Jatt Sikh leader in a party whose base to a great extent was among Hindu and Dalit voters.
However, while this period did bring stability, it also created an alienation from the political process. Several sections felt that politics in Punjab is essentially dominated by those backed by the Centre and local elites and that common people have no stake in it.
In the last six to seven years, a number of developments that have taken place has disrupted the status quo in Punjab politics and brought an end to the Badal-Captain era.
1. SACRILEGE INCIDENTS, PROTESTS AND THE 2015 SARBAT KHALSA
The sacrilege incidents of 2015 and the police firing at anti-sacrilege protesters in 2015 was a crucial event that changed the course of Punjab politics. Many Sikhs don't see the sacrilege incidents as isolated cases but the result of a conspiracy, which began with the Akal Takht pardon to Gurmeet Ram Rahim of the Dera Sacha Sauda.
Protests led to the withdrawal of the pardon and Dera supporters allegedly desecrated the Guru Granth Sahib out of anger at this withdrawal. The sacrilege led to protests from Sikhs and the police fired at protesters killing two people.
This further angered Sikhs and eroded Badals' credibility.
Then came the Sarbat Khalsa of November 2015. The Sarbat Khalsa relieved the then Jathedar of the Akal Takht Giani Gurbachan Singh of his duties and appointed a parallel Jathedar Jagtar Singh Hawara and an officiating Jathedar Dhian Singh Mand. Though the "official" Jathedar Giani Gurbachan Singh continued, his credibility did get harmed and he was eventually replaced by Giani Harpreet Singh in 2018, who has been the acting Jathedar of the Akal Takht since then.
The Sarbat Khalsa also accused the Badals and SGPC chief Avtar Singh Makkar of undermining the faith. Parkash Singh Badal's Fakhr-e-Qaum and Panth Rattan titles were nullified.
The credibility of the Badals and the Akali Dal as the "defenders of the Panth" and as the natural party representing Sikhs was damaged significantly as a result of these events.
2. EMERGENCE OF AAP AS THE THIRD POLE OF PUNJAB POLITICS
AAP suddenly burst into the political scene in Punjab, winning 4 seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, all in the Malwa region.
AAP's sudden success came after several failed attempts at creating a political alternative to the SAD, Congress and BJP in Punjab — from the SAD (Amritsar), the BSP, Left Parties to Manpreet Badal's PPP in the 2012 Punjab elections.
AAP also gained prominence due to dissatisfaction among smaller farmers in the Malwa region, who felt that the mainstream parties only cater to the interests of big farmers and traders.
But AAP's defeat in 2017 also showed resilience of the older system. A case in point is the manner in which the mysterious Maur Mandi blast led to a shift of Hindu votes behind the Congress.
This showed that a chunk of voters, especially Hindus, feared a change in status quo if AAP comes to power.
3. FARMERS' PROTEST
The third major event to shake Punjab politics are the protests against the Centre's farm laws. Due to the laws, Punjab's alienation from New Delhi is at its highest since the end of the violent conflict in the state. PM Narendra Modi's majoritarian image was already seen negatively by Sikhs but the farm laws took it to another level.
There is immense resentment against the BJP, but the general atmosphere of dissatisfaction is hitting other parties as well.
Political mobilisation too is at an unprecedented scale in Punjab. Besides the farmers' protest, several other protests also took place in the state — by unemployed youth, doctors, Dalit organisations, teachers, government employees, etc.
A major political consequence has been the break-up of the SAD-BJP alliance and the BJP becoming a bit of a pariah in state politics. This has created a vacuum among Hindu voters, who have traditionally voted for either BJP or Congress.
With the BJP having no chance of forming the government, will these voters now consolidate behind the Congress or will they move towards the Akalis or AAP?
It also remains to be seen what the BJP does in this scenario. It has publicly been making statements in favour of Captain. Then, one section of the party is also hoping for a good showing by the party least hostile towards it in Punjab — the SAD.
4. NEW CROP OF LEADERS
Then there's a new crop of leaders who are moving against the established pattern of Punjab politics, though to a limited extent.
Navjot Sidhu: Though from a political family and as mainstream a politician as can be, Navjot Sidhu is deviating from the 'system' in one major way. Sidhu using his leverage with Pakistan PM Imran Khan to push the Kartarpur Sahib corridor may have won him support in Punjab, but it placed him on the wrong side of the security establishment.
Captain Amarinder Singh's statement that he'll make "any sacrifice to prevent Sidhu from becoming CM" bears testimony to the fact that Sidhu has riled the powers that be.
CM Charanjit Channi: He is not just Punjab's first Dalit CM, his humble background is in sharp contrast to Captain, Badals and even Sidhu. Whether elites accept Charanjit Channi or not remains to be seen. He has begun on an interesting note, emphasising his humble origins, having a lot of public interactions and presenting himself as a common man.
Bhagwant Mann: Though a Jatt Sikh, AAP leader Bhagwant Mann is very different from the Badals and Captain. Before Channi came into the picture, Mann has been seen as the common man among the top Punjab leaders. His oratory has also made him popular among rural voters in Malwa, especially smaller farmers.
Sukhbir Badal: Unlike the above three leaders Sukhbir Badal is seen as symbolic of the 'establishment' in Punjab, rather than someone who can change the existing order. However, the breakup of the alliance with the BJP has forced Sukhbir Badal to think differently. SAD has now gone back to its earlier ally from over two decades ago — the BSP. Then he is also inducting a number of leaders from BJP and Congres to try and expand the SAD's base, especially among Hindu voters. By taking on the Centre, he is also trying to play the Panthic and Punjabi pride narrative.
WHAT LIES AHEAD
Having said that, all these leaders are all compromising with the entrenched interests in Punjab politics in different ways.
Despite all the claims of change and non-corrupt governance, Channi and Sidhu did end up appointing ministers accused of corruption, such as Rana Gurjeet Singh.
Despite its claims of being anti-establishemt, AAP did take on board a former cop like Kunwar Vijay Pratap Singh and it also tried to bring in a retired bureaucrat as its CM candidate, besides inducting several defectors from SAD, Congress and BJP.
Sukhbir Badal, of course, has been clear that he only stands for a change of regime and not a change in the political order, making him the most pro-status quo politician in the mix.
Who Punjab's voters choose, remains to be seen. If none of them manage to inspire the voters, they will be compelled to go with who they feel is the lesser evil. And the lesser evil may be different for different sets of voters.
But in that eventuality, the broader problems facing Punjab and the alienation of people, may remain unaddressed.