Punjab has been a bit of an enigma in Indian politics. It went against the Modi wave in 2014 as well as the Congress surge in 2009. Politics here is localised. And given that a handful of families - Badals, Kairons, Majithias, Brars and the Patiala royal family - wield disproportionate clout, there is a deep clamour for change in the state.
But a common trend in Punjab’s politics is the people’s distrust of authoritarian leaders. This is as true today as it was centuries ago. Be it Alexander or Aurangzeb, Indira Gandhi or Modi, Punjab has consistently resisted authoritarian leaders.
Under Modi, BJP Has Declined in Punjab
Let’s restrict ourselves to Punjab’s relationship with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In 2014, every state in India felt the Modi wave. It’s not just the BJP’s sweep of the Hindi heartland and Western India. The party’s vote share increased even in Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Assam.
The only major state where the BJP’s vote share fell between the 2009 and 2014 Lok Sabha elections, is Punjab.
The BJP’s vote share fell from 10.1 percent in 2009 to 8.7 percent in 2014, a fall of 1.4 percentage points.
The BJP’s fall continued even in the 2017 Assembly elections. It secured just 5.4 percent votes, its lowest in over 25 years. This is in sharp contrast to how BJP has gained in strength across the country under Modi.
Privately, the explanation given by BJP leaders is that “Modi is popular but the party is suffering because of the unpopularity of the Badals”. This is not quite supported by data. In the 2017 elections, BJP’s vote share in the seats it contested was marginally less than its ally the Shiromani Akali Dal.
Its seat-conversion ratio was also lesser. The Akali Dal won 16 percent of the seats it contested in the Assembly polls, compared to the BJP’s 13 percent.
Modi Disliked By Sikhs
Modi’s “popularity” in Punjab is itself a myth. According to Lokniti-CSDS’ pre-poll survey, Modi has a negative satisfaction rating in Punjab – which means that the number of people dissatisfied with him in the state is more than those who are satisfied with him.
Modi’s net satisfaction rating in Punjab is -29 percent, higher only than Tamil Nadu and Kerala at -39 percent.
Punjab is the only non-South Indian state where Modi has a negative approval rating. Now, why do the people of Punjab dislike Modi so much? The reasons aren’t very different from Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh – anger with a central leader perceived as authoritarian.
According to Tridivesh Singh Maini, who teaches at the Jindal School of International Affairs, “Punjab has always gone against the tide nationally. The people in Punjab are distrustful of authoritarian leaders and want a central government that is respectful of federalism. Meddling in states is not liked in Punjab”.
This is further intensified by the fact that Modi is also seen as being ideologically at variance with the ethos in the state. In Kerala for instance, a significant part of the dislike for Modi comes from the sizable population of Muslims and Christians in the state. Punjab’s case is no different, being a Sikh majority state.
According to the Lokniti-CSDS pre-poll survey, nationally the dislike for Modi is highest among Sikhs, more than even Christians and Muslims. On being asked if Modi should be given another chance as the Prime Minister, 68 percent Sikhs said “No” against 21 percent who answered in the affirmative. Since nearly 80 percent of all Indian Sikhs stay in Punjab, this is broadly representative of their viewpoint.
Among Muslims and Christians, 62 percent and 56 percent respectively said that Modi should not get another chance. Hindus had a completely different perspective with 51 percent saying that Modi should get another chance and 31 percent saying that he shouldn’t.
There is a linguistic aspect as well. Those who have access to Punjabi media as opposed to Hindi media, have a higher probability of disliking Modi. In Punjab, often religion and language are correlated, with Hindi being perceived as a Hindu language.
“They (BJP) don’t respect Punjab. Even most of Modi’s hoardings in Punjab are in Hindi and not Punjabi. It’s as if they don’t want our votes,” said Gurtej Singh Pannu, who stays in Tarn Taran and will vote in the Khadoor Sahib constituency. Pannu doesn’t like the Congress or Captain Amarinder Singh but appreciates the fact that he hasn’t seen a single Hindi hoarding from the party.
On being asked if Sikhs distrust Modi, Pannu says:
“Naturally, whenever a leader speaks only of one religion and one community, other communities will feel alienated. Look at the kind of statements (Yogi) Adityanath makes. And it’s clear that the communal lobby won’t stop at Muslims”
No Takers for National Security Pitch
Even Modi’s national security centered campaign seems to have found few takers in Punjab. According to C-Voter’s election tracker on 3 May, only 2.1 percent voters in Punjab said that national security was the most important issue in this election. This is the lowest among all the states in the country.
The 2017 Assembly elections were held a few months after the 2016 Surgical Strikes. But among all the poll bound states, the issue received least traction in Punjab.
According to the Lokniti-CSDS survey conducted before the Assembly elections, 19.6 percent voters in Punjab said that the surgical strikes were a very important issue while 25.7 percent said that they were not important at all.
On the other hand, in another poll-bound state Uttarakhand, 47.5 percent voters said that surgical strikes was an extremely important issue while only 15 percent said that it didn’t matter at all.
Many Sikhs in Punjab view Modi’s Pakistan policy with suspicion. “Under Modi, relations with Pakistan have worsened. The BJP and the media create a frenzy and no one thinks about the cost of war. Many of our (Sikhs’) places of worship are on the other side of the border. And we live in a border state. If there are tensions with Pakistan, we suffer the most,” said Baljinder Singh, a voter in Amritsar.
The Kartarpur Sahib corridor is an important issue for Sikhs and many credit Congress leader Navjot Singh Sidhu for the forward movement on that front. Equally, there are fears that if Modi comes back to power, the project might be harmed.
However, this is not to say that there are no Modi supporters in Punjab. One does find some support for the Prime Minister among Upper Caste Hindus in urban areas and some parts of rural Gurdaspur as well as among migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. But they are vastly outnumbered by those who dislike Modi or are indifferent towards him. The SAD-BJP combine could win a few seats due to local factors or poor candidate selection on the part of the Congress. But what is certain that if at all there is a Modi factor in Punjab, it is a predominantly negative one.