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Ravneet Bittu's Rise, Kangana 'Slap' Row: What Lies Ahead for BJP in Punjab?

By picking Ravneet Bittu ahead of others, BJP has sent an important political message in Punjab.

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The Centre's tussle with Punjab was one of the dominant themes of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's second term – from the farmers' protest to the crackdown on Waris Punjab De, the alleged targeting of Khalistan activists abroad, and the large-scale banning of Sikh social media accounts in India.

If the incidents of the last one week or so are any indication, this friction seems to be continuing.

First, not a single Sikh was elected on an NDA ticket in the Lok Sabha elections. Prominent candidates like SS Ahluwalia, Taranjit Sandhu, Ravneet Bittu, and Preneet Kaur lost from their respective seats.

Second, actor-turned-politician and newly elected MP from Mandi, Kangana Ranaut, was allegedly slapped by a CISF constable Kulwinder Kaur at Chandigarh airport.

Kaur, whose mother was part of the farmers' protest, slammed Ranaut for her defamatory comments against the protesters. Ranaut on the other hand, used the incident to allege that there is rising support for Khalistan and terrorism in Punjab.

The BJP is now facing flak in Punjab for its controversial pick from the state in Modi's council of ministers. Ravneet Singh Bittu has been made a minister despite having lost the Lok Sabha elections from Ludhiana.

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Why Did BJP Choose Bittu?

After the BJP drew a blank in Punjab in the Lok Sabha elections, it was only expected that the state would remain underrepresented in Prime Minister Modi's cabinet. There is no minister from Punjab in the new cabinet – Hardeep Puri is a Sikh, but from Delhi. Punjab, however, did get a Minister of State position in the form of Ravneet Singh Bittu, former MP from Ludhiana who recently shifted from the Congress to the BJP.

Bittu's selection raised a few eyebrows in Punjab for a number of reasons.

He has been made a minister despite losing the elections from Ludhiana. He was defeated by Punjab Congress chief Amarinder Singh Raja Warring by a narrow margin of 21,000 votes.

Bittu joined the BJP right before the elections – and he has been picked ahead of BJP old-timers from Punjab as well as those from the Congress who had joined the BJP before him, such as Sunil Kumar Jakhar and Rana Gurmit Sodhi.

There was also speculation that the party would make former ambassador Taranjit Singh Sandhu a minister given his expertise and the fact that he put up a better fight than expected in the Amritsar Lok Sabha seat.

By picking Ravneet Bittu ahead of others, BJP has sent an important political message in Punjab.

As BJP candidate, Taranjit Sandhu put up a surprisingly good fight in Amritsar. 

(File Photo)

Bittu is a controversial choice for another reason.

He is the grandson of former Punjab chief minister Beant Singh, who was assassinated in a bomb blast in 1995.

Beant Singh is a deeply polarising figure in Punjab politics. On one hand, a sizable section of Sikhs sees him as 'Beanta Butcher' because of encounter killings and forced disappearances that took place in his tenure. On the other hand, sections of Upper Caste Hindu voters consider Beant Singh as a figure who "saved Hindus of Punjab during militancy period".

Now, Bittu isn't the only politician who inherited a polarising legacy. Sunil Jakhar, for instance, is the son of Balram Jakhar who is accused of making hateful comments about Sikhs.

By picking Ravneet Bittu ahead of others, BJP has sent an important political message in Punjab.

However, Sunil Jakhar has adopted a much more moderate brand of politics, and he isn't known to make polarising statements.

Bittu, on the other hand, wears his legacy on his sleeve. He is known to frequently get into spats with Panthic politicians and activists.

It seems that the BJP has chosen Bittu for what he represents – he is known to be one of the most pro-Hindu and anti-Panthic politicians in Punjab.

The choice of minister indicates the card the BJP wants to play in the state. Someone like Taranjit Sandhu would have presented a more technocratic image for the BJP in Punjab. And, given his family background (he is the grandson of Teja Singh Samundri, founder of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee), it would also have left some space open for engagement with those in the Akali space.

Promoting Bittu, more or less closes the doors for any engagement with even the most moderate Panthic elements.

The BJP could also have used the one MoS position from Punjab to reward party old timers from the state or promote an older entrant from the Congress like Sunil Jakhar who has a much broader appeal or even someone like Preneet Kaur, who would have helped them take forward Captain Amarinder Singh's legacy.

It has instead chosen Bittu. And coming a week after the Kangana Ranaut controversy, it gave a clear indication that the BJP intends to make the alleged 'Khalistan threat' its main plank in Punjab.

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How BJP Consolidated Hindu Votes, Declined Among Sikhs

The BJP seems to have been successful in consolidating Upper Caste Hindu votes in Punjab to some extent. According to the Lokniti-CSDS post-poll survey, 56 percent of Hindu Upper Caste voters in Punjab said that they had voted for the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections.

This is significant as the BJP wasn't seen as a winnable option in a majority of seats in Punjab.

Even though the BJP failed to win any seats in Punjab, it got a vote share of 18.6 percent, ahead of its erstwhile partner SAD at 13.4 percent and about eight percentage points behind the Congress and AAP (both at around 26 percent each).

Then in terms of Assembly segments, the BJP was leading in as many as 23 segments across Punjab. The Congress led in 38, the AAP in 32, the SAD in 9, and Independents in 15. This is a significant number.

There are the segments where the BJP was ahead of other parties in each Lok Sabha seat:

  • Firozpur: Firozpur City, Abohar, Balluana

  • Amritsar: Amritsar North, Amritsar Central, Amritsar East

  • Gurdaspur Sujanpur, Bhoa, Pathankot

  • Bathinda: Bathinda Urban

  • Hoshiarpur: Mukerian, Dasuya, Hoshiarpur

  • Patiala: Rajpura, Dera Bassi , Patiala

  • Jalandhar: Jalandhar Central, Jalandhar North

  • Ludhiana: Ludhiana East, Ludhiana South, Ludhiana Central, Ludhiana West, Ludhiana North

The BJP didn't lead in any segment in Faridkot, Khadoor Sahib, Sangrur, Anandpur Sahib, and Fatehgarh Sahib Lok Sabha seats.

A closer look at these segments reveals that a majority of these are Hindu-dominated segments in big cities. Even the non-urban segments – such as Abohar, Balluana, Sujanpur, Bhoa, Mukerian and Dasuya – are Hindu majority rural seats.

The rural segments in this list are also segments that are near borders with other states like Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, and Jammu and their demographics are similar to those states.

Balluana and Abohar, both near the Rajasthan border, also have a large chunk of Dera Sacha Sauda supporters who are also sympathetic towards the BJP as the party is accused of being soft on their jailed leader Gurmeet Ram Rahim.

None of the segments where the BJP led had a Hindu population of under 40 percent.

It is interesting that there was a difference in the BJP's fortunes even within urban areas due to different demography. For instance, the BJP did well in Hindu dominated segments in Amritsar city such as Amritsar Central, East and North but it trailed in Amritsar South which is a Sikh majority seat. Similarly in Jalandhar, it led in Upper Caste Hindu dominated Central and North segments but not in the West segment, which has a much higher population of Ravidassia Dalit voters.

Though there is no survey data on how Sikhs in Punjab voted, the Lokniti-CSDS survey did reveal that the NDA's support among Sikhs nationally declined from 31 percent in 2019 to just 11 percent in 2024. Since around 80 percent of Indian Sikhs live in Punjab, this decline may largely (though not entirely) be due to Punjab.

While this may have partly been due to the exit of the SAD, it also reflects alienation of Sikhs from the BJP.

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Can Hindu Consolidation Work in Punjab?

The results of the 2024 elections reveal both the success and the limitations of the BJP's strategy. It is no doubt creditable that the party consolidated over 56 percent of the Upper Caste Hindu vote, no small achievement in a four cornered fight and that it led a majority of the urban Hindu dominated segments.

However, there are major limitations to this strategy.

First, no single Lok Sabha seat in Punjab can be won purely by consolidating urban Hindu votes as every seat has sizable rural segments. This was evident in the recent elections. The BJP led in five urban Hindu majority segments in Ludhiana but performed terribly in three rural/semi-rural segments and this caused its defeat.

At the Assembly level the problem is different. Hindu consolidation of this scale won't be easy at the Assembly level. In Lok Sabha elections, voting can be ideological and based on national factors and narratives. But in Assembly elections, people by and large vote for candidates who can get work done in their area. And since government patronage is key to getting work done, people also tend to tilt towards parties that have a chance of forming the government at the state level. This would be playing on the minds of Punjab's Hindu voters as well when Assembly elections take place.

Many of them may have voted for the BJP for ideological reasons but many might have voted simply because they saw it as the winning party at the national level. This won't be the case at the Assembly level. Modi won't be on the ticket. Rather than vote based on ideological factors, many Hindu voters may just vote for candidates who can get the work done or the party that has a better chance of forming the government in the state. This may put AAP and Congress at an advantage as they get votes from all communities.

Religious polarisation in Punjab is much lesser than other states. So long as the BJP doesn't mend its relations with Sikh voters, it will never be seen a party that has a chance of forming the government. Congress or AAP would then seem more practical options for even Hindu voters.

What would also help Congress and AAP is that it has strong Hindu faces in some cities such as OP Soni (Congress) in Amritsar and Bharat Bhushan Ashu (Congress) and Ashok Parashar Pappi (AAP) in Ludhiana.

By picking Ravneet Bittu ahead of others, BJP has sent an important political message in Punjab.

Hans Raj Hans.

(File Photo: IANS)

BJP insiders say that the party did try to go beyond its base of upper caste Hindu voters by reaching out to Dalits. A lot of emphasis was given especially to the Balmiki community. Two of the BJP's candidates were from this community – Gejja Ram in Fatehgarh Sahib and Hans Raj Hans in Faridkot. Both performed poorly, though Gejja Ram did get a sizable chunk of votes in places like Sahnewal.

Caste doesn't quite operate in a binary in Punjab. Even the Congress' Dalit card in the 2022 Assembly elections – by making Charanjit Channi Punjab's first Dalit CM – didn't really work beyond some pockets in the Doaba region. Therefore, it is unlikely to work for the BJP, which has a far weaker base than the Congress.

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What Lies Ahead?

In addition to consolidating Hindus and winning over Dalits, BJP strategists are also hoping for a shift in what they call "moderate Sikhs" due to the rise of hardline Panthic individuals like Amritpal Singh and Sarabjit Singh. They hope that the BJP led Centre will be seen as the only guarantor of stability in Punjab.

It is true that the victories of Independents Amritpal Singh and Sarabjit Singh in the recent Lok Sabha elections are symptomatic of a larger dissatisfaction among a section of Sikhs against mainstream parties like SAD, Congress and AAP. (The BJP, though also a mainstream party, isn't a major competitor for this vote).

Their win is no doubt going to strengthen the criticism of these parties. The SAD has become particularly vulnerable. However, this doesn't mean it is going to help the BJP. By pursuing a strategy of Hindu consolidation and promoting figures like Bittu, the BJP is being seen as destabilising entity in Punjab and not a stabilising one.

Perhaps the more practical strategy for the BJP would be to use its performance in the Lok Sabha elections to demand a more equitable share of seats from the SAD. But that would require the BJP to roll back on the narrative it is presently pursuing.

(Zainab Khanam also contributed to this story.)

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