Akali Dal Candidates' List: Behind Sukhbir Badal's Plan to Win Back Punjab
A master at managing elections at the micro-level, Sukhbir Badal may use seat level dynamics to offset negativity.
The Shiromani Akali Dal on Monday 13 September declared its first list of 64 candidates for the Punjab Assembly elections.
Elections are still about five months away so declaring the candidates in advance may give the party a head-start over its rivals - the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party.
Declaring the candidates early is also Sukhbir Badal's way of projecting that the SAD is the main Opposition force in the state and not Aam Aadmi Party.
The SAD will be contesting 97 out of the state's 117 seats, leaving 20 for its ally - the Bahujan Samaj Party - as part of its seat-sharing arrangement. This means that the Akalis have now declared nearly two-thirds of the total number of candidates they would be putting up.
This decision to declare candidates in advance and even the selection of candidates is symptomatic of the kind of campaign SAD's CM face Sukhbir Badal is leading in the state.
For the sake of our own understanding, we can divide Badal's campaign into three components: leadership, ticket-selection and messaging.
A great churn is underway in Punjab politics. The Narendra Modi government's farm laws have caused massive resentment among farmers in the state. While the Punjab BJP has been the biggest casualty of this, the farmers' protest has also created an atmosphere of 'change' that could potentially affect other political parties as well.
In the middle of such a churn, the SAD is presenting itself as a party representing stability.
The Congress is yet to decide whether it wants maintain status quo by persisting with Captain Amarinder Singh or tap the 'change' vote by projecting Navjot Singh Sidhu. AAP, which is best placed to capitalise on the 'change' sentiment by virtue of being a new party, is yet to decide on its CM face.
In contrast, the leadership issue is clear in the SAD. The mantle has passed from Akali patriarch Parkash Singh Badal to Sukhbir Badal and the latter is both its CM face as well as calling the shots on all political matters.
The main plank seems to be that the SAD is the "devil you know" in the larger atmosphere of uncertainty. This is reflected in ticket selection as well.
The SAD has persisted with almost all the figures who bore the brunt of public anger in the 2017 Assembly elections.
Jathedar Tota Singh and his son 'Makhan' Barjinder Singh Brar - who got a lot of flak due from farmers due to the pesticide scam during the Akali era - have been given tickets from Dharamkot and Moga.
Sikander Singh Maluka - who was accused of religious misconduct as well as in the book purchase scam - has been fielded again from Rampura Phul.
Gulzar Singh Ranike - whose aide has been jailed in an embezzlement scam - will be contesting again from Attari.
Sukhbir Badal seems to understand that the SAD in general and Badals in particular can only stand for a 'change in the current regime' and not a larger change that seems to be the desire in Punjab.
Therefore, instead of experimenting with fresh faces, he has projected a large number of candidates who are strong in their own areas.
Significantly, SAD is yet to declare candidates for Parkash Singh Badal's bastion Lambi, indicating that it may be possible that someone else from the family may contest from the seat. It also hasn't declared a candidate from Bikram Majithia's pocketborough of Majitha.
The candidates from Captain Amarinder's seat Patiala Urban and Navjot Sidhu's seat Amritsar East have also not been declared and there could be high profile candidates from these seats.
Sukhbir Badal, who will be contesting from his traditional seat of Jalalabad, is also a master at managing elections at the micro-level.
This was the main reason why SAD managed to prevent a washout in the 2017 Assembly elections and its subsequent resilience in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls and civic polls.
As things stand today, the SAD-BSP alliance may do well in the Doaba, where both parties are strong while in other regions, it may dependent on strong local candidates and booth management to win a significant number of seats
Badal has hired PR firm Mindshare led by Sunil Kanugolu, who managed the AIADMK campaign in Tamil Nadu in 2021. Up against the mighty DMK-led alliance advised by his former colleague Prashant Kishor, Kanugolu helped the AIADMK avoid a total rout and get a respectable vote share in the state.
The SAD campaign in Punjab has a clearer narrative going than the Congress and AAP.
Sukhbir Badal is being presented as a leader with administrative experience and one who has concrete solutions for Punjab. He has put forward a 13 point programme which includes: restarting Mata Khiwi Rasoi scheme to be started, cutting diesel price to be cut by Rs 10 per litre for agriculture sector, free 400 units power for all domestic users, Rs 10 lakh (per annum) health insurance for all families (in government and private hospitals) for medical treatment, diagnostic tests, medicine etc, Rs 10 lakh loan (without interest) for College fees and IELTS coaching, MSP on fruits vegetables and milk etc.
The plan is that Badal will be presented as being more dynamic as compared to Captain Amarinder Singh and more experienced compared to Navjot Sidhu and or anyone from AAP like Bhagwant Mann.
This pitch for Sukhbir combined with SAD's USP as the main Panthic party is the primary narrative for the party in this election.
The party also hopes that the alliance with BSP will give it increased support among Ravidasi voters and possible offset some of the decline in Upper Caste Hindu support it may face due to its break-up with the BJP.
It is also counting on tactical voting by some BJP supporters who may dislike both Congress and AAP and see SAD as the least hostile option to the party nationally.
CAN THIS WORK?
The problem for the SAD is that while its strategy and election narrative might be fine on paper, the Badals continue to evoke a great deal of negativity among a very large portion of voters on the ground.
Sukhbir Badal may be making the right kind of promises but not many are willing to listen to him, leave alone reposing their trust.
The other problem for the SAD is that its support base has become extremely vulnerable everywhere except for seats where it has strong local candidates or in places where the BSP is adding some value.
Declaring the candidates in advance is Badal's way of trying to maximise the SAD's advantage in seat-level battles against the Congress and AAP to compensate for the negativity it may be facing at the state level.
A lot would now depend on how AAP in particular plays its cards. If it fails to resolve the CM face issue, it would open the space for Sukhbir Badal to once again emerge as the main anti-Congress face.
Then if the Congress changes its leadership in the state, a lot of calculations would have to be reworked. A Navjot Sidhu-led campaign may not necessarily be bad for the Akalis and it may lead to the continuation of his rivalry with the Badals and Bikram Majithia.
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