In the last week, media and social media chatter around the Punjab elections has been dominated by keywords such as "terror links" and "Hindus in fear."
This is surprising for an election held less than three months after a massive protest led by the farmers of Punjab, who succeeded in achieving their immediate objectives.
Though the farmers' resistance to the Narendra Modi government's farm laws was at the core of the protest, for Punjabi society, it ended up being a much larger movement – for some, it renewed their drive for political change, for others, it led to a revival in their relationship with Sikhi, and for few, it was a means to revive social alliances in Punjab.
Did the energies of that protest get reflected in the elections that followed? Or did the elections bring back the status quo in Punjab politics and prevent any larger change?
At least, the use of the communal card intensifying in the past week appears to point to the latter.
Communal Card: Who Started It?
The communal card in Punjab is older than the Indian republic. Even the colonial regime and its cronies actively used it to pit one community against the other, which eventually led to the brutal partition of Punjab.
Even after 1947, fears of Sikh domination were used to push a pro-Hindi movement among a section of Hindus in Punjab in order to counter the Punjabi Suba movement.
"Punjab problem", "Punjab crisis" – through such terms used by the Centre and the media, even secular demands in Punjab were seen from a national security framework. Why? Just because this is a state where a non-Hindu community is in a majority.
This framework continues to dominate a great deal of Punjab coverage by both the liberal and right-wing media even today. A major section of the media's coverage of Sikhs following Canadian PM Justin Trudeau's visit in 2018 or of the farmers' protest last year came from the same mentality, reinforcing suspicion against the community and creating fears in the Hindu minority.
Among the current set of politicians vying for power in Punjab, there isn't anyone who hasn't played to this narrative.
Captain Amarinder Singh, even as chief minister, kept exaggerating the 'border state' and 'security threat' narrative. He especially did it in the context of the Kartarpur Sahib corridor, which was a long-standing demand of the Sikh community, just because its opening would give political mileage to his main rival Navjot Sidhu.
During the farmers' protest, a number of BJP leaders and its supporters online had tried to project the protesters as "Khalistani" and "anti-nationals".
When the Congress decided to change its chief minister in Punjab, the communal angle was brought in by senior leader Ambika Soni, who said it was their "belief that the CM of Punjab should be a Sikh."
This argument is said to have been used to block the chances of Sunil Kumar Jakhar. Jakhar himself later claimed that he had the support of a majority of MLAs and this was blocked only because he's Hindu.
Who created this theory that the CM has to be a Sikh? The Sikhs of Punjab didn't create it.
Since Punjab was created as a result of the Punjabi Suba movement, it would no doubt be appropriate that the state should be ruled by someone who respects the linguistic and cultural ethos of Punjab – a great part of it comes from Sikhism. But nowhere does that mean that a Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, or Jain can't be the CM.
Then PM Narendra Modi comes to Punjab, and when his convoy is blocked for a brief while due to the farmers' protest, he alleges a threat to his life, again pushing the 'security threat' narrative ably aided by a pliant media.
This led to a barrage of abuse and genocide calls against Sikhs on social media.
Then the Aam Aadmi Party latched on to the Soni-Jakhar controversy to make the case that a "Hindu was treated unfairly by the Congress." The party saw this as an opportunity to win Hindu votes that had played a decisive role in the Congress' victory in the 2017 elections.
And finally, the events of the last one week – Modi saying that he couldn't visit the Devi Talab Temple in Punjab because the "situation is so bad in the state," Rahul Gandhi accusing the AAP of having terror links and using an outlandish claim by Kumar Vishwas to back it up, Modi accusing the AAP and the Congress of being willing to align with extremists, and Kejriwal saying that a man came to him and said, "I'm a Hindu, there's a lot of concern around security in my mind these days."
The fact that parties focused on these issues in the past week says a great deal about the election.
It also says a great deal about the two biggest parties in Punjab – they have to use comments by Kumar Vishwas and Ambika Soni to score political points.
Where is the threat to Hindus in Punjab?
Punjab has been one of the states least touched by communal violence and hate in the past few years.
So, why is this bogey being created?
Maintenance of Status Quo in Punjab
The idea – of all the main political parties – seems to be to perpetuate a political status quo in Punjab by playing to the fears of the Hindu minority.
Beyond superficial mentions, there was very little discussion among parties regarding key issues like unemployment, the state's financial health, receding water table, sustainability of agriculture, rampant UAPA arrests, reviving industry, etc.
Each of the parties is promising change, but in reality, all of them represent status quo-ist politics of different forms in Punjab.
The farmers' protest created a sentiment of 'change' in Punjab but the party that seems to have benefitted most from it is the Aam Aadmi Party as it was the most organised force outside the mainstream parties that had already tasted power in the state.
However, even the AAP's promise of 'change' is built upon recruiting a large number of defectors from Rivaiyti (traditional) parties like Congress and Shiromani Akali Dal.
The AAP has also reduced 'change' to the limited promise of slightly cheaper electricity bills and slightly better service delivery.
For many sections of Punjab's electorate that have low expectations from parties due to successive disappointments, this limited change may just be enough.
Then the Congress brought in a significant change by appointing Punjab's first Dalit chief minister in Charanjit Singh Channi. But it repeated most of its old MLAs and distributed tickets to the same, entrenched political leaders and their kin, harming their own promise of change. The CM himself made strange remarks on migrants.
The SAD, of course, has been more honest than the other two parties and hasn't even claimed to stand for any larger change than a change in regime and the return of the Badals.
The BJP's idea of change is again a mix between playing to the fears of Hindus and recruiting discards from other parties.
The Sanyukt Samaj Morcha, which was best placed to usher in a new kind of politics in Punjab, appears to have squandered the goodwill of the farmers' protest with lackluster ticket selection and campaign.
As a result of all this, the last few weeks of the election became about the very issues that have been used to block any kind of change in Punjab – "security threats" and "Hindus in danger."
As the cliché goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. And the parties have left the voter with a very limited task of choosing the lesser evil.
The voters are fortunately more mature and may still vote based on their day-to-day experiences rather than the noise created by parties and the media. Amidst the allegations being made by parties, the average Punjabi may do a much better job of defending communal harmony in the state as they know the price of communal strife more than most.