“Arre Naresh yaar ab tho bataa dey inko, ab tho main phas chuka hoon” (Naresh please tell them the truth at least now, now that I have been caught), a teary eyed Vijay Kumar is reported to have confronted Naresh Yadav in the Patiala police station on July the 5th. Vijay Kumar is the main accused here in the Quran sacrilege case of Malerkotla while Naresh Yadav is the Mehrauli MLA of AAP and also the “sah prabhari” of AAP’s Punjab affairs.
Just a couple of days before he was brought to Patiala for questioning, when the media asked Naresh Yadav if he knew Vijay Kumar, he had reportedly quipped, “Being a politician, many people come and meet me. I would have no knowledge if a person meeting me today goes and commits some heinous crime tomorrow.” – a standard and cynical one liner used by all politicians since many decades.
At the Patiala police station though, Naresh quickly admitted to having known Vijay Kumar after the confrontation. Vijay reportedly then went on to narrate, in the presence of Yadav, the full details of the plan which was apparently “devised to ensure communal violence in Punjab which would in turn improve AAP’s prospects in the state”. Outside the police station, hundreds of AAP volunteers and supporters were protesting and raising slogans against the police and the state government. Apparently, when the Patiala police presented evidence of call records that showed Naresh Yadav and Vijay Kumar being constantly in touch with each other on June 18th, 19th and 23rd, AAP’s Sanjay Singh (who was present in that questioning) is supposed to have gotten angry at the cops for hounding their party workers, while Mr. Yadav had no “satisfactory” explanation about his call records.
“The atmosphere was intimidating”, says a retired cop who doesn’t want to be named, “AAP workers get angry and tell the police that soon they’ll be in power and all of them would be taken care of (sic)… after all the police have to keep their jobs too”. In fact, many former police officers in Punjab today believed that the department is in a quandary whether to listen to the present bosses or the potential future bosses. “The situation used to be always a little dicey in an election year when we had to balance between a few top Congress and Akali leaders, but now it is even more difficult because AAP is a different beast altogether where anybody can intimidate you and they are known to be vindictive too, as many (govt.) officials from Delhi inform me”, says another former cop.
Meanwhile in Malerkotla, the epicentre of the Quran sacrilege event which led to the questioning of Naresh Yadav (which later led to his arrest on Sunday), almost every week there are massive protests and angry mobs running riot. Most of these protests are sponsored and nurtured by Ajmat Dara, a local Muslim industrialist who, by the way, is hopeful of getting an AAP ticket to contest the upcoming elections. In fact, he is supposed to be the main organizer of Kejriwal’s Iftar party in Malerkotla this month. Our local team which visited the town in early July has reported that there is a groundswell of support for both AAP and Dara in Malerkotla as of now.
The fact that AAP is so cynically unleashing its plan to win an election is not a surprise, for these are tried and tested old formulas in India’s electoral history. What comes as a surprise is that a party that had emerged from a citizens’ movement is playing this dangerous game in a bordering state which has been a tinderbox for a very long time. Punjab is a wounded civilization that has constantly borne the brunt of being stuck in a geopolitical cleavage of conflict. When Pakistan decided to disembody herself from India, it was Punjab that bled the most. When Sanjay Gandhi and his mother decided to defeat their opponents by courting fundamentalists, it was Punjab that cried a million tears. When India fought its wars with China and Pakistan, it was Punjab that produced the maximum widows.
In the last couple of years there has been a general perception in the state that once again the dreaded ‘Khalistani’ undercurrent is slowly entering into the mass psyche of the state. There are actually many layers to this phenomenon in the state and it cannot be viewed in all black and white. For instance, there were many unconfirmed rumours in and around Pathankot about a possible drug route being used by some former Sikh militants in that infamous attack by Pakistani terrorists on the IAF base at the start of this year. What these rumours underlined were the existence of a certain kind of links between Pakistan, drugs and Khalistani militancy which could be a deadly concoction if unchecked at very early stages. Whatever the veracity of such rumours, we decided to take this issue head on and ask some inconvenient questions in our poll survey.
Fortunately, a huge 72% of Punjabis either still believe that no 80’s like situation is possible today or are at least unsure of such a situation developing. Although 28% people accepting that the Khalistani mindset may make a comeback is still a worrisome number, but it is at least not alarming. What is alarming though is that almost 60% of those who believe in that possibility also support AAP. What is even more alarming is that 31% of Punjabis believe that AAP is the one party that may possibly encourage a return of the Khalistani mindset!
Why does a young party like AAP carry such secession-spreading connotations on its shoulders for average Punjabi voters? The answer to that question actually lies in its politics.
“The party is receiving funds from Khalistan supporters living abroad”, says Balkar Sidhu a Punjabi singer who was not only in the AAP until recently, but was also a close associate of comedian-turned MP, Bhagwant Mann. There is actually a history to Balkar Sidhu’s straight allegations. In the run up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, AAP had courted many Sikh hardliners like Gurdeep Singh Brar and Baljit Singh Dadhuwal. In fact, United Sikh Movement (USM) founded by Khalistan ideologues like Bhai Mohkam Singh and Bhagwan Singh (who was also a close confidant of Jarnail Singh Bindranwale) had actually extended support to AAP in the Malwa region during the 2014 elections. Not surprisingly, the only 4 MP seats that AAP had won across India out of the 432 seats that it had contested all came from the backward Malwa region of Punjab. In fact, of the 33 assembly segments that AAP had led in the 2014 LS polls, 29 were from Malwa.
Furthermore, Arvind Kejriwal’s politics of constant confrontation with the Modi led central government opens up a lot of space for the secessionist thinking hardline ideologues among panthik Sikhs. This kind of developing fundamentalism becomes a deadly concoction when it meets leftie-NGO brigade with dubious funding sources who are still smarting after the humungous NaMo victory of 2014. “AAP is always open to ideas like referendums and mohalla democracies, so we are hoping that after it comes to power it will eventually agree for a referendum on Khalistan in the state” says an ultra-leftist NGO woman thought leader who is also “tirelessly” working for AAP’s success in the state. Her argument is that India can only become a true democracy if “we allow a million expressions to bloom without fear… so what if some of those expressions are also secessionist in nature”. It is this kind of Prashant Bhushanasque thought process that pervades at different levels in the AAP hierarchy. Indeed, as a ground level observer of politics, it scares me to the core that such a set of people may hold the levers of power someday.
It is in this backdrop that analysing elections in Punjab is not a linear polling exercise but needs a deeper socio-economic understanding of the state’s evolutionary path over the last few decades. A cursory glance at the Pedersen Electoral Volatility Index shows that Punjab was a rare state (the other big state example being Uttar Pradesh) which saw a whopping score of 25.1 in 2014. What this means in the Indian context was that almost every 3rd Punjabi voter shifted his or her allegiance in just one electoral cycle!
Why is Punjab especially so volatile now? If we believe the Lutyens variety journalism, they would blame it all on the drug menace and supposed incompetence of the state government. This is actually easy journalism to suite their narrative, but the problems lie a little deeper than where the mainstream media would care to dig. There are actually 4 distinct socio-economic and demographic patterns that have led to this present state of volatility in the state of Punjab;
The one general thumb rule for Indian elections of the last couple of decades is that whenever growth falls below the 7-8% range, the sitting governments tend to lose. Thus we can safely conclude that if not always, at least most of the times it’s the economy, stupid. In this front, the Badal government is facing a massive hurdle. Not only is the current GDP growth rate below 6%, but also it has been consistently ranging between 4-6% over the previous 5 years. One of the biggest reasons for the lacklustre growth rates is the solid deceleration in agricultural growth which has seen at least 2 years of negative growth in the last 5 years. In fact, many economists have now warned that the state’s agronomy has reached a saturation point after both irrigation potential and cropping intensity have been fully exploited.
With such a slow economic growth, it is no surprise that the sitting government is facing serious anti-incumbency. Our second general thumb rule is that any incumbent with a rating below 50% usually faces defeat in the ensuing elections. In Punjab, the sitting government just about manages to touch the 50th percentile of approval rating which only gives them a fighting chance. Here the one face saving factor is that the central government led by Modi still enjoys a relatively good score which should be creatively used by the SAD-BJP campaign managers if they want to overcome the anti-incumbency hurdle.
When we asked the voters to identify 1 single key issue that is likely to decide their vote, 4 major categories emerged from various responses. Not surprisingly, better employment opportunities emerged as the single biggest area of concern for almost 1 out of every 3 voters. Here, a little surprisingly, AAP seems to be the preferred choice as the party that can best solve this problem which is indicative of its core strength area among the young voters.
Although the other 2 parties are not very far behind, for both Congress and the NDA, the task is really cut out – to create a solid campaign around their vision for providing newer employment opportunities for Punjabi youth. In case of the SAD-BJP, the task is that much tougher because of the fact that they have been in power in the state for a decade now and generally voters tend not to believe electoral promises made by incumbent governments. We are therefore proposing a three-pronged strategy for SAD-BJP to plug this very important market gap;
The issue of drug menace so widely propagated and constantly talked about figures at number 5 in the list and is picked up by just about 6% of our respondents which again goes on to show the stark difference between ground realities and TV studio analysis.
The second most important issue that has emerged from our survey is actually a surprising phenomenon. Protection of religious sanctity (mostly among Sikh respondents) has emerged as a whole new dimension in this Punjab electoral milieu. The dynamics between Panthic Sikhs and various Deras, the conflicts with Panj Pyares and the various incidents of sacrilege against the Guru Granth Sahib have all added fuel to this issue emerging as a key to the next year’s election.
Over the last couple of years, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) was generally seen to be losing its grip over Panthic Sikhs, especially with the arrival of AAP on the scene. Then Kejriwal and his new party committed a series of big errors which seem to have turned the tables once again. When we asked Sikh respondents about the recent AAP youth manifest controversy, an overwhelming 71% of the voters chose to believe that AAP had insulted their religion. This is indeed a huge number which could potentially alter the course of this election.
“These Baniyas and Christians sitting in Delhi have zero understanding of Sikh politics, they will destroy the party (AAP) in Punjab” was rumoured to be the immediate reaction of H.S. Phoolka, the prominent Sikh face of AAP in the state after the youth manifesto row hit the headlines. In fact, Mr. Phoolka unilaterally announced that he would be performing a Sewa at the Golden Temple to ask for forgiveness which was later followed by Arvind Kejriwal and Aashih Khaitan also joining the bandwagon. Expectedly, SAD and Congress made a big issue of the whole fracas of comparing the AAP youth manifesto to the Guru Granth Sahib (the holiest Sikh text) and within just 2 days it had become the talking point in every mofussil, village and city of Punjab as we found out during our survey.
In fact, it was not a solitary event that made all the difference, but it was a series of mishaps that eventually culminated in the youth manifesto controversy. For instance, in the run-up to the 2014 elections, Kejriwal had actively courted former Sikh hardliners and had generally endeared Panthic Sikhs towards AAP which had resulted in 4 MPs winning from the broom symbol, but in the last 2 years, ostensibly to increase his party’s base, Kejriwal began courting many small Dera chiefs by publicly visiting their vipassanas and angering his own constituency.
“AAP has shown grand immaturity in understanding Punjab politics” avers Rana Ji, a small town FMCG distributor who has legendary knowledge of Punjab-Himachal politics in this region, “indeed he (Kejriwal) should have sacked many of his advisors by now, especially the former media people who have very simplistic ideas about elections which may work in Delhi but won’t work here” he further adds.
“In 2014 everywhere there was Modi wave. In fact, we were surrounded by Modi wave in all directions; Rajasthan to the south, Jammu to the north, Himachal and Haryana to the east… then Delhi, everywhere around Punjab there was Modi wave, but we were like an island of silence. Can you tell me why?” asks Rana Ji. “The day political pundits crack that puzzle, they will understand Punjabis and their politics” he supplements his question with sweetener.
“It is not that we were not enamoured by Modi, every Punjabi liked him immensely in 2014 and many still like him… he is an honest man who is doing his best”, Rana Ji continues, “but we Punjabis act from our heart, we are very emotional people, we couldn’t digest the fact that Modi (a good man no doubt) was usurping Manmohan Singh, he was virtually demolishing MMS, the first Sikh Prime Minister, and also destroying Singh’s legacy. We Punjabis just couldn’t accept that. So even if Modi was good for the country we looked elsewhere just to avoid belittling Manmohan Singh”.
“Kejriwal too has completely misjudged Punjabis which was proved by the youth manifesto event… it would be very difficult for AAP to recover lost ground now”, Rana Ji concludes with a mysterious smile. There is some earthy wisdom in his lecture after all. The fact that Pedersen Electoral Volatility Index stood at a whopping 25.1 in 2014 shows us that AAP’s vote could be ephemeral in nature which could shift as easily as it had accrued first to the new party. Indeed, 3 of the 4 AAP MPs are no longer with the party while the 4th MP, Bhagwant Mann is either constantly drunk or cracking jokes at the most inopportune moment. Furthermore, when we analyse the voting patterns of 2012 and 2014, there is actually a striking underlying current that is apparent. Of the 4 MP seats that AAP won, 3 of them had come in those districts where PPP of Manpreet Brar – as the new 3rd pole of state politics – had shown the most traction in the 2012 assembly elections. This tells us that AAP’s performance in 2014 was built upon an already simmering undercurrent of dissatisfaction with both NDA and Congress in 4-5 Malwa districts which may not be sustainable in the future!
Captain Amrinder Singh’s popularity today is what we classically term as “going beyond his party’s vote base”, but unfortunately his own party and his strategists seem to be underutilizing his strengths. Beyond some half-hearted ideas like “coffee with captain” there are no fresh ideas emanating from Captain Amrinder Singh’s campaign managers which is limiting his party’s traction as of now. What the captain needs are some solid public rallies with big mass gatherings to shake the opposition. Currently he enjoys the highest popularity but that is not being leveraged to push his opponents further down in public perception; eventually it is perception that wins electoral battles in India. Politics abhors vacuums and the vacuum potentially arising out of the Badal decline needs to be quickly occupied by Captain Amrinder Singh, else it will be fatal for him and his party.
Arvind Kejriwal is by far the sole face of the AAP and enjoys the maximum popularity, although others like Bhagwant Mann, H.S. Phoolka and a host of such names get some approvals at lower levels. The one big problem with Kejriwal is that he is not a Sikh in a state with 58% Sikh population which would be a huge limiting factor once the real campaign kicks in, especially with 20% respondents picking up “identity” as being important in a state that is seeing religious dynamics play truant at the background. Even more importantly, the “Baniya/Lala” connotations have a historic undercurrent of antagonism among average Sikh populace who have always associated the village Lala with socio-economic oppression which can be utilized by opposition campaigns. Can Kejriwal go beyond these narrow considerations and build a campaign as the development messiah? The answer to that question will tell us whether AAP will really perform miracles in this state.
The big area of opportunity for NDA is that aging patriarch, Prakash Singh Badal. Although he currently enjoys very low popularity ratings, a solid campaign built on appealing to the “Punjabiyat” of the state can overcome those hurdles. What SAD strategists must do is create a massive campaign to save the Punjabi pride and project Prakash Singh Badal as the elder statesman who stands between Punjab and anarchy (already some of the TV advertisements are pronouncing along those lines, but a more sophisticated data driven campaign is needed). Akalis have a core vote-base of around 27-30 lakh voters who are unlikely to desert them at any cost, all the party needs to now do is concentrate on getting an additional million votes which would be enough to win a multi-cornered race (a total of 5 million votes out of a possible 1.5 Cr, provided BJP pulls its weight at the polling booths). There are 3 potential target demography from where the SAD-BJP can reap rich dividends;
Even if the Akalis are trying hard to fight a rear-guard battle against all odds, their biggest worry really is BJP which is a party in deep slumber. This is a new affliction of the saffron brigade – the party simply gets rattled in those geographies that AAP starts to expand. In fact, it is as if AAP and Kejriwal have left a deep scar on the collective psyche of BJP’s leadership that they simply give up without putting a fight. It happened in Delhi and it is happening here in Punjab. If not remedied with urgency, it is likely to spread far and wide.
It has been 4-5 months now that Vijay Sampla has been named the party chief but he has not even announced a state-level team let alone build polling booth level infrastructure in the state. The party was completely caught sleeping when Navjot Singh Sidhu, the most popular saffron leader on this side of the Sutlej, left the party and a vast number of karyakartas totally confused. The situation is so bad with BJP right now that even its core upper caste Hindu voters are looking for greener pastures. BJP needs to wake up now and show some creativity on the ground by targeting Hindu voters and also leveraging its good relationships with Deras, else its slumber will likely produce a much more powerful Kejriwal than a glorified municipal mayor from the national capital.
The one striking feature about Punjab is that an incredible 95% of the voters have already made up their mind. For example, usually, one of the first questions that we ask in our poll surveys is; “In the next few months Punjab will go for an election, have you heard of it?” Historically, we get positive responses in the range of 55-65% even 2-3 months before the elections because ordinary people are not as political as we tend to believe. In Punjab this time we got a positive response rate of an unbelievable 87%! This is such an unusual finding that I haven’t seen such a phenomenon in any state election in the last 20 years – the fact that almost everybody has made up their mind more than 6 months before the actual elections!
What this means is that there is hardly any floating vote left in Punjab. In fact, the big majority of undecided voters belong to Hindus, whereas almost 99% of the Sikhs have made up their minds one way or the other. Thus, now each of the political party will have to poach voters from their opponents which has converted this into an election that needs completely different set of strategies from any other normal election. The counter strategy would be that each of the political party will have to strenuously guard its own vote-base in order to eventually win this election.
The second factor that is clear from our poll is that there is no wave favouring AAP in the state as was being claimed by all the Delhi media put together including some very dubious poll surveys that were giving out 100 seats to AAP as if it were a charity event. Yes, AAP has gained the most swing vote from all the parties and the momentum till now has been with this young new party, but today there is no such wave as is being prophesied. AAP may eventually win Punjab, but it is facing 5 big hurdles as of now;
In fact, there is a distinct possibility that AAP may end up doing what Manpreet Brar did 5 years ago – helping SAD-BJP buck the anti-incumbency trend and emerge victorious against nearly impossible odds. For the other main contender, the Congress party, AAP is proving to be a thorn in the flesh as their vote-bases collide at multiple levels, especially among backward and Dalit sections of both the Hindus and Sikhs.
In conclusion, there are three important factors that will eventually decide who wins Punjab – A] Which way the 2 powerful Deras of Sacha Sauda and Radha Soami would eventually tilt, B] the unusually undecided Hindu voters of the state and C] whether BJP wakes up in time or continues to sleepwalk throughout the election season.
A note on the 5Forty3 Punjab poll survey
This Punjab poll survey was conducted between July 10th and July 18th spread across 78 polling station areas (including swing polling booths) covering 21 specially chosen assembly segments of all the different electoral zones of the state. Our survey covered 103 geographic locations of 11 districts and had a target sample size of 2270, giving adequately weighted representation to various castes and socio-economic groups of both the rural and urban populace (see the below tables).
This 5Forty3 survey has a statistical error margin of 3.1% and a historic error margin of 2.7% (based on our past record). Our polls are especially accurate because of our path-breaking swing polling booth surveys based on indigenously developed tool RSSI (Randomized Social Swing Impact) which gave us near 100% accurate results during the Bihar elections where every other pollster failed. Based on our long experience we can say that there are three main error zones for political poll surveys in India;
Clear and precise questionnaires containing 58 different questions based on 3 criteria – preferences, opinions and factual information – were prepared in Hindi/English/Punjabi which were used to elicit the opinion of the respondents by carefully trained fieldworkers. The entire survey was conducted by direct face-to-face interviews without employing any CATI surveys or phone surveys. We achieved an extremely frugal hit-rate of 111 rupees per response which is a new record even for the historically cost effective team 5Forty3 (industry standard rates in India are roughly 200 to 270 rupees per response).
P.S: In India there are no clear statistical models to convert vote-shares into seats so it is merely a speculative activity to project seat shares of different parties. In fact, we always believe that good psephology ends with analysing vote-shares, but because most readers are used to just digesting the headline numbers we are giving out seat-shares of different parties as an annexure at the end.
With 6 months to go before Punjab elections and candidates yet being declared, it is even more difficult to convert vote-shares of different parties so we are just using historic data in conjuncture with our present survey to come up with the most probable seat-share tallies. This model of projection has a very high error margin of more than 6%. Therefore we have put nearly a fourth of the MLA seats in the undecided/swing category.