A group of Khalistani terrorists hijack a bus and communally segregate the passengers. 8 innocent Hindus are massacred mercilessly while the remaining Sikhs are left scot free. On that midnight hour when India was sleeping, Punjab had turned back the clock to bring old memories of a blood ridden partition to the fore again. This time, the war was not an external one with Muslims, but a battle within.
The very next day, the central government headed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and President Gyani Zail Singh promptly dismissed the state government headed by their own Congress Party. The story goes that ever since Darbara Singh had assumed office as the unexpected Congress Chief Minister of Punjab, Zail Singh, his rival within the party was just waiting to cut him to size and the Dhilwan massacre gave him the perfect opportunity to impose president’s rule on the state. But Punjab’s real political problem had arisen 3 years prior to that with another round of president’s rule.
In 1980, after Indira Gandhi came back to power at the centre, one of the first sins she committed was the dismissal of a perfectly legitimate, democratically elected Akali-Janata government of Punjab headed by the suave, educated Sikh leader, Parkash Singh Badal. The second sin was committed by her marauding son, Sanjay Gandhi which eventually led to the Dhilwan massacre and a decade of bloodletting violence that threatened to tear apart the very fabric of India as a nation.
In the 80’s, one of the chief grouse that many radical Sikhs had with the Akalis led by Parkash Singh Badal was that he was not catering to their fundamentalist and cessionist instincts which was lapped up by Sanjay Gandhi and his extremist protégé, Jarnail Singh Bindranwale with disastrous consequences for the state in particular and India in general.
More than 3 decades later, it is as if the clock has been standing still in Punjab forgetting its fundamental function of ticking with the motion of time. Parkash Singh Badal is still representing the non-fundamentalist face of Sikh nationalism but Sanjay Gandhi has been replaced with Arvind Kejriwal and there are enough Bhindranwale clones in the supporting cast.
The fact that today Arvind Kejriwal is bold enough to spend a night at the home of a known Khalistani fund raiser in full media glare is merely the symptom of a deeper malaise. The fact that AAP has received massive funding from many Khalistan sympathizing Punjabi NRIs is merely the tip of the iceberg. Deeper within the Punjabi society lies an undercurrent of unease regarding the rise of Panthic anger which can be gauged to some extent through three paradigms;
1. Rising number of episodes of frequent desecration of Guru Granth Sahib by anti-India elements that is creating an unnecessary frustration among Sikhs in rural Punjab
2. Attempts to organize parallel Sikh religious convocations by known former Khalistanis trying to undermine the power of SGPC and the Akal Takht (the Sikh temporal body)
3. Rising tide of rebellious pop-culture among Punjabi youth subtly questioning the authority of the State (read as India and the government) which was also a much missed undercurrent in the mid to late 1980’s Kashmir
When we analysed this phenomenon some six months ago threadbare, we had held a mirror to the changing societal structure in Punjab that was also coinciding with the decline of Parkash Singh Badal as the elder statesman of Sikh sub-nationalism. Today what we are witnessing in Punjab is exactly what our prognosis had raised fears about – the slow militant expressionism of unhandled angry undercurrent, especially of the Punjabi youth.
This Punjabi undercurrent has a certain degree of uselessness to it, for Punjab as a state is quite prosperous unlike say the eastern parts of India where at least to some extent socio-economic conditions do create favourable environment for a militant Naxalism to sprout out. This undercurrent of useless anger is best represented among many rural Malwa youth who actually identify with the pop-culture of Bhagwant Mann’s erratic drinking habits while still willing to suspend their disbelief to trust AAP and Mr. Mann as a solution to Punjab’s problem of excess alcoholism and drugs!
“Yes, they (the SAD-BJP government) have given us great roads and excellent infrastructure” agrees Parminder Singh, a college student in Muktasar, “but we need change” he adds with a smirk on his face. Just a few miles from there is Lambi, with large boulevards lining international class roads where the sitting CM, the senior Badal, is fighting possibly his last battle with Captain Amrinder Singh of Congress and Jarnail Singh of AAP. “Villages here have seen unprecedented development in the last decade… but this time change is in the air, so we don’t know” avers Avatar Singh when asked about his take on the SAD government and Badal’s chances. Traveling further west to Jalalabad town, one encounters another similar grouse, “Nobody can deny that there has been great development work here in town, but the halqa in charge, Mantha sahib has too much power over Sukhbir” comments Sanjay Dhillon, a local taxi driver, before lazily adding, “who knows, maybe the voters want change this time”.
This is really the crux of Punjab’s problem of plenty today. A highly urbanized state with possibly the best road connectivity in the whole of North India, connecting even distant villages, is probably going on a road that has no clear destination. Prosperity has created political restlessness and the attention deficit youth of the state simply believe in “change” without actually knowing what the contours of that change should be.
When we make an issue mapping analysis of the state, we realize this drift among the voters. Real issues like agrarian agenda or price rise or development do not really find much mention whereas there is a great deal of talk about drugs, false charges (parcha) and mohalla clinics etc. Over the last 6 months we have observed this change in Punjab wherein voters have begun to consume mass propaganda with progressive intensity. For instance, in June last year, the drug issue hardly found much resonance when most farmers were more worried about rains or crops and youth were more worried about education and employment. In a few months, as the state government ensured a smooth crop selling process in various mandis, voter issues began to change. Finally, today, the drug issue has become the primary narrative construct, especially in Malwa and Doaba which are also incidentally the 2 areas where AAP is doing better.
This Punjab campaign season is a great example of how a young new party like AAP has leveraged its presence on the Social Media while the original harbinger of Social Media enabled politics in India, the BJP, has simply lost a golden opportunity through sheer laziness. While AAP has virtually created a buzz among the youth through its pop culture sensations built around “chitta” (drugs), it has also run a massive Facebook and WhatsApp campaign that have literally reached millions across the state. Contrast that with how BJP has handled its own narrative modes; for instance, in October, after the surgical strikes, Kejriwal committed a huge blunder by seemingly taking Pakistan’s side which enraged a lot of Punjabis and AAP began to collapse in the state, but BJP never built any sustainable campaign around that which has today ensured that people have simply forgotten that whole episode. Similarly, both BJP and Congress (led by its famed election strategist, PK) have failed to create sustainable and attractive campaigns about AAP’s handling of local Punjabi leaders like Sucha Singh Chhotepur whose ouster had created a big backlash against Kejriwal among the Sikhs.
For the Congress though, the bigger mistake has been its much delayed decision of announcing a chief ministerial candidate and then hitting at AAP’s lack of a leader in the state. Yet, it is one man who stands as the biggest obstacle to AAP in the state and he is Captain Amrinder Singh whose popularity far exceeds that of his party today in the state cutting across regions and ethnicities. Congress, by delaying his announcement as CM candidate seems to have erred once again as our data shows that many local level factors could have been overcome by riding on the brand of Captain. Now there is greater worry of internal sabotage within the Congress party which is known to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, at least in the state of Punjab. In fact, presently there are some 2 dozen strong rebels fighting from different areas of their influence and many are said to be backed by different factions within the party. This inability to micro-manage the ticket distribution was also a major reason for the party’s shock defeat in 2012.
This is where Sukhbir Singh Badal comes into picture as possibly India’s best micro-managerial brain in an election environment today. What most of the narrative chasers of TV studio debates tend to forget is the story of details at the constituency level where the real battle is won or lost. It is a well-established fact that nearly 2/3rd of all sitting legislators face localized anti-incumbency in their constituencies across most geographies of India. The deputy CM of Punjab seems to have meticulously planned to beat this local anti-incumbency which has been completely missed by the media narrative. The fact is that SAD has changed nearly half of all its 94 candidates as compared to 2012 (including powerful ministers) which in itself is a testimony to the Junior Badal’s depth of micro-managing ability. Of course, these changes have also led to some localized rebellion against the ruling party, but that is par for the electoral game.
In fact, Sukhbir Badal’s capacity to reinvent at micro-level can only be appreciated by an election connoisseur who understands the art of elections at the polling booth level. Having realized his coalitions’ weakness in the pitched battle of Malwa, he had shifted his focus to the other 2 regions of Majha and Doaba pretty early in the campaign. For instance, the Junior Badal has picked specific BJP seats like Sujanpur, Phagwara, Hoshiarpur, Pathankot and Jalandhar West where he knows the party has the best chances of winning and has deployed all his resources.
The other part of his strategy is to woo the Deras to get the addendum vote to its core of large sections of Jats and BJP’s core of Hindus. This strategy is again meticulously crafted. For instance, the powerful Dera Sachkhand Ballan which has tremendous influence over Ravidassiya Dalits of Doaba is supporting SAD candidates, Satpal Mall in Karatpur and Kabir Dass in Nabha (because both these candidates are Dera members) which in turn is spilling on to at least two neighbouring seats due to open support of Ravidassiyas to the ruling alliance. Similarly, the Majha Dera has asked its followers to ensure total support to SAD in Jalalabad and Fazilka.
The biggest announcement, of course, came just yesterday from Dera Sacha Sauda which has officially announced its support to the Akali-BJP alliance. This Dera has a whopping 35 lakh followers in Punjab, of whom, nearly 80% are concentrated in some 23 assembly segments of Malwa. Even if the Akali-BJP alliance gets an additional support of some 10 to 20k votes in some 20 assembly seats of Malwa, it has the capacity to turn the entire election upside down. Indeed, data history supports such a hypothesis. Take the example of 2007 and 2012 when the Dera Sacha Sauda announced two contrarian decisions – in 2007, its support was for Congress which swept the Malwa region whereas in 2012 when the Dera announced its support to SAD-BJP, the ruling alliance surprisingly won 37 seats in this region. What is more, in 2012, SAD-BJP alliance got an additional 3 lakh votes in some 18 assembly segments where the Dera has its maximum influence which enabled them to win Malwa despite the breakaway group of Manpreet Badal’s PPP weaning away a substantial number of votes in that region.
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In the end analysis, the micro-targeting of Sukhbir may not be enough to win Punjab for the 3rd consecutive time simply because of larger anti-incumbency of a decade against the state government and because of change desired by the voters. Indeed, when we map the trend-line of Punjab, it is quite apparent that the ruling alliance is secularly declining for some time now. In fact there are 4 major X factors some 48 hours before Punjab goes to the polls that we need to consider;
1. Congress with by far the most popular face leading the personality race has the best chance to win the state also because it’s vote-share has not seen much momentum shift in the last 2 years and has remained remarkably stable despite all the upheaval around it. Now, the only worry for the party is whether it can get that last mile push from the voters which usually gives the front runner party that extra 2 odd percentile of vote share which takes it beyond the half way mark.
2. AAP which was declining until a couple of months ago seems to have arrested its fall through some dedicated campaigning and is currently riding the momentum. For instance, almost 1 out of every 5 AAP voter is a new convert in the last few weeks which essentially means that voters are still flocking towards the party. If Kejriwal keeps this momentum, especially in marginal seats of Doaba and Majha, then the party may still spring a Delhi like surprise.
3. If SAD-BJP manage not to completely meltdown in the last 2 days and Sukhbir’s micromanagement still remains strong with various Dera’s supporting it, the ruling alliance may yet surprise all the media biggies by a much better performance. The one big problem from the alliance is that BJP ecosystem, especially the Sangh and its affiliated platforms are not working for the Akalis, in fact, many sections of the Sangh are working to defeat the ruling Akali clan which is possibly the biggest X factor not reported by anybody
4. Projecting a hung assembly in India these days is simply not an option for any serious pollster because Indian voters invariably give a clear verdict in the end analysis. Yet, Punjab has all the makings of a Delhi 2013 like verdict with a fighting ruling party (SAD-BJP in Punjab & Sheila Dixit’s Congress in Delhi 2013) sharing honours with a new entrant (AAP both in Punjab and Delhi 2013) while there is a strong pitch from the principal opposition party (Amarinder led Congress in Punjab and BJP in Delhi 2013).
At this stage, our job as psephologists and pollsters comes to an end, but since an election narrative is rarely over without seat-share projections, we reluctantly convert vote-shares into seats. In the case of a very tight 3-cornered fight like Punjab, this exercise of seat conversion is even more fraught with danger so the following seat-shares are merely based on sub-regional hunches rather than any clear statistical models.
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A note on the 5Forty3 Punjab poll survey
This Punjab poll survey was conducted between Jan 24th and Jan 31st spread across 133 polling station areas (including swing polling booths) covering 27 specially chosen assembly segments of all the different electoral zones of the state. Our survey covered 153 geographic locations of 13 districts and had a target sample size of 3426, giving adequately weighted representation to various castes and socio-economic groups of both the rural and urban populace (see the below table).
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;
• Selection bias: Our methodology has possibly a near perfect selection probability, therefore this poll survey has produced one of the most robust results.
• Random Sampling Error: Since we have used a controlled random sampling methodology this problem has been almost completely negated; for instance, most pollsters simply use a randomized sample across the geography to arrive at findings, but our system has extensively used electoral rolls in conjecture with our own ethnic (caste) database as the sampling frame.
• Non-Response evaluation error: Most poll surveys completely ignore “no responses” and simply concentrate on the positive responses, which artificially inflates findings. Our system actually treats “no responses” as positive findings and assigns value to them, which adds a whole new dimension to understanding people’s choices.
Clear and precise questionnaires containing 45 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 a very frugal hit-rate of 130 rupees per response which is extremely economical considering the deep winter season in these north Indian regions (industry standard rates in India are roughly 200 to 270 rupees per response).