“We are suffering and the government is simply deaf to our woes” averred Surjeet Singh, a midsize farmer near the Bhagtawala grain market in Amritsar. He along with some 50 other farmers was sitting on an impromptu protest against the state government. A protest which had more than a 100 AAP activists and scores of journalists along with a few ward level Congress leaders. All these activists, onlookers, journalists etc. outnumbered the ‘protesting’ farmers by a ratio of 4:1. The main problem of these handful of farmers was that the local Arthiyas (agriculture commission agents) were paying only “1350 to 1400 rupees while the govt. MSP was fixed at 1510 rupees per quintal for paddy”.

At the outset, it appeared as if the government was suffering from the proverbial political disease of hubris which would hurt it horribly in an election year. Especially the noise that some of the activists and media people were creating was quite disconcerting. Just a few meters away, the scene was completely in contrast. Literally hundreds of farmers were passing through the grain market selling their paddy at 1700 rupees per quintal – almost 200 rupees more than the MSP!

That scene near Amritsar in early October is what defines the politics of today, especially the rent-a-morcha type of crowd politics that AAP has pioneered. The truth of paddy farmer unrest in Punjab was in reality quite a cynical game played by the opposition during the election season. The numbers told the true story (as is always the case in the noise filled Indian discourse).

Arthiyas were paying 1700 rupees to 1509 variety of fully ripe paddy which constituted 87% of all paddy that had arrived in the grain market till then! In clear numbers, 56690 out of 64954 metric tonnes of paddy that had arrived in the grain market was that of 1509 variety. In fact, FCI (Food Corporation of India) had clearly advised farmers to arrive with fully ripe and dry paddy to get full price for their produce, but a few anxious farmers (less than 13% of the total) had harvested their produce before the paddy had fully ripened and became fodder for opposition political protests.

In many ways this is the political scene in Punjab today, where every aspect of day-to-day life can metamorphose into a political protest because 3 to 4 different political entities are fiercely vying for power. These protestations are then getting amplified in the chaotic din of media and social media noise leveraged on large scale presence of NRI Punjabis. This is the reason why most outsiders believe that Punjab is a heavily drug addicted land of virtually no-governance or rule of law today. In fact, many ‘right-leaning’ voices and segments of BJP supportive ecosystem – who may have not even visited Punjab – keep harping on their perceived idea that the state needs “big change”.

In the middle of last month, the state government opened the ‘Dhanoa Pattan’ bridge built on the Beas river at a mere cost of 65 Crore rupees within a record time of 5 years. This is a bridge that not only connects two districts – Gurdaspur and Hoshiarpur – but also connects two different sub-regions of the state, namely, Majha and Doab. Virtually thousands of farmers of the region are ecstatic about this new overpass road connectivity because it facilitates movement of sugarcane from the waterlogged region to the Mukerian sugar factory. “This is the greatest boon that the government has bestowed upon us”, emphasized a sugarcane farmer in Gudaspur, “we had been crying for this since many decades as the Paniyar mill (small local sugar mill) is too small, now we can directly take our produce to Mukeriyan mill”. But for most of the outside world, that bridge on river Beas is a bridge too far and Punjab as a drug addicted land of lawlessness makes far more sense.

That Dhanoa Patan bridge story is merely symbolic of how political noise can drain real governance issues in these times of hyper political activism. Of course, there is anti-incumbency of a decade long government in the state. Sure there are disaffected masses in many parts of Punjab, but the attempt to paint the state as a total disaster does not resonate on the smooth highways that connect almost all major cities to the nearby towns and villages (on an average our team had found the state to have the best road connectivity in all of north India) or in precise and effective functioning of the state’s grain markets or even in the newly refurbished heritage city complex built around the Golden Temple of Amritsar which is a breathtakingly beautiful sight to behold.

The truth of Punjab’s anti-incumbency is somewhere in between the ruling government’s propaganda, the opposition’s noisy campaign and the Lutyen’s media’s make-believe doomsday narrative. For pollsters, it is important to find the right metrics to define the state of anti-incumbency, for that data eventually determines electoral trend. This is why we had prepared our team to discover the signal from layers and layers of noise about issues that matter to Punjabis today.

Employment & Jobs

As was the case in our 1st survey, the single biggest issue for the state’s voters is employment. In fact, this is the one issue that is hurting the SAD-BJP government the most. It is not as if the government hasn’t done enough in terms of providing “safe” government jobs, the problem really is that the state has failed in nurturing private sector jobs. As per estimates, 40% of Punjab’s total revenue receipts are spent on paying salaries and wages of the government employees and this is in addition to some 7767 Crore rupees spent on various retirement benefits!

Just before the 2012 election, the state government had regularized 45000 state employees which was probably one of the most underrated reasons for SAD-BJP bucking the anti-incumbency trend. This time around once again the government has adopted the same strategy. Just 2 weeks ago, the state cabinet decided to regularize 27000 contractual daily wage and temporary workers along with 15000 employees working on jobs outsourced to private companies. That is a whopping 42000 families and their dependents now potentially drafted into supporting the ruling party but at a debilitating cost of nearly 2000 Crore per annum to the state exchequer.

Will these last moment government largesse be enough? Consider this: for the last few months, ‘Contractual Employees Union’ of the state has been demanding regularization of some 1 lakh 30 thousand workers, whereas the government has only partially met that demand by regularizing only a 4th of those. Now, the remaining disaffected workers are considering other “political options”.

In fact, this is where BJP as the smaller partner in the state government has failed because it has not been able to impart an economic philosophy for the Akali led government. This is why among all the relatively developed and prosperous states like Gujarat, Tamil Nadu or Maharashtra, Punjab is the least industrialized and also the state with the least exposure to IT and allied services industries. Thus, even today, despite high levels of urbanization, the state has made only rudimentary transformation from an agrarian economy to government-job economy which has left large swaths of the state economically dismembered.

The signs are quite ominous for the Badals as new voter registration data shows. Muktsar, the home district of the Chief Minister and Bhatinda represented by Harsimrat Kaur have seen the lowest new voter registrations in the state. As of now, 4.75 lakh new voters have been registered in Punjab and 2.25 lakh of those are first time voters belonging to the 18-19 age group. There are also 2.5 lakh voters belonging to the 20-29 bracket. It is these young voters who are possibly going through a sense of hopelessness and may end up becoming an albatross around the ruling party’s neck.

Agrarian problems & drug addiction

From our first survey of July to our present survey in October, the primacy of agrarian problems has almost halved (from 15% to 8%). On the other hand, the issue of drug addiction which had not found any significant mention in our first survey (less than 6%), is now finding traction with nearly 13% respondents. This is indeed a fascinating exercise of understanding voter behaviour. It shows us how people’s distress changes relatively.

Most farmers in July were anxious about their paddy and there was a general sense of apprehension among the rural populace, but after the harvest season in October even as the grain markets and the state government handled the selling of the winter produce adequately, the same farmers & rural population, with cash in hand, now tend to believe that the agrarian problems stand mitigated.

In clear contrast is the issue of drug menace which is now finding greater resonance among voters and it could be because of 2 factors;

  1. The issue of drug menace is mostly construed as a “luxury” problem by the Punjabi society. Thus, for instance, once their agrarian issues are solved they tend to identify with the next level of problems like the drug menace
  2. The constant media narrative and the opposition campaign could be having its effect into force-believing that there is a supposedly ‘massive drug addiction’ problem in the state

Punjabi identity

This is indeed a complex item among the voter woes that is hardly understood by most demographers. Since the post terrorism phase of 1980’s, Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) has been the pivot that has maintained the crucial balance of Punjabi identity without pandering to excessive separatist philosophy. That tenuous balance has been under stress for the last couple of years. For instance, the Sarbat Khalsa of last year called by some former Khalistani sympathizers has tried to create a parallel Panthic representative body which is further augmented by AAP kind of politics that has pandered to pro-Khalistan entities both here in Punjab and among non-resident Punjabis abroad.

Most Hindu and Sikh voters do underscore the importance of the Akali-Sant Samaj alliance to maintain SGPC (Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee) as the sole representative body of Panthic Sikhs and are averse to any tinkering of that balance. Once again another attempt to organize a Sarbat Khalsa in Talwandi Sabo by some former Khalistanis like Baljit Singh Dadhuwal and Bhai Mokam Singh (incidentally both have had brief flirtations with AAP since 2014) has been thwarted by the state government for now. If many ‘separatist’ and ‘self-rule’ voices are heard once again this year in and around the Sarbat Khalsa, then many ordinary Sikhs and Hindus of the state would be left with little choice but to support SAD-BJP alliance in order to maintain the sanctity of the Punjab state.

In this milieu of Punjabi identity crisis has emerged the AAP phenomenon which for long has flirted with Khalistanis and then lost its way with Panthic Sikhs by a series of missteps starting from the AAP manifesto controversy to ending up with the sacking of the party’s big Panthic Punjabi face in the form of Sucha Singh Chotepur. Even AAP’s own volunteer groups strongly believe that Arvind Kejriwal will be the Chief Minister if the party comes to power which has created a strong divide with the Punjabi versus non-Punjabi debate taking the center stage. Indeed, this hugely emotional debate over Punjabi v/s Haryanvi has taken a big toll on Arvind Kejriwal’s own popularity in the state as is clearly evident in our poll finding.

Captain Amrinder Singh is by far the most popular leader in Punjab today as he has a solid 13-point advantage over Prakash Singh Badal. Clearly, the 10 year anti-incumbency seems to be hurting the senior Badal as surprisingly even 63% of BJP voters too are not choosing him as their primary face of leadership. In fact, today, Amrinder Singh’s popularity surpasses that of his party and yet the Congress high command has not announced him as their official CM candidate which also underlines the problems of a heavily Gandhi-pariwar dominated party that cannot tolerate any other leader of stature.

Interestingly, the approval rating of central govt. has not only increased but also has gained in terms of enthusiasm from the voters after the surgical strikes whereas the state government’s approval rating has remained more or less stagnant in 3 months – it was at 51% in July and it is hovering around 53% today. Our past studies have shown that usually a below 50% rating is indicative of high anti-incumbency whereas pro-incumbency generally becomes electorally significant when the approval ratings cross the 60th percentile. To that extent, the ruling government seems to be stuck in a “twilight zone” of voter approval.

Arvind Kejriwal has lost a lot of fizz in just the last 3 months. Since our last survey in July, almost a third his support as the CM candidate has been wiped out. That is a huge number considering the precarious dynamics of the state’s election scenario, for now he no longer represents the angst of Punjab or the protest vote that was tired of both the mainstream parties. What is more, many even among AAP voters no longer support him as the CM candidate as they did so overwhelmingly just a few months ago. There are possibly 4 big reasons for the decline of Kejriwal’s popularity in Punjab;

  1. The Punjabi versus non-Punjabi divide is very much existential in state politics today which has also deeply affected AAP as a party because there have been largescale rebellions against Delhi observers, so much so that AAP was forced to remove all its Delhi inducted zonal chiefs and instead make space for local leaders. In fact, this whole “outsider” politics is getting further accentuated in the case of Kejriwal because of his Haryanvi-Bania origins which is playing directly into the SYL dispute and the accession of Chandigarh debate.
  2. The way AAP’s Delhi heavy leadership has handled the Punjabi sentiments both in terms of religion (the AAP manifesto fiasco) and in terms of local leadership (Sucha Singh Chotepur incident was just the tip of the iceberg) has deeply dented the state’s faith in this former anti-corruption activist. This falling graph is also visible in the lack of enthusiasm from the NRI crowd in recent weeks.
  3. Kejriwal’s horribly ill-timed questioning of surgical strikes has left a deep-rooted angst among ordinary Punjabis where every second family has some sort of army connection or the other
  4. In this heavily connected world where news travels faster than political campaigns, the series of mal-governance issues of Delhi government have created many doubts about Kejriwal’s own competence which has hit hard at the very viability of his brand of politics

Where does Punjab stand today?

In the 2012 assembly elections, ruling SAD-BJP alliance had surprised all political observers, pundits & pollsters by bucking the anti-incumbency trend for the first time and retaining the state with a mere 2 percentage point advantage over Congress which had given the saffron alliance a clear majority. Almost 5 years down the line, it appears as if the needle hasn’t moved at all. Both the main contenders for power seem to be shadowing each other in terms of vote-shares as the trend line clearly shows. Both Congress and NDA (SAD-BJP alliance) have lost a bit of their base to AAP and other parties, but are essentially tied in a gridlock.

Of course, since our last survey in July, Congress seems to be breaking out into a clear lead which now stands at 3% – we must remember that such a lead could well be enough for a simple majority as was evident in the last election. Yet, 3% is also the standard expected margin of error that our poll comes with (i.e.) Congress, although has a slight advantage, may still end up being tied with SAD-BJP due to statistical margin of errors if the elections are held right now.

For an almost dying Congress party this could be an absolute lifeline purely because of the charisma of Captain Amrinder Singh. The problem though is that the high command may hesitate to declare him as the CM candidate which could potentially create a lot of confusion among the rank and file as was the case in all the hara-kiri of 2012.

On the other hand, decline of AAP seems to be following a set pattern as we had projected in our July survey. Soon after distribution of tickets, large number of small local political leaders who had joined the party began to drift away along with their set of followers and this exodus also took away the “protest vote” which was accruing to the party until then. The removal of Sucha Singh Chotepur which essentially meant largescale desertions by many zonal chiefs of the party further accentuated AAP’s decline. As things stand today, AAP is no longer a contender for power and it is slowly emerging as a 3rd party spoiler.

For instance, in the highly urbanized Chandigarh neighbourhood of Mohali (SAS Nagar) and Kharar assembly seats, AAP has announced advocate Himmat Singh Shergill and Kanwar Sandhu as the respective candidates. Both these seats are represented by the Congress party in the current assembly and both the sitting MLA’s are quite popular with their constituents. In fact, Balbir Singh Sidhu had won the Mohali seat by a big margin of nearly 17k votes in the 2012 election. Today both these seats are witnessing a triangular contest which may actually help the ruling party because of division of anti-incumbency vote!

This is a familiar pattern for Sukhbir Singh Badal who is working overtime to eke out an impossible victory from the jaws of defeat as he so successfully did in 2012 through another 3rd party spoiler in the form of PPP of Manpreet Badal. In the last few days, for instance, Badal has systematically targeted Ravidassiyas who form an important Dalit subsect in the state. Two powerful Congress Dalit leaders belonging to the Ravidassiya sect – Kabir Das and Seth Satpal Mall – were inducted into SAD last week. Both the leaders are known as “right hand men” of chief of Dera Sachkhand Ballan who control nearly 80% of Ravidassiyas in the state. Dera Ballan’s support essentially means some 8 to 10 lakh fixed votes in districts like Kapurthala, Hoshiarpur, Jalandhar and Nawanshahar.

Realizing that his party may face some losses in Malwa region, the junior Badal is wooing Dalits and other non-Panthic Deras, especially in the Doab region. His efforts seem to be yielding some results too, as our poll shows a reasonable performance by the saffron alliance in this Congress stronghold region known for high percentage of Dalit votes and NRIs. In fact, even in the 2012 election, this strategy had yielded spectacular results as the SAD-BJP alliance had managed to win 24 of the 34 SC reserved seats of the state by selectively targeting Dalit-backward vote as addendum to their core base of Panthic Sikhs & upper castes. Yet, for SAD-BJP to have a definite chance they need 6 factors to work in their favour;

  • The saffron alliance must aggressively and creatively woo the Deras, especially the Dera Sacha Sauda and the Radha Soami Satsang who between them cover a massive vote-base of at least 3 million unwavering voters. Here BJP’s role also could be crucial (over the last month, many BJP ruled states like Rajasthan have given 100% tax rebate to Messenger of God movie series of Gurmeet Singh Ram Rahim which has endeared him and his followers to saffron brigade)
  • Navjot Singh Sidhu could potentially emerge as the key to 2017. If Sidhu forms an alliance with the Congress party, the latter in all likelihood will sweep the state. But if Sidhu joins a 4th front like outfit along with many former AAP groups, the resultant 4th pole may well further divide opposition votes and give the ruling alliance a golden opportunity to create a historic hatrick
  • Akalis must sacrifice some of their urban seats and give a larger pool of tickets to BJP in order to cash in on the latter’s new found popularity due to surgical strikes and hyper nationalism
  • Prakash Singh Badal must be marketed as the last standing patriarch of the Sikh society. A clear emotional campaign by the senior Badal with associate cross platform narrative is needed to refurbish the saffron alliance in the state
  • BJP still needs to wake up and counter the massive online & media propaganda by the opposition. It has to leverage its vast network of supporters and create an alternate narrative before time runs out
  • Ticket distribution is now a very crucial exercise for the ruling alliance, especially because of 4-cornered contests in most of the seats

A note on the 5Forty3 Punjab poll survey

This Punjab poll survey was conducted between October 15th and October 24th spread across 91 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 114 geographic locations of 13 districts and had a target sample size of 3410, 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;

  • 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 61 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 125 rupees per response which is much lower even for the historically cost effective team 5Forty3 (industry standard rates in India are roughly 200 to 270 rupees per response).

P.S: Vote-share to seat-share conversion in India is at best a guesswork based on multiple variables. There are no statistical models to project seats from votes, but since most election analysis would be incomplete without seat allocation, we place the seat-share chart at the end as an addendum. The margin of error does not hold true for seat-shares as it is not a mathematical exercise of probability in itself.

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