Politics and International Affairs and the quest for the ulterior motive.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Badal Cloudes Over Punjab
The keenly awaited results of the assembly elections in Punjab, Manipur and Uttrakhand threw no major surprises expect the manner in which the principal opposition party, the BJP, has been able to cement a victory to for the next government with allies the Akalis in Punjab and their own in Uttrakhand. The Punjab elections were of great interest with most poll pundits predicting a hung assembly. Unfortunately for chief minister Amrinder it was not to be and the Akalis have marched to an impressive tally of over 65 seats in the 117 member Punjab assembly. With this victory the Congress has held the 40-year-old tradition of not winning back-to-back election victories ever in Punjab intact.

The Punjab victory is certainly a reason to celebrate for the Akalis and the Badal clan. The Congress regime had seen the Badals in deep trouble over graft charges which some estimates put to over three thousand crores during their earlier rule. The father son duo had to spend time in solitary confinement, for which Sukhbir Badal, son of Prakash Singh Badal has never forgiven the Amrinder dispensation. The return of Prakash Singh Badal will mark his fourth stint in Punjab, but this victory can be mostly attributed to how son Sukhbir ran a spirited campaign. Sukhbir Badal has managed to pull off what many thought was impossible. In many ways, he has emulated what Uddhav Thackeray managed in the recently concluded Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation elections, where on paper the Shiv Sena was seen as a spent force. The loss of Narayan Rane and cousin Raj Thackeray had pollsters wondering how the Sena could stem the tide. However, Uddhav managed to prove his detractors wrong. In a similar way, Sukhbir Badal has craftily managed the campaign which saw much mud slinging from both sides. While liquor and money were the order of the day for both sides trying desperately to woo voters, ultimately, it was the manner in which the Akalis managed to portray the Maharaja and his rather indulgent lifestyle that ultimately took the toll on the Congress.

To give the devil its due, Amrinder did not perform badly as the Chief Minister. His regime saw the settling of the water dispute with Haryana, he did manage to offer a good Minimum Support Price to farmers and religious anniversaries including the 600th anniversary of the Khalsa were celebrated with much fanfare. Add to that the fact that the personal efforts of Amrinder helped in bringing the two Punjab’s across the borders closer and cemented greater trade interactions. However, the many pitfalls and the manner in which Amrinder ran his government and the influence of certain cronies ensured that any chance of re-election seemed dim. The Maharaja was in his office only twice a week; he traveled mostly by a helicopter and was more comfortable in his palace in Patiala rather than the rough and tumble of Punjab’s rural and religious political intricacies. Some major controversies including the alleged corruption charges for granting the construction of a mall in Ludhiana drew criticism, as did the proximity of the liquor and land mafia. More recently, the Congress government faced embarrassment when the incumbent DGP, S.S. Virk was removed on orders of the Election Commission for his partisan ways. The local Punjab unit of the Congress did not make things any easier for Amrinder. Sonia Gandhi’s move to curtail the Amrinder’s powers saw the removal of close aide H.S. Hanspal, as Punjab Congress president, who was succeeded by Shamsher Singh Dullo, a known Amrinder baiter. The calculation by the Congress at the time was that by installing a Dalit as the Congress state chief, the party could win back the support of the Dalits who seemed wary of Amrinder and were drifting towards the BSP. Further, by installing former chief minister Rajinder Kaur Bhattal as the deputy chief minister further ensured that there were too many centers of power in the ruling government and ultimately the poll prospects of the Congress took a beating.

Amrinder Singh, to his credit had been able to move the thrust of Punjab politics from religion to development. In his own words, Amrinder was quoted as saying that he was happy at the change in the focus from religion to roads. However, even with this plank the Congress could not better the Akalis and now it is for the Akalis to decide in which direction they want to take the politics of Punjab. There is no doubt that the cyclic change of governments between the Congress and the SAD is bound to witness another round of political vendetta. Analysts say that the new government is sure to raise some uncomfortable questions about the previous regimes conduct and witch hunting, as was done by the Congress, seems to be on the Akali minds now however much they deny it publicly. The Akalis will have to realize the importance of this victory. There is no doubt that the politics of Punjab has changed and rapid industrialization and the setting up SEZ’s will move focus away from religion based politics to one that is development oriented. Also the traditional revenue generator for the state seems to shifting from agriculture to industry, the Akalis will have to factor that in their policy formulation to remain popular with the electorate. The sooner Badal realizes this new reality, the longer they can stay in power.
The Punjab victory would not have been possible had the BJP not performed as well as they did this time around. The dismal show in the last elections ensured that the NDA combine sank without a trace. This time some smart political maneuvers by Arun Jaitely ensured that the BJP tally has gone up to a respectable 18. Coupled with the victory in Uttrakhand, where former union minister BC Khanduri is the favorite to succeed N.D. Tiwari, the BJP is on a high. However, the party must realize that before it breaks open the champagne the real challenge lies in U.P. and the general elections in 2009, where the party has a dismal chance of winning at the moment. Although, analysts will argue that two years is eternity in politics.