Decoded: Punjab 2017

“Sab Sikhan ko hukam hai Guru Maneyo Granth.”
-        Guru Gobind Singh

On the morning of October 12, 2015, an incident in the otherwise nondescript village of Bargari in Faridkot district set all of Punjab into frenzy - worshippers at the local Gurudwara had found tattered pages from the Guru Granth Sahib strewn across the streets. In a state that had been formed to protect the interests of the Sikhs, the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib, the eleventh Guru of the Sikhs, outraged the local population. Two protesters eventually succumbed to injuries following a conflict with the state police. 

Curiously, a few days later, a similar incident was reported from Tarn Taran district. In the ensuing months, similar incidents followed in Bathinda, Muktsar, Ferozepur and Ludhiana. A week ago, desecration was reported in Lambi, the constituency of the sitting Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal himself. 

The Punjab election story, as it appears today, is about the disintegration of the ruling NDA’s vote bank.


Punjab has historically been a two-horse race between the Congress and the BJP-Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) combine. The Congress is the home of the Dalits, lower classes and the urban voters. The SAD, one of the nation’s oldest political movements, meanwhile stands for regional and Sikh pride – it spearheaded the movement for creating a separate Sikh Punjab. Since then, it has dominated rural Punjab, driven by the radical Sikh Panthic voter base (especially the landowning Jat Sikh caste that the Badals belong to). The BJP, a side player at best, draws its support from urban, trading class Hindus. 

Until 2012, Punjab voted in cycles of anti-incumbency, with the Akalis and the Congress taking alternate turns at forming government. In the 2012 election, the Badals pulled off an upset to retain power, aided by populist government schemes and the presence of marginal third parties that split the anti-incumbency vote with the Congress. 

Five years since the 2012 elections, things in Punjab have turned around. The Akalis are now at the end of increasing anti-incumbency.

  • Despite what the Akalis contend, drug usage and addiction have become increasingly common – the Chief Minister’s own son-in-law Bikram Singh Majithia is often alleged to be the man behind the racket.
  • The underground water table has plummeted ever since the government subsidized electricity for farmers, allowing them to overuse tube wells and tap underground reserves for lower costs. Agriculture is therefore in a crisis. 
  • The NDA Government has doling out subsidies and freebies since 2007. For instance, more than half of Punjab’s population receives subsidized food, though poverty is only at 6.16%. This sort of excessive generosity has hit the state’s finances, to the extent that the government is struggling to pay its employees.
  • Punjab’s once-thriving industries are now fleeing the state. Already facing competition from cheaper Chinese imports, Punjab’s industries also have to deal with higher taxes (to make up for poor state finances) and high electricity bills (to subsidize electricity for agriculture). 

These were the kind of issues that allowed AAP to enter Punjab in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, converting a historically two-horse race into a three-sided slugfest. Even today, the drug trade and unemployment are the AAP’s biggest campaign pitches. It has allowed the party to split the anti-incumbent votes with the Congress – some sections looking to overthrow the Akalis have chosen the Congress, while some have chosen the AAP. Ordinarily, such a situation would have , but what makes 2017 particularly interesting is that the AAP has managed to crack the SAD’s Panthic vote bank. These voters, already upset by the desecrations taking place under the nose of their own government, cannot vote for the Congress given its history as the party that ordered Operation Bluestar and led the 1984 Anti-Sikh Riots. The AAP makes the perfect substitute – and its leaders have been flirting with Sikh radicals, especially among the NRIs, ever since 2014. This election, as I said previously, depends on the extent to which these voters desert the NDA.


The rural heartland of Punjab, Malwa is home to both the Badals and Amarinder Singh’s royal family of Patiala. With 69 of Punjab’s 117 assembly segments, it accounts for a lion’s share of Punjab’s assembly seats. In 2014, the AAP showed its dominance here by leading in 34 of the 69 assembly seats, winning in the Lok Sabha seats of Patiala, Sangrur, Faridkot and Fatehgarh Sahib. In Sangrur, for instance, AAP won more than 50% of the vote share in five of the nine constituencies.

The AAP pulled off a shock win in Patiala by defeating Preneet Kaur, Captain’s wife, from her own hometown of Patiala. This time around, Patiala is in particular danger of defecting to the Congress, especially after the suspension of Patialas’s AAP MP Dharamvira Gandhi. The same holds true for Fatehgarh Sahib, post Kejriwal’s suspension of its MP Harinder Singh Khalsa.

District-by –district, therefore, the AAP is strong in Bhatinda, Faridkot, Sangrur, Mansa and Barnala while Congress is counting on seats in Fazilka, Muktsar, Patiala, Mohali, Fatehgarh Sahib and Ludhiana. The Congress strategy for Malwa has been to field its heavyweights in strategic constituencies and count on a ripple effect of their candidature in the assembly segments adjoining their own.

Congress Candidate
Assembly Segment
Ravneet Singh Bittu
Captain Amarinder Singh
Captain Amarinder Singh
Sunil Jakhar
Rajinder Kaur Bhattal
Vijay Inder Singla
Manpreet Singh Badal
Bathinda Urban

During the last week or so of the campaign, the Congress has pulled out all stops in Malwa. Rahul Gandhi, for example, has been campaigning in the following areas - Majitha, Jalalabad, Lambi, Rampura Phul, Talwandi Sabo, Bathinda Urban, Budhlada and Dhuri. Barring Majitha, the rest are all in Malwa. 

In both 2007 and 2012, however, both the NDA and the Congress were neck-to-neck in Malwa. The road to victory lay, instead, through the other two regions of Doaba and Majha.


Located between the rivers Satluj and Beas, Doaba has 23 seats across Jalandhar, Hoshiarpur, Kapurthala, Nawanshahr and parts of Roopnagar district. Dalits form close to 45% of the population in this region, and have voted for Mayawati’s BSP in the past two elections, causing the Congress to face a near-meltdown. In both 2007 and 2012, the Congress was whitewashed in this region, winning merely 4 seats in the first and 6 seats in the second. 

In the 2014 elections, the AAP led in only two segments in this region, but got a respectable vote share (20-30%) in at least 18 others. These eighteen seats are the primary field of expansion for the AAP in Punjab. Given the Congress’s lack of senior Dalit leaders (barring the Chaudharys), the Dalit votes are up for grabs – and the AAP has been aggressively courting them, with the announcement of a Dalit Deputy Chief Minister. Doaba is also the home of a majority of Punjab’s 12 million NRIs, who have been aggressively backing the AAP this election – 2,500 of them have been personally canvassing for the party. 


This region, composed of Tarn Taran, Gurdaspur, Amritsar and Pathankot districts, counts for 25 seats. An erstwhile SAD stronghold (due to the strong Panthic influence exerted by proximity to Amritsar), this region is poised to vote overwhelmingly for the Congress, following Navjot Singh Siddhu’s entry. 

The AAP has found little traction here – during the 2014 Lok Sabha Election, AAP got a voteshare of around 12% and stood third in all of Majha’s 25 assembly segments. It’s been all downhill for the party since then, with its 2014 candidate for the Amritsar Lok Sabha constituency also joining the Congress and its former Punjab convenor Sucha Singh Chhotepur being expelled from it. Among is few hopes are Batala constituency, where the newly-appointed Punjab convenor Gurpreet Singh Ghuggi is contesting and Majithia constituency where Himmat Singh Shergil is fighting Bikram Singh Majithia (the alleged lynchpin of Punjab’s drug trade). Anything short of a wave election will see the AAP perform poorly in this region.


SAD Votebase

The election results in Punjab may end up boiling down to this one factor – the extent to which the SAD’s core Panthic votebank in rural Punjab has cracked. If the party loses too many voters to the AAP, the latter is all set to sweep. If the Akalis retain the support of the majority, the Congress will benefit.

Source: CSDS-Lokniti Survey
As observed in the graphic above, Punjab is particularly prone to letting the hawa – the public perception of which party is winning - affect its voting choices. The idea is that voters do not like ‘wasting’ their vote on a losing candidate and are likely to vote for a back-up option if they sense that their favored party is likely to lose. Many erstwhile Akali supporters may thus vote for the AAP, given the formers bleak prospects in these elections. 

Voter turnout may actually be the best indicator of how this factor plays out - a lower turnout may indicate that disaffected Akali supporters have chosen not to exercise their vote at all, rather than vote for the AAP. The Congress would benefit – it does not need to depend upon the votes of erstwhile Akali supporters, having its own loyal votebase (no opinion poll has shown its support slipping beneath 32%).

Derai Politics

Desecration is not the only incident that has caused heartburn among the Akali’s panthic vote base. In 2015, the SAD offended its voters by expressed its support for a pardon to Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh (of MSG fame), who had offended Sikh sentiments in 2007 by donning clothes similar to those worn by Guru Gobind Singh. 


Because Dera Sacha Sauda, the religious organization headed by Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, has about 35 lakh followers across Punjab. 

Punjab’s elections are heavily influenced by religious organizations like this one, the deras as they are called. The gurus heading these deras have devotees whose numbers run into hundreds of thousands, devotees whose votes they can easily influence. To give an example of the influence they cast, the following is table of the election results in the Malwa region of Punjab.

2007 Assembly Elections
2012 Assembly Elections

The difference in the two results can be explained by one important factor – the Congress won support from the Dera Sacha Sauda in 2007, while it was the NDA in 2012. 

This time too, the Dera is supporting the NDA. There are two possible ways in which this may impact electoral outcomes - 

  • In addition to attracting new voters, the Dera’s support may also have a broader ripple effect. Elections are not only determined by the number of supporters a political party’s ideology has, but also their level of motivation. A Panthic voter in rural Punjab, who has already resigned himself to the SAD’s loss, may not even turn up to vote or may end up voting for the AAP. The Dera’s announcement will help cut such losses. In such a scenario, the Congress may benefit. 
  • On the other hand, given how controversial the Dera is, it could consolidate the already disenchanted Panthic voters against the NDA and towards the AAP. 

The Dera Sacha Sauda, while the largest, is only one of the many deras that influence voting patterns. Some may even have given their verdict through their followers, away from the media hype.

BJP Voters

When the results for the Lok Sabha elections trickled in on 16th May, 2014, there was one Congressman who had reason to smile – Amarinder Singh. He had defeated Arun Jaitley in Amritsar, a city that had voted in the BJP in both 2004 and 2009. Consider the implications of this result –the Congress managed to steal an urban seat from the BJP, at a time when nearly all of India had turned saffron. And this was no ordinary competitor –everyone knew Jaitley would be an important minister in a BJP Government that was certain to be formed. 

Delving deeper into the campaign, three major inferences can be drawn from this single election result –

  •   Sidestepping its tallest Sikh leader Navjot Singh Sidhu to promote Jaitley cost the BJP
  • As an ex-army man, Amarinder Singh may be the natural second choice for erstwhile BJP voters.
  • The BJP lost because of the extensive Badal campaign for Jaitley, and not due to a lack of enthusiasm for Jaitley’s candidature. It indicates how deeply unpopular the Akalis have become with even BJP voters.

As a minor party, BJP has the lowest stakes in these elections - and it has entirely given up hopes of retaining it. This is evident from the lackluster campaign it has run, with the Prime Minister barely addressing two rallies for it. This time around, it is almost entirely certain that the BJP votebank will crack -

  • Demonetization has most adversely affected the Banias, the urban Hindu trading class. The Banias form the backbone of the BJP’s support base and are likely to abandon it.
  • It has already lost Navjot Singh Sidhu to the Congress
  • Its state unit is mired in internal squabbling, with the state unit chief Vijay Sampla apparently threatening to resign.
  • Anti-incumbency against Badals, already strong in 2014, will peak this time around.
  • NDA’s certain defeat: As described previously, if BJP voters are convinced that the party will not win in 2017, they may vote for other alternatives

The BJP voters are likely to swing towards the Congress, as contradictory as it sounds. In fact, there have even been reports of the RSS machinery covertly aiding the Congress, out of a desire to keep the AAP out of power. The unlikely alternative that some sections of the media have been claiming is that the Banias may rally behind the AAP because Kejriwal himself is a Bania. Given that the BJP barely contests three seats in all of Malwa, the effect of any such movement will be best observed in Majha, in the BJP bastions of Pathankot and Gurdaspur.

Khalistan and Terrorism

There is something rotten in the state of Punjab – and everyone knows that. Aside from the suspicious string of desecration incidents, a lot of noise has been made this time around about the AAP’s support base among NRI Khalistanis. The recent blast at a Congress rally in Bathinda district has only made these rumors seem more real. How this will play out is anyone’s guess – one possibility is that it may galvanize the Hindu votebank (that bore the brunt of the previous Khalistani agitations) and the moderate Sikhs into supporting the Congress.

Punjab is the most interesting of the  five states that are going to election in the next few months. A Congress victory, the first since May 2013, could spark the party's resurgence while a victory for the AAP could cement its future in the Indian polity. For Punjab, the stakes are far greater: given the explosive situation the state is in, political uncertainty in the coming months may spark a return of the  unrest witnessed in the 1980s and 90s. In a state where religious extremism, separatism, drugs and terrorism coincide, the current political deadlock between the Congress and the AAP portends ill.

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