Congress leaders were probably not prepared for taxing political signals surfacing from Punjab. Political drama kicked by Punjab’s Congress Chief Navjot Singh Sidhu and a recent opinion poll survey, predicting Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) gaining more votes than other parties in coming state polls certainly demand deliberation on what is really suggested by these factors? Undeniably, both pose a major headache for Congress leaders. At present, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is apparently not too concerned about being ignored by Punjabi voters. However, the party would certainly feel pleased if Congress loses command here too.
If Congress key leaders thought that handing party’s state reins in Sidhu’s hands would satisfy him and he’d quietly work in the party’s interest, they definitely erred. His game-plan is directed towards boosting his own political image, irrespective of whether this helps the party or not. Division and intra-party bickering, targeting Captain Amarinder Singh, are least likely to be of any help to Sidhu’s desire of assuming office as Punjab’s chief minister. Prospects of such moves of Sidhu being of any help for Congress may also be viewed as extremely limited. Rather, chances of Sidhu spoiling his own political record cannot be ignored.
It is not without any reason that his recent attempt to meet Congress leaders in Delhi failed. One may say, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra have understood Sidhu’s limitations against Captain’s political hold in Punjab. Therefore, rather than annoy Captain and go overboard to please Sidhu, they have reversed this strategy – which had led to latter’s selection as PCC chief. Sidhu was thus recently not granted appointment to meet them, which is being projected as their having “sidelined,” “shunned” him, giving him “cold-shoulder,” and so forth.
Sidhu may not perhaps ever get over his political animosity against Captain. Neither is the latter expected to let Sidhu have his way against him. Despite some leaders trying to dismiss “rumours” about intra-party friction between the two, attempts being made to resolve their crisis suggest otherwise.
Nevertheless, there is little doubt that key Congress leaders seem to have come to terms with nature of problems which can be posed by Sidhu. At present, he has apparently been given the signal that they will not yield to him any further. Clearly, they would not have taken a tough stand of this nature without being warned on possible loss and gains in store for Congress by ignoring Captain and instead giving importance to Sidhu. Besides, the fact that Captain is a senior Congress leader as well as a veteran politician in his native state cannot be sidelined. Against his background, prior to joining Congress, Sidhu was a BJP member and had earlier also reportedly deliberated upon options of moving towards AAP.
At present, Congress leaders have apparently exercised caution as they cannot afford to alienate Captain and diminish their electoral prospects in Punjab assembly. In this context, they have probably been fairly shocked by a recent opinion poll survey which predicts a hung assembly in Punjab with AAP emerging as the single largest party.
Frankly speaking, it is as yet too early to take any opinion poll survey seriously. Prospects of voters changing their mind at the last minute cannot be ignored. As per the ABP-CVoter-IANS opinion poll, AAP is projected to win 35.1% votes, Congress-28.8%, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)-21.8% and BJP-7.3% votes in Punjab. This may lead to a hung house, with AAP winning 51 to 57 seats, Congress- 38 to 46 seats, SAD – 16 to 24 and BJP – 0 to 1 seat. The survey was conducted in August.
This survey predicts a huge jump for AAP, from 20 seats (23.3% votes) and a downswing for Congress from 77 seats (38.64% votes) in 2017. If one goes by this survey, the key battle seems to be between Congress and AAP and not what it has normally been, that is Congress vs. SAD. Undeniably, AAP is keen on spreading its wings beyond Delhi. However, so far the party’s success has been primarily confined to Delhi Assembly. During state elections, voters tend to give greater importance to their regional leaders than national. Not too long ago, all attempts of BJP national leaders including Prime Minister Narendra Modi failed to break Mamata Bannerjee and her party’s command in West Bengal. It may be recalled, Modi even tried donning the image of Bengal icon, Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore but had no luck. In this context, limitation of Kejriwal’s appeal to Delhi cannot be ignored.
Besides, failure of AAP to open its account in Haryana and Maharashtra assembly elections (2019) cannot be sidelined. Kejriwal’s roots can be traced to Haryana, with this being his birth place. But his Haryanvi-linkage had little impact on turning the tide in AAP’s favour.
Clearly, Congress as well as Akali Dal leaders from this state have a stronger appeal for Punjabi voters than of parties, the image of which is strongly associated with other states. Nevertheless, the opinion poll does demand an analysis. As mentioned earlier, it is as yet too early to take such polls seriously. Equally significant is sample of this poll. Statistically, less than 0.05 percentage of the voters’ opinion was taken during this survey. The issue is not simply the number of people interviewed but the fact that they may not represent even a percentage of Punjab’s population cannot be dismissed. This reality is not based on Punjab’s population (28 million) of which around 13,000 were interviewed but more on its ethnic diversity and state’s population density, which is 551 per sq km. The national average of population density is 382 per sq km. The state’s land area is 50,362 sq km.
No opinion poll survey is expected to be based on a significant percentage of population. Given India’s size and population, this is practically impossible. Besides, larger samples may not reduce margins of error, owing to this country’s multi-party system and ethnic diversity, including several religions, numerous castes and so forth.
Statistics apart, limited success of AAP outside Delhi makes it a little difficult to predict its success in Punjab. Prospects of it cutting into vote-banks of Akali Dali cannot be dismissed. Paradoxically, while the survey sees a decline in SAD’s votes (from 30.7% in 2017 to 21.8%), a major change in seats has not been predicted. The party won 18 in 2017 and is expected to gain at least 16 in the coming elections.
If other surveys predict similar results in the coming days, they may boost AAP’s political image in Punjab, something which Congress is least likely to welcome.
At present, Sidhu appears to have understood that his political tantrums against Captain Amarinder Singh are not being welcomed by Congress high command. He has been reportedly asked to keep “quiet”. And so he has, with roughly a week having passed by since his being vocal against Captain. Hopefully, Sidhu has understood that he has been appointed PCC chief for the party’s success in Punjab and not to sideline Captain. Clearly, Congress cannot afford intra-party bickering to damage its own image!
Nilofar Suhrawardy is a senior journalist and writer with specialization in communication studies and nuclear diplomacy. She has come out with several books. These include:– Modi’s Victory, A Lesson for the Congress…? (2019); Arab Spring, Not Just a Mirage! (2019), Image and Substance, Modi’s First Year in Office (2015) and Ayodhya Without the Communal Stamp, In the Name of Indian Secularism (2006).