Why Punjab is so important
Of the five states going to the polls in this round of Assembly elections, the big focus is quite naturally on Uttar Pradesh. That is the state that sends 80 MPs to the Centre, and conventional wisdom has it that the road to the Centre is via the Hindi heartland. Conventional wisdom is correct, which is why Prime Minister Narendra Modi contested the last Lok Sabha elections from Varanasi and pollsters call the UP election a semi-final for 2019.
But conventional wisdom now comes with an appendage—if the road to governing the Centre is via Uttar Pradesh, then the road to opposing the Centre is via Punjab. For whichever party is able to wrest Punjab from the Badals will hold the mantle of a credible Opposition. If it’s the Congress, then Rahul Gandhi gains some heft (more so if he is able to piggyback on a Samajwadi Party win in Uttar Pradesh). But if it’s the Aam Aadmi Party, then Arvind Kejriwal will prove that he is a much more viable alternative to take on PM Modi.
Currently, the Congress is in power in only six states and shares power in two others. Of the six states, three are from the Northeast, two are small hill states (of which Uttarakhand is going to the polls in the current round of Assembly elections), leaving Karnataka as its only big state.
Currently, AAP only has Delhi, but if it wins Punjab and becomes the main Opposition party in Goa, then it gains considerable opposition clout. More so, because in the recent past—post 2014 Lok Sabha polls—whenever the Congress has fought the BJP, be it in Maharashtra, Haryana or even Assam, it has lost. It was Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav (and not Rahul Gandhi) who are credited for the BJP defeat in Bihar and Arvind Kejriwal who defeated both the BJP and the Congress in Delhi. This is why Punjab suddenly saw a spate of belated activity by the Congress vice president in the last leg of its campaign. Rahul Gandhi was missing when the party released its manifesto, leaving the honours to Dr Manmohan Singh and Captain Amarinder Singh. He played petty politics by trying to pitch Navjot Singh Sidhu against the Captain, only to reluctantly declare the latter as the Congress CM face when it became apparent that it was the Captain and not Sidhu who was the more popular face. He did this barely 10 days before polling day. If the Congress loses Punjab to the Aam Admi Party, then that may be the end of the Captain’s political innings, but it will also ring a warning bell for Rahul Gandhi. I am not saying that a loss in Punjab will stop Rahul Gandhi’s elevation as party president—for he is a Nehru-Gandhi and that name comes with its own Employment Guarantee Scheme. But it will sorely dent his credibility to take on the BJP. Rahul has been taking the lead in the campaign against demonetisation, but how credible is your rhetoric if you don’t have electoral deliverables to back it? And even if the SP-Congress alliance wins in Uttar Pradesh, the credit for that will go to Akhilesh Yadav, not Rahul Gandhi. A BJP loss in Uttar Pradesh holds it own narrative for Prime Minister Modi and his hold over the government. But for the state of the Opposition, it is Punjab that is the more important election.