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Home > News > Columnists > Sushant Sareen

Lessons from urban Punjab for the Congress

March 13, 2007

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Clearly, the real story to emerge from the election results in Punjab is the remarkable performance of the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party combine in the urban seats which were generally considered a bastion of the Congress party.

Hindu-dominated urban Punjab has never been a major supporter of the Akali Dal, which drew its support primarily from the farming community, mostly Jat Sikhs.

If ever there was a logic for an alliance between the Akalis and BJP then it derived from their representing entirely different constituencies, something that helped both allies. But never before, except perhaps in 1977, did non-Congress political parties sweep urban Punjab like they have done in this election. Indeed, more than the disappointment over being booted out of office, it is the loss of the urban seats that has shocked the Congress.

What has also set alarm bells ringing in the Congress is the resurgence of the BJP which won 19 out of the 23 seats it contested. But so far it appears that the Congress has failed to correctly identify the reasons for its rout in urban Punjab.

The standard excuse being given for its disastrous performance is inflation. Rising prices, particularly of foodstuff, is certainly a very important reason for disillusionment with the Congress. But then the former chief minister, Captain Amarinder Singh, is quite right in pointing out that if this was the primary reason for the defeat of the party then this factor should also manifest itself in the results in rural areas, where incidentally the Congress managed to win back some seats, especially in the Malwa belt.

Another reason for the Congress loss is infighting within the party and rebel candidates who cut into the votes of official party candidates. As far as Malwa is concerned, two reasons are being given for the good showing of the Congress: one, the 'fatwa' issued by a religious sect to its followers to support the Congress; and two, anti-incumbency against sitting legislators, most of who belonged to the Akali Dal. While there is certainly some weight in these explanations, and the anti-incumbency factor would have also affected Congress candidates in urban areas, it still doesn't explain the voting pattern in urban Punjab adequately.

One hint of what actually happened in urban Punjab came in an analysis that put the blame on the Congress policy of going all out to make a dent int the Akali vote-bank in rural Punjab and in the process neglecting its own support base in urban Punjab. If correct, then this neglect of the predominantly Hindu voter by the Congress was compounded by the social, economic and communal politics of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government in the Centre which ultimately resulted in a severe backlash from the Hindu voter.

Ever since the Congress returned to power in Delhi, its policies and politics have gravitated towards restoring its old vote bank comprising of Brahmins, Dalits and Muslims. Blatant appeasement of the Muslims has become an article of faith for the party, and this was first reflected in the reservation of five per cent seats for Muslims in Andhra Pradesh. Even though the courts have held communal reservations to be unconstitutional, the party has insisted on going through with the measure. This was followed by a sinister campaign to extend the benefits of reservations to 'Dalit' Muslims and Christians. Finally, an old lackey of the Congress was used to prepare a report on the state of backwardness of the Muslim community so that the government could use this report to initiate special measures for uplifting the community.

The first Sikh prime minister of India must of course be wondering why not more than a handful of people attended his meetings in a state like Punjab. But the disillusionment with the man is not difficult to understand. The least that people in India expected from Dr Manmohan Singh was intellectual honesty, a clean government and progressive policies.

But what they have got in return is a man who openly declares that one particular community has the first claim and right to the resources of the Indian State. All other communities, most of whom have improved their lives not because of the government but despite it, and by sheer dint of hard work, are now being told that they can go jump into a lake because the prime minister must appease one particular community so that his party can get the votes of this community. All sorts of special schemes are being initiated to give sops to the Muslim community. Jumping on to this band-wagon are of course the Communists and other casteist leaders like Lalu Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan, who are exhorting the Congress government to go even further in appeasing the Muslims.

At the same time, the old virus of reservations has been resurrected by this government. Even though there was no demand from OBC communities for reservations in institutes of higher learning like IITs and IIMs, this government has gone ahead to reserve seats in these institutions for students belonging to the OBCs. What is more, new taxes are being levied on the hard-working people of the country to pay for this misadventure. As it is an education cess is being extorted from the tax-payer to collect more resources for education. Now this cess has been increased, dealing a double-whammy to the ordinary citizen. Not only does the hard-working middle-class family face the prospect of their children being denied a fair chance to get a decent education in IITs and IIMs, they are also being forced to subsidise the education of other people's children.

What is worse, the hard-earned money of the tax-payer will end up in the pockets of corrupt bureaucrats and politicians and at the end of the day there will be no change in the education standards of the people. And now, the final act of marginalising the ordinary people has been initiated -- reservations in the private sector. This will be the final nail in the coffin of the productive class of people of this country.

Somewhere in the back of the minds of the people these factors would have certainly affected their voting behaviour. As the Congress goes headlong into its appeasement policy, it will create a natural reaction which will strengthen the hands of the votaries of Hindutva, thereby causing yet another schism in society.

Perhaps the elections in Uttar Pradesh will see this phenomenon making a comeback, something that will be a tragedy because what this country needs is genuine secularism, not the sham the Congress has unleashed on the people. Development rather than communalism should be the political agenda if ever this country has to join the ranks of developed nations.

Finally, there are two things which must be said. Some years back, I had the opportunity of meeting Maulana Asad Madni, head of the Jamiat Ulema Hind. I asked him why the JUH distanced itself from competitive politics. His answer was instructive. He said the JUH took this decision for two reasons: one, after partition, the JUH wanted to only concentrate on helping the community and not add a schism in society by entering competitive politics; two, the JUH realised that since it would be seen as a Muslim party, and because the community was a minority, any appeal on communal lines would lead to a consolidation of votes behind non-secular parties. The JUH wanted to avoid this.

But it now appears that the Congress wants to undo this and polarise the polity along communal lines.

The other thing I want to say is that there will be no change in the moribund public education system until and unless the ruling class -- the politicians and bureaucrats -- have a stake in it. The only way this can be done is by making a law that the children and grandchildren of all government servants and all elected politicians -- from the municipal level to Parliament -- will have to study in government schools. If they don't, then the bureaucrat loses his job and the politician loses his seat. Once such a law comes into force, I can assure you that within months the government school system will become as good, if not better, than the private schools.

Does Dr Manmohan Singh have the moral courage and the political will to pass such a law?

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