Punjab Assembly Polls 2017: Congress Sitting Pretty but AAP can spring surprise

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Like seen in Goa, whenever AAP is in the fray, we can notice wide statistical inconsistency in the polls published with obscure poll agencies projecting AAP winning with as much as an astounding over 100 seats of the state’s 117 seats. However, three leading polls provide a consistent trend of projecting Congress cruising along to a facile win in Punjab, with AAP and SAD-BJP fighting for second place.

The incumbent Badal government and ally BJP are facing huge local anger after two terms in power. During the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, despite the Modi wave, SAD-BJP registered only 29% as vote share, coming third to the Congress and AAP respectively. But the anger is so much more palpable this time round. Modi’s rallies proved a mega flop. SAD-BJP find that people not only avoid their rallies but often they are not even allowed to campaign in certain constituencies. Astoundingly, their vote share projection more or less remain at their 2014 Lok Sabha range – 30% despite facing a double whammy of anti-incumbency at both the central and state levels. It would be a fair assumption on the basis of ground reports, pollsters would end up with red faces on March 11th, defending their vote projections of SAD-BJP. 

AAP have been doggedly in rigorous campaign mode for the last three years against the Badal family and Punjab's severe drug problem. They have set the stage for the possible exit of the ruling alliance. Till six months ago, AAP bearing fruits of this work was riding a tidal wave in their favour. Then they committed harakiri with their own workers exposing the party of scams and sex scandals, dissidence raising their heads and incurring a multiple of defections. This damaged their image which saw their popularity plunge like mercury. The projections suggest AAP is currently just a tad below their 2014 Lok Sabha vote share performance of 30%. Ground reports suggest that their plunging vote share have bottomed up and they are once again on an upswing  but with much lesser velocity and probably should be still far below the zenith of their popularity in the state. 

Three drawbacks AAP has are the following. Firstly they do not have a CM face and their presumptive CM face is a well known substance abuser who comes to rallies in an inebriated state making mockery of himself and his party. Secondly, AAP's lacklustre governance of Delhi does not infuse enthusiasm. Those who would have otherwise had toyed voting for AAP may change their minds and vote Congress to give vent to their anti-incumbency anger.

Thirdly, unlike the Congress whose support base is evenly spread all over the state, AAP’s supportbase  is highly skewed. Punjab can be broadly categorised in three regions: Malwa-69 seats; Majha-25 seats; Doaba-23 seats. AAP is fairly weak in Majha and Doaba regions and only in Malwa region they are a strong political force. In the last Lok Sabha, AAP’s 4 MPS all came from this region. The strategy of AAP is do a Delhi in Malwa by clean sweeping Malwa and get some contribution in the other two regions to squeak through the finish line. But here are problems with this strategy. Out of 4 AAP MPs, two are suspended by the party and working against AAP. Their presumptive CM candidate is from Malwa, a charismatic individual but a substance abuser nonetheless. A resurgent Congress has apparently contained AAP’s surge of Malwa to just 5 districts - Bhatinda, Faridkot, Sangrur, Mansa and Barnala.  The combined net effect of all these realities  practically knocks AAP out of the game.

The Congress has never before been so united and  a well oiled fighting machine in Punjab as currently as compared to the recent past. Their dead wood and dissidents have been exported to mostly SAD-BJP and to a lesser extent AAP. In Capt Amarinder Singh, they have a high profile CM face who has demonstrated his competence in governance of the state while AAP only offers an untested promise. Then there is the charismatic Navjot Singh Sidhu, very popular Shri Amarinder Singh Raja Brar Indian Youth Congress President and Manpreet Singh Badal formerly of PPP who are the young guns to pull in the crowds. The Congress has also have a much stronger organisational base and reach with a well oiled booth level management cadre which AAP lacks.

The Congress strategy apparently is to clean sweep Majha region and split win Malwa region by taking 7 districts - Fazilka, Muktsar, Patiala, Mohali, Fatehgarh Sahib and Ludhiana. Not very well known is that most of what constitute Malwa was once part of the Patiala Kingdom ruled by the royal family of Capt Amarinder Singh whose goodwill to the family of  its former rulers is what the Congress hopes to tap into. The fight for Dhoba is as traditionally basically between Congress and SAD-BJP, which in fact is a bastion of the latter. A collapse of BJP-SAD can spiral seat share of Congress which is a real possibility as farmers are up in arms against the SAD-BJP combine.  AAP is very weak in this region where 40% of Dalits constitute the electorate. Congress hopes to mop up the Dalit vote bank of a seemingly weakened Mayawati. Apart from weak organization & cadre, AAP faces the ghost of of their ex leader Sucha Singh Chhotepur, who has now floated his own Apna Punjab Party AAP. With just 23 seats to add to the Assembly, the Doaba region might seem less significant given the electoral weightage of the Malwa and Manjha regions in Punjab, but seems that this region may hold the key to which party will form the government in Punjab. A dramatic collapse of SAD-BJP in this region could see them reduced to single digits in the state.

In the height of the Modi & AAP waves seen in the state during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress which was then plagued with alot of dissent and in total disarry still managed to register a vote share of 33%. With so much more now going into fuelling the Congress resurgence in the state, it does see a big oddity that none of the polls project their vote share currently beyond 33%. But if Congress internal polls are to be believed, the party is now commanding popularity somewhere between 37-40%.

The Congress accordingly remains the favourites to win Punjab with AAP perhaps the dark horse who can spring a surprise on March 11th. If AAP pulls it off, it would be a phenomenal upset on result day. On the other hand, if Congress lives up to its odds on ratings, it would be interesting to see what its winning vote share is as compared to those projected by pollsters and how comprehensive their sweep of Punjab would be.


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