Numbers, especially the voters’ turnout, matter in a multi-pronged, seemingly cliffhanger election scenario in Punjab. According to most political observers, the results could be more thrilling than the Uttar Pradesh assembly election, which is being conducted over seven phases. It is to be noted that the turnout this year in the border state has been 72% as compared to 77.4% of the 2017 election, according to the Election Commission. The voting percentage this year is also the lowest compared to the previous three elections. The significant fall in the turnout was seen in the Malwa region of Punjab, which has 69 assembly segments, more than half of the total 117 seats in the state. The area is also the stronghold of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) where it hopes to do well.
Professor Ashutosh Kumar, in Panjab University’s political department, says, “Populist policies cannot seduce the electorate. People don’t believe in parties. AAP is also not derived confidence. Voters are alienated from the mainstream political parties. There seems to have been Channi’s failure in mobilizing Dalit voters in favor of the Congress. If it had happened, there would have been more voting. Doaba, Majha (regions), etc have lower castes who did not come out to vote. There were no vote mobilisers. Last time, they had voted for either Captain (Amarinder Singh) or Kejriwal. This time, no is one there.”
Senior journalist and key observer of Punjab politics, Pankaj Vohra, says, “My understanding is that if Punjab had voted for a change, the turnout would have been heavy. However, in this multi-cornered contest, where margins are going to be very narrow, it is difficult to predict the outcome. Even the exit polls are likely to go wrong. If the Dalits have cast their vote, it shall provide an advantage to the Congress. Indications are very confusing.”
Sources suggest that Akalis ran a focussed campaign this time in their areas. They earmarked the spots they wanted to win or perform well in. Apart from their turf, Bhatinda and Lambi, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) focussed on Amritsar East, which is a high prestige battle between state Congress chief Navjot Singh Sidhu and SAD MLA Bikram Singh Majithia. Majithia, who was booked under the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act last month, had told News18, “We fight with a purpose. I know the against me are false and people of Amritsar east will prove them wrong.”
Barring about 10 seats, which have both Congress and AAP MLAs in more than 50% of constituencies, voting percentage fell by 5% in Malwa area. Ashutosh Kumar says, “This area is important for AAP as they had done well here last time. The fact that many voters didn’t turn up means that they have stopped even believing the promises made by Kejriwal. But it’s touch and go, I would say, so one can’t say much.”
Chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi has worked on the calculation that the 35-plus age group would vote for him, and had pinned his hopes on the Doaba belt, which is considered a hub of Dalit voters. This is where the fall in vote percentage is a matter of concern. It’s fallen to 60% from 62% of the 2017 assembly elections. The fall is more in urban areas such as Jalandhar, which is what BJP, Congress and, particularly, AAP, are hoping for a good outcome. “Young people want change. And not all of them may actually end up voting at all,” says Professor Kumar.
The Panthic belt of Majha is where the Congress and Akalis play a strong role, and AAP is trying to influence, which is why Arvind Kejriwal spent over three days campaigning in the region. The voting percentage too has fallen by 3% in the region. The Congress has to worry as it could mean a fall in their votes. And as Professor Kumar said that “this could actually be good news for AAP.”
But voters have a way of surprising poll pundits and March 10 could be just that day.
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