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Tuesday, Jun 28, 2022
Outlook.com
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Opinion

A Dangerous Divide

Political groups need to reconcile the aspirations of rural and urban population segments who appear to feel that their destinies lie in diametrically opposite directions.

A Dangerous Divide
A Dangerous Divide
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+05:53

Democracy is a slow, tentative process of cumulative adjustments within a vast, organic system, whose complex interconnections remain impossible to define or accurately fathom. It is a system, moreover, that cannot be 'force marched' in a particular direction deemed to be desirable by any authoritarian vision, leader or party. This is even more the case in a democracy of over a billion people in what is the most culturally, communally and ethnically diverse nation-state in the world. Successive elections in India have repeatedly underlined this truth, and it stands out in particular relief in the electoral process and outcome in the Assembly elections in Punjab.

Much ink has been consumed in analysing the 'incumbency factor' that brought the Congress party and Captain Amrinder Singh's government down, and it has rightly been noted that Punjab has a long-standing tradition of never voting the same party back to power in two consecutive elections. But this apparent continuity of electoral behaviour masks dramatic and historical discontinuities that manifested themselves this time around. The more obvious-- and consequently less significant-- discontinuities are, of course, the shift in voting patterns. The Congress made dramatic gains in rural Punjab, and particularly the Malwa region that was dominated by the Akali Dal in the past. The BJP virtually wiped out the Congress in its traditional area of dominance in urban Punjab.

The real story, however, is in the very character of the present Assembly elections, in the issues that dominated the campaigns and that eventually defined voting patterns. It is useful to recall that the 2002 election was marred by the usual efforts at communal polarisation. A nasty contest between Mr Prakash Singh Badal and Mr Gurcharan Singh Tohra to dominate Punjab's Gurdwara politics, produced Akali campaigns that were at their divisive worst. In 2007, however, the Akalis were no longer flogging their traditional communal agenda. There was not even a faint shadow of gurdwara politics over the Assembly elections. The customary whining about 'discrimination' against Punjab and the Sikh community was not heard, nor were other divisive issues like the SYL canal and water sharing with neighbouring states raised. Indeed, the Akalis approached the present election almost uniquely on a developmental platform, with Mr Prakash Singh Badal talking of progress, infrastructure projects, and a powerful thrust to Punjab's economy (it remains to be seen whether any of these promises will be fulfilled, of course, but that is an entirely different issue).

All this allowed the Akalis to augment their tally in these elections by just seven seats over their 2002 record, far from sufficient to have prised the Congress out of power. Indeed, the real reversal of fortunes was engineered by the BJP, which shot up from just three seats in 2002 to as many as 19 in 2007. Once again, the BJP strategy-- which succeeded dramatically in previously Congress-held urban constituencies-- mirrored the new Akali line, with the BJP reaching across the communal divide and beyond its Hindu constituency, to aggressively seek and secure Sikh votes on a progressive developmental platform.

It is clear that the people of Punjab have little remaining patience for the petty conspiracies of communal politics. Indeed, the Congress was perhaps the only party to make the tactical error of trying to capitalise on communal politics, directly seeking the support of the Dera Sacha Sauda; this may have yielded some advantage in the Malwa belt, but probably lost them more votes elsewhere.

What the people clearly want is economic growth, efficient public services, in sum, governance. Where incumbent parties are seen to fail to deliver on these parameters, and precisely where they fail, they are being brought to account through the electoral process. This is the clear message of the outcome in Punjab. The many backers of the 'incumbency factor' cannot explain why incumbency didn't work against the Congress in the Malwa region. The truth is, rural voters saw direct benefits accruing to them during Mr Amrinder Singh's rule-- an efficient procurement drive, flourishing cotton crops, and substantial relief on the water issue, among others-- and rewarded the Congress with their votes. While there has been a marked increase in prosperity in urban Punjab over the past five years as well, there is some ambiguity and a measure of unevenness in the flow of benefits, with significant segments of the population finding themselves at a relative disadvantage. This, in combination with widespread allegations of corruption and the apparent personal unpopularity of a number of Congress candidates--  the number of senior leaders and ministers who have lost the elections, or who have scraped past the post by the skin of their teeth-- is remarkable, produced the urban tidal wave in favour of the BJP (19 out of a total of just 23 seats that they contested).

Though it has in some measure been stood on its head, the one thing that did not change in the elections of 2007 was the sharp divide between urban and rural voting patterns, and this coincides with the equally sharp divide between these two critical population segments. This is a cause for deep concern. It is useful to recall that it was precisely the rural-urban polarisation of the 1970s that produced Sikh militancy and the terrorism of the 1979-93 period. To the extent that these two population segments appear to feel that their destinies lie in diametrically opposite directions, a potentially grave danger persists.

There can be little doubt that an increased flow of resources to rural areas is not only a state, but a national imperative. This does not, however, imply a necessary diminution in urban resources, opportunities or growth. An economically marginalised rural sector will be-- and historically has been-- a drag on urban and industrial growth as well, and a continuing effort to transfer substantial resources to, and reinvest in, rural areas is entirely consistent with urban interests and prosperity. A failure to communicate this reality through its political campaigns is at least part of the Congress party's failure at the hustings.

The BJP-Akali alliance has had a sobering impact on the shrill communal agenda of both these formations. It now remains to be seen whether this alliance can secure a comparable reconciliation of urban and rural interests. Punjab's future lies in this direction and, incumbency or no incumbency, the political groups that can reconcile the aspirations of these two constituencies, will certainly prevail in the next electoral face-off.


K. P S. Gill is a former DGP, Punjab. He served as advisor to the Gujarat chief minister in 2002. This piece originally appeared in The Pioneer

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