Barely has the curtain come down on the Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat elections, and the Bharatiya Janata Party election edifice is already buzzing with activity. Preparations for the Lok Sabha elections 2024 are already under way, in the unclouded, glassy first glimpse one got from Punjab and the BJP’s outreach to wrest power in that state. Former Chief Minister Amarinder Singh and former Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee chief Sunil Jakhar have been appointed as members of the BJP National Executive, in what is seen as a strategic move by the saffron party to expand its footprint and reverse its electoral fortunes in a state where it has predominantly played second fiddle. The BJP has also given pride of place to former Congress minister Rana Gurmeet Sodhi and made him a special invitee to the executive committee. Amanjot Kaur Ramoowalia, daughter of another Punjab politico Balwant Singh Ramoowalia, has also been named as a special invitee. This move is nothing short of a preliminary preparation for 2024 elections.
The BJP’s expansion in Punjab is a political necessity. The post-poll analysis of the Punjab assembly elections by Lokniti revealed that the BJP got just 3% of Sikh votes, despite the fact that 58% of the total population is Sikh.
The BJP also failed to receive a substantial number of votes from the Hindu community, which once was its core voter base. Overall, the voters appeared to be fed up with the traditional parties, and wanted change.
In the 117-member assembly, the Aam Aadmi Party created history by winning 92 seats — the highest tally for any party in four decades; the BJP won two seats, SAD three and the Congress 18. During its 25-year alliance with the SAD, the BJP did not contest more than 23 seats out of a total 117 assembly segments. There was a time when it had an 80% strike rate, for instance, winning 19 out of 23 seats in the 2007 elections. After its alliance broke off with SAD over farm laws, it fought the 2022 Punjab elections in alliance with disgruntled former CM Captain Amarinder Singh and a splinter Akali group. However, it won only two seats against the 73 contested seats.
BJP lacks a strong Sikh leadership in the state and expects Captain Amarinder Singh to lead the party in expanding its base among the Sikh peasantry, a vote bank that the BJP had left the Akali Dal to handle. The BJP’s Punjab leaders are facing the uphill task of undoing the electoral damage caused due to the long-standing farmers’ agitation against the three farm laws which had poised Punjab’s rural population in a direct confrontation with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The farm laws are scrapped, but the trust deficit is still there. Captain Amarinder Singh is a shrewd politician with a substantive mass appeal amongst the Sikh community, and with first-hand experience of the dark days of militancy, but can the Raja of Patiala consolidate the Sikh votes in favour of the BJP, is the million dollar question. It's a litmus test for Jat Hindu leader Sunil Jhakhar as well, on whom the BJP is banking to win the Hindu votes.
The buzz in the Punjab corridors is that the Akalis have been strategically quiet against the BJP as they are trying to weigh their options on joining hands with them again. When and how this alliance will again be formalised is anybody's guess. The realistic picture on the ground is that voters in Punjab are not happy with the AAP’s Bhagwant Mann Government, given the failing law and order situation, unhappy farmers and the drug menace. Observers say that the hype created by the AAP has been punctured, and the space left vacant by the Akalis reeling under the accusation of corruption charges could be filled in by BJP if the strategies are meticulously worked out.
The BJP will also have to be ready for the barbs coming in from the Congress, as most of the leaders appointed by the party are from the Grand Old Party, including Amarinder Singh’s daughter Jai Inder Kaur who has been appointed as the Vice President. Out of the 11 Vice Presidents, five are former Congress leaders. The BJP will be accused in the days to come for not having cultivated its own leaders — can it fill this void with the help of turncoats? Can it win Punjab with the help of double-crossers and defectors? This is something which will be assessed in the days to come. For now, the Punjab Mission 2024 has begun.
Neelu Vyas is a senior television anchor and consulting editor with Satya Hindi
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