Punjab is staring at an unpredictable electoral battle on February 4, with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) making it a three-cornered contest.
It took some 330 odd days and over Rs 200 crore for the government of Punjab to create the 800 metre heritage street from Amritsar’s Town Hall to the Golden Temple. Inaugurated in December last year, this has been deputy chief minister Sukhbir Badal’s dream project. The lanes in and around the Sikh shrine have been narrow and congested, crowded and chaotic for long. It certainly needed the revamp. So thumbs up.
In March last year, at a press conference in Delhi, power minister Piyush Goyal mentioned about his conversation with the Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal on how the state has become power surplus. So thumbs up again.
Sukhbir Badal might be right when he claims in various media interviews that no one can say the government has not performed on the parameters of development. In spite of the new infrastructure created including that of Amrtisar’s BRT corridor, what Badals have failed in is to acknowledge the social problems, including that of flourishing drug business across the state.
Punjab’s war on drugs
Punjab, known for its lush green fields that once symbolized the progressive state, is today paying the price for political neglect. Like militancy in Kashmir, drugs is a big business in Punjab, bringing in easy money. Probably because the number of addicts is continuously rising and is huge today, dealing in drugs has become a lucrative business. Allegedly some of the powerful names in the political corridors have also been involved.
The ignorance over drug menace was quite evident when the Shiromani Akali Dal objected to the movie Udta Punjab. The movie dealt with the problem of drug abuse among the youth in the state. Released in June last year, the government had said that Punjab was being defamed as the drugs hub of the country.
Though there is no comprehensive study by the state government on the impact of drugs on the youth, a number of surveys done by independent agencies highlight the plight. They show that at least half of Punjab’s population in the age group of 16-35 is addicted to drugs. A study by the state department of social security development of women and children shows that there is at least one drug addict in 67 percent of the households in Punjab.
The fact is drugs have been part of the state’s history. But the Akali Dal-BJP government has always downplayed its existence.
Punjab is heading for one of the most unpredictable election battle to select 117 MLAs. Voting will take place on February 4, while the vote count will be on March 11.
The state, known for its electoral battles between Akali Dal-BJP and the Congress, will see its first triangular fight in the assembly elections as the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) too is in the fray. Akali Dal had scripted history when it won a consecutive term in the assembly elections in 2012 – the first by any party. The anti-incumbency factor against the SAD-BJP government is high. And they will surely have to fight the stigma of being in power for two consecutive terms and not doing enough to get rid of the drug menace that has ruined many generations.
“People have no problem if you take bribe. It is a nation-wide phenomenon. But drugs are not acceptable anymore,” says Ashutosh Kumar, Punjab-based political analyst and professor political science at Panjab University, Chandigarh.
He adds, “Earlier it was seen as an addiction with the poor, Dalits and unemployed youth. But now the issue is about the synthetic drugs which includes costly substance like Heroin. The rich, zamindars (landowners) buy that. The core support base of Akali Dal is the Jat Sikh. This is going to hit Akalis really hard this time.”
Punjab has been battling drug abuse for years now, irrespective of which party ruled the state. But if the party has been in power for 10 years and drugs are still freely available, it certainly has to be blamed. “Only when the issue is raised, the government will catch hold of few suppliers and drug addicts from villages. But there is no effort to find the root cause,” Kumar adds.
Drugs is not the only problem. There are other issues too. The state has faced political neglect. And there has been no improvement in the last five years.
I remember travelling to the state, before the 2012 state assembly elections. The scourge of poor education, failure in generating employment, poor health sector, increasing number of farmer’s suicide were some of the issues of concern among people. They still exist. These issues have never really been part of the poll manifestos of the traditional parties. It is now believed unfulfilled promises by the state government will result in resentment among the voters against the ruling party.
Professor Santokh Singh, a political analyst based in Ludhiana, says there is development which is visible in terms of construction of roads, malls and airports, but there has been no focus on social problems. He adds the development has been superficial and impacts only 5-10 percent of the population. “The development which could affect the lives of common people, improve their income and quality of life, create employment opportunities, and bring in quality in school and college education has not been there. The health sector has been pushed towards privatization. The infrastructure that has been developed will benefit only the rich people. The poor have been largely neglected,” he adds.
Emergence of AAP
Though the Congress is the main contender, voters are open for an alternative in the form of Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). In the 2014 general elections -- the only election AAP fought in the state -- of the 13 parliamentary constituencies, Shiromani Akali Dal and Aam Aadmi Party had won 4 seats each, Congress won 3 and BJP won 2. And this third contender has been gaining ground in the state since then. Singh believes AAP could reap the benefits of the public anger towards the state.
Certainly, AAP should be given the credit for raising the issue of drugs during the elections in 2014 general election. “I see the AAP getting clear cut majority among the youth, which is emerging as the big vote base. AAP is also gaining in Malwa region. And with 68 assembly constituencies out of total 117 in this region, the party building a base here cannot be ruled out of (electoral fray),” he explains. The region has traditionally formed the base of the Akalis.
Farmers living in the Malwa region, known as the cotton belt of Punjab, have been fighting several disease and health problems for more than a decade. They have been exposed to toxins because of the excessive use of pesticides over the years. There is also high content of cancer-causing agents in water and soil. And the region has seen continuous increase in the number of cancer patients. In order to seek affordable treatment, poor farmers have been forced to travel to Bikaner in Rajasthan for years. The government, though, recently inaugurated Advanced Cancer Research and Diagnostic (ACRD) centre in Bathinda. The priority should be to protect people by taking strong action against the use of pesticide instead.
“AAP is in a stronger position today. Though there is nothing revolutionary about their programmes or manifesto. All the parties are talking in the same (language). But they are playing with the sentiment of change. What that change will be nobody knows,” says Singh.