Reading the electoral astrology on Punjab’s tepid voter turnout

Why was Punjab's voter turnout the lowest in the last three Assembly polls despite a high-decibel campaign and multi-party contest?

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In Punjab, the voter turnout data for the past four elections deflate the traditional electoral wisdom that high polling invariably translates into a regime change.

The 71.95 per cent voter turnout figure for the February 20 Punjab Assembly polls has perplexed all the political parties in the fray. The data, released by the Election Commission late on Monday (February 21) evening, over 24 hours after polling ended, show a significant drop in people’s participation in the electoral process – the lowest in the last three Assembly polls.

The voter turnout in Punjab during the 2007, 2012 and 2017 Assembly polls was recorded at 75.45 per cent, 78.20 per cent and 77.40 per cent, respectively. The 2022 turnout was, however, higher than the 65.14 per cent registered during the 2002 polls.

It is pertinent to note here that, at least in the case of Punjab, this data of voter turnout for the past four elections deflates the traditional electoral wisdom that high polling invariably translates into a regime change, as it is driven by a strong sense of anti-incumbency.

The 2002 polls, which had seen a modest 65.14 per cent turnout, had ended the Akali-BJP regime in the State and given Congress’s Amarinder Singh his first chief ministerial stint. Though the high 75.45 per cent turnout of 2007 did vote out the Congress and brought the Akali-BJP combine back to power, an even higher 78.20 per cent polling in 2012 gave a renewed mandate for the Akali-led government.

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In contrast, the 2017 polls that had seen a marginal drop in turnout compared to the previous election despite AAP’s debut led to a regime change and brought the Congress back to power.

Also read: Amarinder Singh: The gradual diminishing of a satrap

As such, electoral astrology on the basis of voter turnout is any psephologist’s nightmare in Punjab. The 2017 polls, during which most exit and opinion polls had predicted a landslide AAP victory and were proved wrong when the Congress romped to power with 77 seats, validate this.

The vote for change

However, what does baffle one about the drop in voter turnout is that the recently concluded polls witnessed a high decibel and unprecedented multi-party contest amid a palpable current for badlaav (change).

Besides the ruling Congress, Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party and the Sukhbir Badal-led Shiromani Akali Dal-Bahujan Samaj Party alliance, this poll saw a new front formed between the BJP, Shiromani Akali Dal (Sanyukt) and the Punjab Lok Congress, the party floated by Amarinder Singh after his exit from the Congress.

Also in the fray were candidates fielded by the Sanyukt Samaj Morcha, a conglomerate of farmer groups who had decided to take the electoral plunge after the prolonged peasant protests witnessed until early this year against the Centre’s controversial and now repealed farm laws.

Boisterous claims of a wave in their favour were made by the AAP, that had pitched itself as the harbinger for change against the traditional and cyclical pivots of power in the State – the Congress and SAD – particularly after the party declared its Sangrur MP Bhagwant Mann as its CM face.

The Congress, which had replaced Amarinder Singh with Charanjit Singh Channi as CM last September, also claimed a wave in its favour, despite its disjointed poll campaign and massive internal strife. Having appointed Channi as Punjab’s first Dalit Sikh CM, the Congress hopes for an overwhelming consolidation in its favour of the overarching Dalit community that constitutes around 32 per cent of Punjab’s electorate and has 34 of the State’s 117 seats reserved for its members.

Also read: Family mafia vs Punjab lovers, Sidhu taunts Amarinder, Badals on poll day

The SAD, which had renewed its alliance with Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) ahead of the polls after severing ties with the BJP, had also been claiming an undercurrent for its coalition. The SAD and the BSP were last in alliance in Punjab during the 1996 Lok Sabha polls, when they had swept 11 of the State’s 13 seats.

In subsequent years, while the SAD did return to power in the State thrice – 1997, 2007 and 2012 – in alliance with the BJP, the BSP had seen a steady decline in its vote share, finishing at below 2 per cent in the 2017 polls.

Lower turnout in AAP’s bastions

The drop in voter turnout, even starker when analysed at district or constituency levels, belies the claims of a massive wave in this election. Even more interesting is the fact that the decreased turnout appears to be steeper in constituencies that the AAP, proclaimed by many commentators as the frontrunner to displace the Congress, had won in 2017.

For instance, in the Bholath constituency in Kapurthala district, where Sukhpal Singh Khaira had won on an AAP ticket in 2017 – he switched to the Congress last year and was now the party’s candidate against the AAP’s Ranjeet Rana and SAD’s Bibi Jagir Kaur – polling was recorded at 66.30 per cent, against the 74.60 per cent registered five years ago.

Similarly, Ludhiana district’s Dhaka, Raikot and Jagraon seats that the AAP had won in 2017 registered a turnout of 75.63 per cent, 72.33 per cent and 67.54 per cent, respectively, down from the 80.90 per cent, 77.80 per cent and 76.60 per cent registered in the previous election.

Frustration of voters

So how does one analyse this steep fall in voter turnout across the State as well as in individual constituencies? What could be its impact for the various parties in the poll arena? The most matter-of-fact explanation for this drop, said Jagroop Sekhon, professor of political science at the Amritsar-based Guru Nanak Dev University, is “frustration of voters”.

Sekhon also believes that though ‘change’ was the dominant sentiment of voters during the campaign, the electorate, perhaps, lost interest in the electoral process due to two major factors.

“First, no Opposition party spoke effectively of issues such as farmer distress, the mafia of sand mining, drugs or liquor, etc., that should have dominated an election in which there was visible anti-incumbency against the ruling party. The election rhetoric ultimately boiled down to caste-based divisions between the Jat Sikhs, Hindus and Dalits,” Sekhon told The Federal.

“Second, there were a large number of turncoats fielded by almost every party; the Congress repeated a majority of its sitting MLAs or fielded those who had joined the party after winning the previous elections on an AAP ticket. Similarly, the AAP ended up fielding many candidates who had come from Congress, SAD or BJP. The same holds true for candidates of SAD or the PLC-BJP alliance. So where was the change?” he remarked.

Push by diaspora

Veteran journalist and former AAP legislator Kanwar Sandhu added a third factor that could have contributed to the drop in voting percentage; one he said should worry his former party more than the other political outfits in the fray.

“The 2017 elections had seen a huge participation of the Punjabi diaspora in the poll process; many Punjabis who lived abroad had joined the AAP’s campaign, mobilised voters and even funded the campaign in the hope that a new party would bring positive change. This time, that whole block stayed away. Additionally, over the last five years, a large number of Punjabis have migrated out of the State for jobs – something people in most rural or semi-urban constituencies would attest to – and did not return for voting,” Sandhu said.

Does this mean that a low voter turnout in this election is bad news for AAP?

A sitting AAP legislator who has again sought reelection this time told The Federal that though he is confident of his party forming the next government, the low turnout is, indeed, a “cause of concern”.

“In several (of the 20) seats that AAP had won last time, polling was substantially low in this election. Many of our colleagues who had won last time had quit AAP. Low turnout in such seats could mean that the voters who saw AAP as an alternative to Congress and SAD last time were disillusioned and our current candidates could not prevail upon these people to come out and vote. Since this election also had four or even five-cornered fights on some seats, it is also possible that the voter was either too confused or simply disinterested and decided to stay home,” the AAP leader said.

The Dalit vote

Despite the low turnout, there is, however, an interesting trend seen in the voting pattern in several of the constituencies reserved for SC candidates as well as in those seats that had been traditional bastions of the SAD but had, in the past election, fallen to the Congress or the AAP.

Though a drop in voting percentage was consistent across all constituencies, the voting volume appears to have been better in old SAD strongholds. Also, in 21 of the 34 SC-reserved seats, the voter turnout, though lower than 2017, was either at par with or higher than the State average, suggesting a relatively higher voter turnout in Dalit-dominated seats.

This election had, unlike past Punjab polls, witnessed a strong narrative of Dalit consolidation.

The Congress was banking on it ever since Channi was appointed the CM last September and more so since former party president Rahul Gandhi endorsed him over Navjot Sidhu for a continuation of term if the party is voted back to power.

The Akalis, considered out of the poll race till six months ago, were also banking on Dalit consolidation after they tied up with the BSP.

The issue of Dalit consolidation – though the community, fragmented into many sub-castes both among Dalit Sikhs and Hindu Dalits, is not a homogenous voting bloc – had not been as shrill in any past Punjab election as it was in the current one.

Whether the higher polling in Dalit areas is indicative of a consolidation in favour of the Congress or the result of the SAD and BSP coming together is anybody’s guess. However, the SAD-BSP alliance, say its leaders, have reasons to be cautiously optimistic.

“If you look at voting in the Dalit dominated areas or other constituencies like Gidderbaha, Fazilka, Zira, Budhlada and several others where the Akali Dal has its traditional voters and a strong grassroots cadre, you’ll see most of these seats have higher polling than the State average,” an Akali leader and close aide of the party’s CM candidate, Sukhbir Badal, told The Federal.

“Gidderbaha, which we lost in the last two elections, recorded 84 per cent polling. Even seats we currently hold, like our bastions of Lambi and Jalalabad (Parkash Singh Badal and Sukhbir Badal’s seats, respectively) have seen more than 80 per cent polling. I believe this is because the SAD-BSP alliance was seen as a winning combination and we mobilised voters better. In contrast, the AAP made a lot of noise but had no workers to mobilise voters at the booth level while the Congress was too busy fighting itself,” said the leader.

Anti-incumbency wave

The Congress, meanwhile, claimed that the higher turnout in many Dalit-dominated seats was an endorsement of Channi and the party’s CM nominee and that the fall in the State’s average voter turnout was because “there was no anti-incumbency wave”.

A senior party leader, however, conceded that the lower turnout in a multi-pronged contest would mean that the margin of victory too will be narrower this time and the party may suffer in “over a dozen seats because of rebels and sabotage.”

Also read: Congress’ late manifesto release a desperate prayer for Punjab miracle

The Congress leader said that the party’s biggest fear was losing its grip on the Majha region, where it won 22 of the 25 seats in the last election. “In Majha, we had many challenges. The region traditionally votes en bloc and has a strong SAD cadre. On several seats, our candidates were facing strong anti-incumbency. On others, such as Amritsar East (Sidhu’s constituency), Batala, Attari, our candidates faced sabotage. Both Akalis and the AAP had a good campaign in Majha even though AAP had no presence there till a year ago. This is also a region where caste divide between the Jat Sikhs and Dalits is sharper compared to the Doaba or Malwa regions and the Channi factor we banked on to consolidate Dalit votes could backfire in Majha,” the leader added.

The voter turnout may give no clear signal to the likely outcome of the Punjab polls, but it’ll surely give the campaign-scarred candidates sleepless nights till March 10, the counting day.

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