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Punjab's Electoral Competition

The assembly election scenario in Punjab is reverberating with calls to regional identities. All major political parties talk about the fact that development issues have overtaken the old divisive issue of religion and community. But none of them mentions the rapid commodification of life taking place in Punjab.


Punjab’s ElectoralCompetition

The assembly election scenario in Punjab is reverberating with calls to regional identities. All major political parties talk about the fact that development issues have overtaken the old divisive issue of religion and community. But none of them mentions the rapid commodification of life taking place in Punjab.


he electoral competition between the two main parties in Punjab – the ruling Congress Party and the opposition Akali Dal – for the Punjab assembly elections in February is resulting in the reinforcement of regional Punjabi identities. The Akali Dal under the leadership of Parkash Singh Badal is invading the traditional Congress support base by an unprecedented encouragement to Punjabi Hindus to join the Akali Dal. For the first time in its history, the Akali Dal has put up a substantial number of Hindus as its party candidates. This newly emerging Hindu-Akali relationship is not a one way process of Akalis approaching Hindus. In town after town, the Punjabi Hindus are themselves joining Akali Dal. If on one hand, the Punjabi Hindus seem to be realising the need to hook their destiny with a Punjab-based regional party instead of being tied to “national” parties like the BJP and the Congress Party, on the other, the Akali Dal seems to have realised that the long-term future of Akali politics lies in becoming inclusive of all sections of Punjabis. The process of the transformation of Akali Dal from a Sikh party to a regional Punjabi party seems to be at last beginning to take place.

On the other side, the Congress Party in Punjab under the leadership of chief minister Amarinder Singh has made serious inroads into the traditional Sikh support base of the Akali Dal. Amarinder Singh has endeavoured to rebrand the Congress Party from one obsessed with national issues to one rooted in the economy, history and culture of Punjab. His daring move in passing the river water bill in the Punjab assembly abrogating the previous river water treaties, which were unfavourable to Punjab, has left a deep impact on the consciousness of all sections of Punjabi people, especially the Sikh peasantry. During my field trip in Punjab in the month of December 2006-January 2007, I talked to a large number of people in both rural and urban areas who invariably picked up this achievement of Amarinder Singh to highlight his commitment to Punjab and its people. He has also been consistently taking a lead in celebrating various religious and cultural festivals relating to the history of Punjab and has managed to dent the Akalis’ claim as the sole defenders of Punjab’s economic and cultural interests.

Irrespective of the election results, it is inconceivable that this process of the Badalled Akalis attempting to be more inclusive, and the Amarinder Singh strategy of making Congress Party more Punjab-rooted, would be easily reversible. It appears that the democratic process, however faulty it may be, is gradually contributing to the devolution of political decision-making processes away from the centre to the states. It does not mean that the centralisation of political power in the national parties like the Congress and BJP has ended, but it certainly means that the state-level leadership of these parties is increasingly shaping the political agenda at least at the state level. This process certainly opens more space for articulation of regional politicoeconomic interests and regional identities.

Deepening of Capitalism in Punjab

The change taking place in the political strategies of the two main parties in Punjab is partly the result of electoral competition between them and partly due to the staggering economic changes taking place in Punjab. Punjab is witnessing the deepening of capitalism in its economy, society and culture. The first large-scale penetration of the logic of capitalism took place in Punjab with the launch of the Green Revolution in the 1960s. In its second phase now, the postliberalisation phase, capitalism is entrenching and transforming the Punjabi economy but more so its society and culture in an alarming way.1 Capitalism is leading to the commodification of everything – land, cattle, trees, education, health, religion, music, marriage, sex, family, social and personal relationships. If on one hand, this capitalist transformation of Punjab is eroding old religious and sectarian divisions and is contributing to the making of new political alignments as discussed above, it is also leading to cultural pauperisation.

Money culture is all pervasive. There are widespread reports of party tickets, especially in the Congress Party, having been “sold” for “crores of rupees”. When political parties talk of “development” as an issue which has overtaken the old divisive issue of religion and community, they are partly speaking the truth but partly glossing over the commodification of life. During my field trip, I was told that there were instances, for the first time, of sex work taking place even in the villages and that “call girl” rackets were being reported even in small towns. Capitalism is certainly leading to the development of markets, products and techniques, but it is also leading to cultural and moral degradation. None of the political parties has shown any vision or proposed any programme to deal with this two-pronged nature of capitalism. This is true even of the Left parties who could have been expected to demonstrate a more radical and alternative perspective.

It is worth remembering that it is the cultural dislocation caused by Green Revolution capitalism in the 1960s and 1970s which had contributed to the rise of religious revivalism in the 1970s and 1980s.2 If the deprivation caused by the deepening of capitalism now in the 2000s is not subjected to critique and challenge

Economic and Political Weekly February 10, 2007

from a radical perspective, there is the danger of some retrograde ideology emerging as a response to this capitalist deprivation.

Another offshoot of deepening capitalism in Punjab is the large-scale environmental degradation taking place in Punjab. This vital issue remains, by and large, outside the mental landscape of all the political parties in Punjab. Environmental politics believes in decentralisation and it is hoped that the regionalisation of Punjabi politics would eventually force Punjabi people and politicians to deal with the environmental consequences of deepening capitalism in Punjab.




1 This argument was developed in my paper ‘Deepening Capitalism in Punjab’s Rural Society: Unleashing Development, Degradation and Resistance’, Annual Conference of the South Asian Anthropologists’ Group, Goldsmiths College, London, July 3, 2006.

2 For elaboration of this, see my paper ‘Two Facets of Revivalism’ in Gopal Singh (ed), Punjab Today, Intellectual Publications, Delhi, 1987.

Economic and Political Weekly February 10, 2007

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