Majha, Malwa and Doaba: The changing equations in key Punjab regions ahead of 2022 polls

Punjab, with new electoral coalitions and splits between old allies, looks very different from what it did at the time of the 2017 Assembly election. This time, it is likely that the polls will be won through concentrated pockets rather than a dominant performance across the board.

The latest salvo fired by former Punjab Congress chief Sunil Jakhar that he had more support among party MLAs than any other contender has yet again deepened the crisis within the ruling party. For now, the party has adopted the same formula as its perceived main rival, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), of announcing the chief ministerial candidate before polling on February 20 and seeking the people’s opinion through IVR (Interactive Voice Response) calls for the same.

Punjab, with a split between old allies and new electoral coalitions, looks radically different as compared to other poll-bound states this season, especially when compared with the previous election. The 2017 election saw the Congress winning a majority, and new entrant AAP not only succeeding in making the contest triangular, but also appearing at one point in the campaign as if it would sweep the entire state. Many pre-poll surveys and political observers are suggesting that in an increasingly fragmented landscape, the AAP is edging ahead this time. For example, an opinion poll conducted by C-Voter in January 2022 shows a huge 16 per cent swing in the AAP’s favour, with substantial increases across all regions of Punjab.

Will the Congress retain the status of largest party in Punjab on March 10 when the votes will be counted? Or will AAP manage to emerge as the top contender for the top-post? Is it possible that the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) combine surprises political observers or the alliance between Captain Amarinder Singh and the BJP plays the crucial spoiler?

An analysis of past trends, reading of reportage from the ground and indications from pre-poll surveys suggest that while there is significant departure from the situation in 2017, the 2022 elections will be won through concentrated pockets rather than a dominant performance across the board.

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MALWA: AAP UP, SAD DOWN?
The state’s largest region with 69 out of 117 seats, Malwa in the south, has often been posited as the key to holding power in the state. This was where AAP broke ground that propelled into being the state’s second-largest party in terms of seats in 2017, largely gaining from SAD (11 out of its 18 seats in Malwa were previously won by SAD). The Congress improved on its 2012 performance by winning 8 more seats to take its tally to 40.

C-Voter’s numbers suggest a massive 15 percentage point swing for the AAP in Malwa. Assuming these numbers hold, the AAP could further continue its consolidation in the region. The SAD was neck and neck with the AAP in vote share as well as number of constituencies and it finished as a runner-up in the previous election. Should its decline transfer to the AAP, they could easily find themselves in pole position against the Congress in key two-way battles. For instance, there were 10 seats in the region where the victory margin between the Congress and the AAP was 5% or less (with Congress winning 6 and AAP winning 4). Provided the AAP can retain their base in these constituencies, transfers from the SAD could push the AAP over the top. Will Malwa go for a split decision or a decisive mandate this time?

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DOABA: CONGRESS’ NEW TERRITORY?

Deriving its name from the land between the Beas and the Sutlej rivers, Doaba, with the highest percentage of Dalit population in the state, could bring better fortunes to the Congress this time around with Charanjit Singh Channi at the helm. While the Congress did have a good standing in the region previously (winning 15 out of 23 seats with a 36.8% regional vote share), the C-Voter survey suggests a six-percentage point positive swing in the region, which would mean Doaba becomes Congress’ best region in the state.

On the other hand, AAP’s gains are predicted to be more modest here compared to other regions, while the SAD is also likely to register its biggest decline in this region. However, the Congress’ gains are not promised here. Of the remaining eight seats, they finished as runners-up only in four, ending up as a distant third in the others. Can consolidation of Dalit vote in favour of the Congress increase its seat conversion?

MAJHA: CAPTAIN’S EXIT HURTS CONGRESS?

Situated in the northwestern part of the state, also referred to as the Panthic belt, Majha was Congress’ most dominant region in 2017 (it received a huge 46.3% vote share to win 22 out of the 25 seats in the region). However, with Captain Amarinder Singh’s exit, Congress could lose ground in this region, with C-Voter predicting a 6.5% negative swing here. But while Captain may bring down Congress’ vote share, it is hard to determine who will be receiving the benefit of these transfers. Could AAP emerge as a stronger force in this region? The C-Voter suggests a twenty-percentage point positive swing for them, but it is important to note that this was the region where AAP had its poorest performance in 2017, drawing a blank in seats and achieving a mere 13.8% regional vote share.

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In conclusion, the outcome of Punjab elections could hinge on three regions. Firstly, in Malwa, to what extent can the AAP consolidate its gains from the SAD in 2017 and affect further transfers from both the Akalis and the Congress? In Doaba, a lot could ride on the Congress and its effectiveness with the large base of Dalits in the region, and whether the AAP can make more pushes there. Finally, in Majha, which seems to be a key area of focus for the BJP-PLC alliance, to what extent will Captain Amarinder Singh’s exit cut the Congress down to size, and will this benefit the AAP?

Nevertheless, the political situation in Punjab has become very fluid due to multiple factors. The combined effect of issues arising from farmers’ movement, splitting of SAD-BJP alliance, the continued crisis in the Congress and exit of Amarinder Singh, the inability of the SAD to remake its image over corruption scandals, and AAP’s desperation to expand its base, among others, has opened possibilities of multiple trajectories that the state’s politics can take, electorally and otherwise.