In the run-up to the 2017 legislative elections in Punjab, an opinion poll on the suitability of PAA leader Arvind Kejriwal as chief minister made an interesting discovery. The majority of respondents rejected the idea for one reason only: he was not a Punjabi. His religion, they clarified, was irrelevant.
Five years later, as the Punjab prepares for the 2022 legislative elections, there is an unusual focus on caste and religious identity after the rise of Charanjit Singh Channi as the new chief minister, and the rejection of former PPCC chief Sunil Kumar Jakhar.
Ambika Soni, a congressional veteran, ruled out Jakhar’s name for the top post, saying Punjab is the only state where a Sikh should become chief minister.
Newsletter | Click for the best explanations of the day to your inbox
Many are dismayed by the calculations of political strategists: the listed castes make up 32% of the population, according to the 2011 census, Jat Sikhs (25%) and Hindus (38.4%) in a state that has always claimed to be different from the heart of Hindi with little impact of caste or religion on their voting habits.
Jakhar says, “What Rahul Gandhi did by choosing Charanjit Channi as CM was he broke the ‘glass ceiling’. This bold move, although very much in tune with the ethics of Sikhism, is nonetheless a watershed moment not only for the political regime but also for the social fabric of the state.
No one knows caste loopholes better than Bhagwant Samon, President of Mazdoor Mukti Morcha State, who regularly points out the atrocities committed in the castes listed by the Jat Sikhs who landed in the Malwa region of Punjab. But he cautions against over-reading Channi’s elevation.
“It is a political maneuver to divert attention from the failures of the ruling party. Yes, caste matters but we are not UP or Bihar. When it comes to polls, the lines tend to get blurry, ”he said.
Traditionally, Punjab politics have been dominated by the Jat Sikhs who may be numerically few in number but own over 90 percent of state land ownership. Since 1966, when Punjab was carved out, all CMs in the state have been Jat Sikhs except Giani Zail Singh.
A former congressional minister calls the attempt to highlight the new CM caste as an attempt to Mandate state policy. Subhash Sharma, secretary general of state of the BJP, said the party wanted political representation of people of all castes and religions based on their population, but the former congressional minister said that was not a good debate for the state.
For once, rivals Shiromani Akali Dal and Congress are on the same page. Incidentally, after the score, Akali leader, Master Tara Singh, who was born into a Khatri family, had spearheaded the movement for Punjabi Suba along linguistic lines.
Stressing that the Punjab does not vote according to religious criteria, the former Minister of Akali, Maheshinder Singh Grewal, recalled that in 1997, he had won the seat of Ludhiana, which had 89,000 Hindu votes and only 8,000 votes sikh, with a comfortable margin.
In 2014, BJP mainstay Arun Jaitley could not win against Amritsar because the two communities did not vote according to religion. While his congressional opponent, Captain Amarinder Singh, garnered more votes in predominantly Hindu urban segments, Jaitley garnered more Sikh votes in rural segments. Also in 2019, BJP Union Minister Hardeep Puri lost to local politician Gurjeet Singh Aujla because he was considered an outsider.
Akali chief Dr Daljeet Singh Cheema said while caste is an important consideration in marriage alliances – state courts are inundated with fleeing couples from different castes seeking protection – his role in electoral politics is toned down.
“We have presented an SC candidate from Jalandhar Central for 2022, although it is not a reserved seat. There is no strict division of votes according to castes, even in the elections of the panchayat and civic bodies. Since the reserved seats are very fluid, candidates are forced to rally support from all communities, ” Cheema says.
Sociologists say the Punjabis are united by their homogeneous culture, a melting pot of unique identities. “Despite the activism, the state has never seen community riots. Reductive as it may sound, this is also a reason why he resisted the Hindutva’s nationalist agenda, and the Bhindranwale brand of Sikhism also couldn’t last here very long, ” says Pramod. Kumar, columnist on politics and culture in the state. .
Jats and SC, he says, are united by their common challenges in an agrarian economy. Satnam Singh Pannu, founder of the Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee (KMSC) which has a separate scene at the Singhu border protest site, is a Jat but his outfit is populated by a large number of SCs. “The kind of discrimination you see in other states is not widespread here,” Pannu says, noting that “Kisan mazdoor ekta” is the slogan common to all agricultural unions.
But veterans fear that political parties and tacticians, often parachuted into the state on the eve of elections, will dig the fault lines of castes and religions to seize the votes.
Ashutosh Kumar, a political scientist, says there might be an effort to drive a wedge between the Jats and the lower castes. And between Hindus and Sikhs. “By saying what was left unsaid, Ambika Soni gave BJP a hand,” he says.
Members of Congress admit that the situation requires skillful management to maintain the right balance and prevent polarization.
Jakhar warns that if run in an inept or one-sided manner, the state’s prevailing brotherhood and friendship, which has been its hallmark even in very difficult times, could turn out to be fragile. “And it could shatter as easily as a glass house,” he said.