Elections: Punjab Assembly A Vote for Change! India

  A Vote for Change in Punjab Assembly Elections. Exclusive, Only On

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By TIO Bureau Chief, Vijaylakshmi Nadar. Edited By Adam Rizvi, TIO: A much-needed experiment in clean, efficient politics got wings in Delhi, when a bunch of highly educated, successful professionals turned activists, formed the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Young professionals, some just in their 20’s, with the top leadership just in their 40’s,  fought elections on a shoestring budget, defeated heavyweight, super-rich opponents, including the sitting chief minister Sheila Dikshit and formed the government in Delhi first in 2013, then in 2015 and 2020.

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In 2016, Delhites voted in  AAP with an overwhelming majority of 67 out of 70 seats, not witnessed in any state since independence. They got this majority, by just showing a glimpse of what an honest, well-intentioned party can achieve when they reduced corruption in Delhi by 400 % in just 49 days in 2015. The massive wave that Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) enjoyed then, did not cause a dent in their spectacular win. The grand old party Congress was reduced to zero too. Delhites reposed faith for the third time last year, with another record victory of 62 out of 70 seats, with no signs of incumbency.

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But Delhi is not a full state, limiting the powers of an elected chief minister, with no control over key institutions, including police, leading to constant center/state conflict. Feeling threatened by this disruptive party, Modi used the Lieutenant Governor to stop many of AAP’s flagship projects, until the supreme court’s intervention in October 2018.

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AAP has already changed the political narrative in the country, consistently chipping away at hardened mindsets, by sticking to their agenda. Voters are no longer willing to be wooed by a Ram Mandir or swayed by communal politics. They have started asking for good education, good healthcare, and most importantly jobs for the youth, in exchange for their votes, a totally uncomfortable pitch for BJP/ Congress to play on.

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But is this enough to bring a decisive change in the entire country?

In a country, where the prime minister himself resorts to petty politics with opposition leaders, in a bid to destroy the federalism of states, chief minister Arvind Kejriwal needs a full state, to showcase what’s possible in a robust functioning democracy, where citizens’ needs can be put ahead of corrupt politicians. A full state would also help stave off Modi’s dictatorial tendencies to curb all opposition.

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Will Punjab, Goa, Uttarakhand, and Uttar Pradesh finally vote for change? Will AAP get a full majority in at least one of the states, especially in Punjab?

Why Punjab?

Punjab has been reduced to a debt-ridden, drug-infested state, with villages, towns, and cities either emptied of youth fleeing to foreign countries or pushed into drugs. All the major cities have become huge garbage dumps, with infrastructure in all sectors crumbling. Punjab is a  naturally endowed, resource-rich state, the land of five rivers, with very hard-working proud citizens who have been at the forefront of many revolutions, before and after independence. The farmer’s agitation which lasted a year, made waves around the world, finally bringing the arrogant, unbending prime minister on his knees. Yet Punjab has been cursed by government’s who have only brutalized them for their insatiable greed…

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Punjab came quite close to change in 2017, where AAP kept leading the opinion polls for months but was finally pushed to be the main opposition with 20 seats.

Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) facing severe incumbency transferred their votes to the Congress led by Captain Amarinder Singh, to keep AAP out and mafia lords doubling up as politicians safe within their ranks. The Congress and SAD in alliance with BJP have been in power for 19 and 25 years respectively, holding on to power and the loot in turns.

Labh Singh, AAP, Fighting his First Election, candidate from Bhadaur, is a mobile repair shop owner who lives in a two-room house in a village

The poor, distraught citizens keep exercising their democratic right against the incumbents, but never in favor of the other party. Though the parties keep accusing each other of corruption during every electoral battle, none of these accusations are ever investigated, stolen funds recovered and the corrupt sent to jail. In this cozy corrupt ecosystem, where Punjab now is reeling under a debt of 3.5 lakh crores, 70 % of Punjab’s budget of 150,000 crores goes just in paying interest on the debt. AAP’s chief minister candidate Bhagwant Mann, a successful political satirist turned politician has vowed to track the debt trail and prosecute the guilty.

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Politicians in Punjab, whether it is Sukhbir Badal of SAD, or the two contenders from Congress, Navjot Sidhu and interim chief minister Charanjit Channi, and of course the incumbent chief minister for about 4 ½ years, Amarinder Singh, just like politicians in the rest of the country, including Modi, have no road map on how to rescue 80 % of the 1.3 billion population out of poverty.

To counter this, AAP has fielded young boys and girls, many of them just in their 20’s, and early 30’s, who have grown up with the party in Punjab, just like in Delhi, to shake up seasoned politicians who are also multimillionaires, fulfilling caste equations too. One of the candidates from Bhadaur, Labh Singh just in his 20’s, has a mobile repair shop in his constituency, has declared just one run down scooter as his asset, and is pitted against incumbent chief minister Charanjit Channi,  Yet another young social worker Jeevan Jyot has been pitted against political heavyweights Navjot Siddhu and drug lord Bikram Majithia from SAD. The men as expected are too focussed on the fight between Titans, ignoring the AAP candidate, who in turn is super confident that the voters are wiser this time around and will vote for the broom (party symbol of AAP)

AAP’s Narinder Kaur Bharaj
AAP’s Narinder Kaur Bharaj with her supporters

A third interesting candidate, Narinder Kaur Bharaj, only 27 years old, who rose from the party ranks, is ready to take on political heavyweights and multimillionaires in her constituency. Narinder, a youth leader of AAP, from Sangrur, which is also the constituency of Bhagwant Mann, caught the party leader’s eye when she single-handedly managed his election booth when Mann was fighting for his Lok Sabha seat in 2017. She stuck on when the boys who were supposed to manage the booth were threatened by the other political parties to back off. Narinder, a law graduate, arrived on a scooter with her mother to file her nomination papers. Not surprisingly she has declared assets worth Rs 24,409 only, while the sitting Congress MLA fighting to retain his seat, has declared his assets at Rs 9.62 crores, and the BJP nominee Arvind Khanna, a businessman has declared assets worth Rs 22.77 crores to the election commission…

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For the first time, Congress and SAD  are being forced to fight harder, with no bribes to the voters either as was the norm earlier.

With the national media and all key institutions including the judiciary batting for the BJP, giving little or no space to the opposition, Arvind Kejriwal soon realized that constant friction with the Modi government was in the way of spreading their message of a clean, transparent Delhi governance model.

AAP’s largely volunteer-driven social media team then embarked on a more positive campaign and started putting up pictures of the smart Delhi government schools, which has become a great leveler of the rich-poor divide. Over 2.5 lakh students dropped out of private schools to join government schools. Despite the Indian media largely ignoring it, it caught the attention of the Washington Post and then former US First Lady Melania Trump as well, who paid a visit to a government school in Delhi.

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Despite a hostile media, which refused to speak about the quiet revolution happening in education, healthcare, infrastructure, free electricity and water, free bus rides for women even in private buses, installing the largest number of CCTV cameras in the world, for women safety, putting a cap on inflated school fees in private schools, free pilgrimages to senior citizens, reviving 120 dead water bodies including lakes in and around Delhi, all of which was saving the poor and the middle class a minimum of  Rs 10000 to Rs 25,000 a month. For citizens used to being at the receiving end of just empty promises and penury in exchange for their vote and taxes, AAP’s initiatives became a blessing.

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Delhites started identifying this change with ‘Ram Rajya, rather than the militant brand of Hindu religion that BJP was propagating, turning their uneducated, unemployed supporters into a bunch of hoodlums.

AAP formed the government in Delhi for the third time in 2020 with a thumping majority, giving jitters to Modi and his bunch of incompetent, corrupt, and cruel chief ministers. Leading the list of insensitive chief ministers is the monk turned politician Yogi Adityanath of Uttar Pradesh, who is not only facing severe incumbency, but also extreme anger and agitations by the citizens.

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BJP/Congress politicians are now being heckled by voters to promise them all the “freebies” that they had mocked Kejriwal for. BJP is facing incumbency everywhere for their sham governance model, visible only to BJP supporters and their trolls, around the world. Other parties like the Congress, Trinamool Congress (TMC), and Samajwadi Party too have started promising these “freebies”, fearing a backlash even in their states. But none of these politicians have any idea of how they will implement these social service measures when their coffers are empty. None have the road map or the vision to wipe off the debt, fill up their treasuries, identify social services best suited to their states and then implement it.

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Delhi’s successful education model is aimed at wiping off poverty and caste differences within just a generation. When Manish Sisodia took over as the education minister, he said that only 5% of children get quality education. The most familiar education minister in the country then ensured that 25 % of the state budget was earmarked for education to bring it to world-class levels. A similar strategy has been planned for the 19,000 government schools as well.  Land too would be under the control of the Punjab state government unlike in Delhi, giving them a free hand to build new colleges and universities as well.

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The central government budget for education has remained at a constant low of less than 3 % of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP)  for decades. Instead of increasing it up to 10 % to bring about a change in the education sector, The Modi government has been reducing every budget that they have presented, since 2014.

Who would have thought just five years ago that education and public health would be a ready reckoner against the BJP/RSS’s fake nationalism agenda and searing communal rhetoric, its hate volume deliberately kept high to drown noises of any development.

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Delhi does not produce electricity and yet is able to give 24 hours of free electricity to 73 % of the population. Since Punjab produces electricity about 80% of the population would be given a 24 hours supply of uninterrupted free electricity too. Similarly two crores of a total of three crore population in Delhi, avail of free medical services including very expensive surgeries. The same has been promised to Punjab.

Despite services not being under the state government in Delhi, AAP was able to generate 10 lakh jobs just by creating a platform for employers and employees to meet during covid times. Guaranteed employment, according to their qualifications, has now been promised in Punjab too. An unemployment stipend too would be given to the youth, till they get their jobs.

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Oft repeated mantras by Kejriwal to project Delhi’s successful governance model in every rally/interview of his, is chipping away at hardened mindsets stirring up a revolution in poll-bound states. His insistence that Punjab has plenty of money to offset all costs of social welfare measures, just the intention is missing is gaining acceptance. AAP’s slogan “Ik Mauka AAP Nu (one chance to AAP), because Punjab has tried and tested both traditional parties for decades, too has caught on. His conviction is honed by experience that if the top leadership is honest, it quickly percolates down and the leakages that can be plugged in are being received well.

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Kejriwal also cautions how if the citizens continue voting for the corrupt parties, the debts will only double. The state’s top leadership will go back to their palatial hideouts not to be seen again for the next five years, while citizens continue to suffer.

Bhagwant Mann jumps in, to add that Punjab is an agricultural state, and therefore focus would be on smaller farmers, helping them to survive and thrive. Since the central government has a skewed policy of Minimum Support Price (MSP) on just rice and wheat, the farmers are forced to grow rice despite it being a water-intensive crop. Mann has promised to revert traditional farming methods, where crops were rotated to maintain the water table in the fields.

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Traders, medium and small who form the backbone of a political party have been promised that raids excise officials, who terrorized them with huge tax bills, if they were not bribed, will stop with immediate effects, like the way it did in Delhi. Delhi’s tax collection actually increased, not decreased as feared when taxes were reduced to 5-8% from 18 %. Many businesses and industries have moved out of Punjab in the last couple of decades, which AAP intends to correct.

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In just seven short years, Arvind Kejriwal has established himself as a gold standard in Indian politics, who delivers what he promises. With not a single blot of corruption found on him, his party, or party leaders, AAP has become an epitome of a clean, reliable competent government. In complete contrast is Modi’s reputation as a liar, a scam artist, whose credibility not just in India, but the rest of the world is also sinking.

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A very sustained, positive campaign, where Kejriwal/Mann have been talking about the Delhi model, to be replaced by a Punjab model soon, for the rest of the country is winning hearts. The infighting in the congress, for top leadership which refuses to settle down too, is helping AAP ground itself in Punjab much more strongly than in 2017. And if Punjab votes as decisively for AAP, as Delhi did, then both AAP and Punjab would rise as powerhouses, to provide a more credible, competent, and believable alternative to the rest of the country as well.

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Vijaylakshmi Nadar

Curated by Humra Kidwai, Compiled by Maham Abbasi

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Vijaylakshmi Nadar

Vijaylakshmi Nadar

Vijaylakshmi Nadar is the regional Bureau Chief of the USA based News Portal, "www.TheIndiaObserver.Com". She has been a fearless journalist for over two decades and has worked in several publications in Mumbai, India. She has worked for The Pioneer, The Daily, Afternoon Despatch, and Courier, Free Press Group, Life Positive, freelanced for The Federal, The Week, Midday, Deccan Herald, Herald-Citizen (USA), South Asian Times (USA). She is a broadcaster, commentator, interviewer besides being an investigative journalist. She has covered several beats, including politics, civic affairs, law, public health, crime, sports, environment. She has also been an assistant producer for a documentary film commissioned by PBS, on Methamphetamine addiction in Tennessee, called Crank: Darkness on the edge of town. She has also been a guest faculty teaching journalism at the School of Broadcasting, Mumbai.

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