Chandigarh, Jan 11
With just over 20 days to go for crucial assembly elections in Punjab, political uncertainty looms over the frontier state on the issue of who will assume power post-March 11, once the results are declared.
The reason for this is that Punjab, for the first time, is witnessing triangular contests in most of the 117 assembly constituencies.
Traditional rivals, the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) combine and the Congress, are not only fighting each other, but are aware of the political challenge being posed by the latest entrant on Punjab's political turf -- the fledgling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).
As of today, none of the parties seems to have the edge, even though each one of them claims to be heading for a clear, and even sweeping, majority in the February 4 election. Not surprisingly, in this uncertain period, a rather unusual question is being asked: "Will Punjab end up with a hung assembly?"
Till about a year ago, the AAP had made formidable inroads in the state and opinion polls even suggested a massive win. But a lot has changed since then.
After seemingly peaking at the wrong time, the AAP started imploding politically from June last year. Thus, the party is fighting two battles -- one with the Akali Dal-BJP and Congress, and the second one within itself.
Allegations of corruption in allotment of tickets, accusations of immoral activities of some leaders, lack of any big leader from Punjab who could be projected as the party's face, and internal rumblings about "outsiders" -- mainly leaders from Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and other states -- running the AAP show in Punjab at the cost of local leaders, have all taken a toll on the party.
In the past six months, there has been an exodus of state and district level leaders from the fold. But top party leaders like Arvind Kejriwal, Sanjay Singh, Durgesh Pathak and others are upbeat about AAP repeating a "Delhi-type political magic in Punjab" when it won 67 of the 70 assembly seats in the 2015 assembly polls.
Things are not too tidy either with the ruling Akali Dal-BJP alliance or the main opposition party -- the Congress, which believes it is on an upswing.
The Akali Dal-BJP alliance, which has been in power in the state since 2007 for two consecutive terms, is aiming for a third stint. Akali Dal president and Punjab Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal is out to once again deploy his strategic skills which, in the 2012 assembly election, broke the five-year Akali-Congress cycle of governments.
But his party faces anti-incumbency of the past decade, charges of corruption, and criticism that the financial health and clout of the ruling Badal family -- headed by 89-year-old Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal -- has been multiplying at the cost of the state.
There also allegations of the Badals patronising drug cartels and other mafias in money-spinning businesses like sand mining, infrastructure, transport and cable TV, et al.
In this background, it is not surprising that the Congress, led by former Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, feels it has an edge over its opponents.
Not all, however, is hunky-dory for the party.
It is facing rebels who could rock its boat. While accepting discarded leaders from the Akali Dal, BJP and AAP into its fold ahead of the elections, the Congress has ended up making things more complicated for itself in the matter of ticket allocations.
The party, which, going by Amarinder Singh's own statements, wanted to allocate tickets to candidates six months in advance, has failed to provide a complete list even a month before the polls.
All the three major players are charting a difficult and uncertain course, leaving the voters a tad confused about which is the lesser evil.
(Jaideep Sarin can be contacted at email@example.com)