As Punjab heads into the 14th Assembly elections, it can look back with pride at the supremacy of democratic norms it has established, overcoming not only two decades of terrorism but also proving to be a pioneer in political alliances.
Starting with Congress domination after Partition in 1947, vigorous multi-party politics took off after the reorganisation of the state in 1966, which led to the carving out of Haryana and Chandigarh. Ever since, a national party — the Congress — and a regional party — the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), which all along remained in alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or its earlier avatars — have been ruling the state alternately. Of course, the period has been interspersed with varying spells of President's rule, either because of political uncertainty or because of the terrorism for over two decades.
The period of disturbance also witnessed major boycott of the electoral process, first in 1985, when certain wings of the Akalis stayed away, and then in 1992, when the mainstream Akali Dal did not join the polls. In 1991, when Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar called elections to restore democracy in the state, the Congress decided to stay away.
Intriguingly, a day before polling, the elections were called off, as by then the Congress had come back to power at the Centre. Subsequently, when the elections were held in February 1992, the Akalis led by Parkash Singh Badal boycotted. Only an Akali faction led by Capt Amarinder Singh contested 58 of the 117. It won three.
The only time Punjab electors did not give any party or alliance a clear mandate was the 1967 election, the first after the Reorganisation of the state. The Congress got only 48 of the 104 seats.
It was during this time that the Akalis had their first tryst with power by getting all non-Congress parties to form the United Front government. It was the first multi-party coalition government in the state.
The first test for the Akalis came in 1962, when they sought the people's verdict with Punjabi Suba as the main issue. Of the 42 seats contested by them, they won 19. The Jan Sangh won eight, as against 90 won by the Congress. The Akali Dal could not stay together, splitting into Sant Fateh Singh and Master Tara Singh groups.
The 1966 Reorganisation was a watershed. It not only introduced the politics of coalitions, but also blunted the supremacy of the Congress in state.
Election results since 1967 reveal that the percentage of votes polled by national parties, mainly the Congress, with the exception of 1977 and 1997, has been more than 50.
In 1967, for example, when Punjab had its first coalition government — the United Front — the Congress had polled 36.56 per cent votes against 26.47 per cent by all state parties. The overall votes polled by national parties, including the Congress, Jana Sangh, CPI, CPM, Praja Socialist Party and the Swatantra Party, was 56.60 per cent.
The share of national parties dropped to 40.29 per cent — the only time below 50 per cent — in 1997, when besides 26.59 per cent of the Congress votes, all national parties, including the BJP, CPI and the CPM, had aggregated 40.29 per cent.
Till date, the SAD has never crossed the 40 per cent barrier. Its best was in 1985, when it got 38.01 per cent of the total votes.
A distinguishing aspect of Punjab politics has been that the Akalis, even when securing majority, have been aligning with the BJP (earlier Bharatiya Jan Sangh). This combination cut into both Sikh and Hindu votes of the Congress.
The 1992 election was exceptional, as it was boycotted by the mainstream SAD. A faction of the Dal led by the then party rebel Capt Amarinder Singh, contested 58 seats, but won only three. The circumstances also gave the Bahujan Samaj Party to make a beginning in the state. The outfit of the downtrodden got 16.32 per cent of the votes, and nine seats.
The year 1997 saw the beginning of a period of political stability, with the SAD-BJP alliance forming the government with overwhelming majority. Ever since, the Congress and the SAD-BJP alliance have been taking turns at running the state.