Chandigarh: As the Election Commission advanced the date of the elections for Punjab's 117 Assembly seats to January 30, against the expected date of mid-February, the main players in the state's political arena have been forced to step up the gas.
This time, instead of the direct contest between the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) combine and the opposition Congress, the emergence of former Punjab finance minister Manpreet Badal and his newly floated People's Party of Punjab (PPP) as a third force will make the contest on majority of the seats a triangular one.
Even though the Akali Dal and the Congress have been describing Manpreet and his PPP as a party of "no consequence", senior leaders of both parties are actually worried about how much the PPP will dent into their vote banks.
More than anyone else, it is the ruling Akali Dal which has to be more worried about the PPP. With ideological differences over issues of subsidies and governance leaving them estranged, Manpreet Badal left the government, headed by his uncle Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, in October last year. He was the finance minister in the Badal government then.
Within days, he was expelled from the Akali Dal, a party headed by his first cousin Sukhbir Singh Badal, the deputy chief minister of the state.
"We will prove to the Akali Dal and the Congress that we (PPP) matter in Punjab. We will give them a tough fight on every seat," PPP chief Manpreet Badal said.
No party in the state is sure of coming clear in this Assembly poll though they are all claiming a "landslide victory" for themselves.
The Akali Dal-BJP have to face the anti-incumbency factor combined with the prospect of the PPP eating into the Akali Dal vote bank. Of the 117 seats, the Akalis are likely to leave 23 seats for the BJP while contesting the remaining 94. It has announced its first list of 48 candidates, including Chief Minister Badal who will fight from his traditional seat of Lambi in Muktsar district.
"We will contest the election on the development card. The Akali Dal-BJP government (2007-2012) has ushered a lot of development on all fronts. The political atmosphere in the state today indicates that this will be the biggest victory of my career for the SAD and the BJP," Chief Minister Badal said.
The Congress, on the other hand, does not really know how much of a dent national issues like corruption, the Anna Hazare campaign, price rise and scams will have on the Punjab elections.
"We have mobilized our cadres, who are very excited about these elections, by holding over 40 rallies in the last one and a half months. But the Akali-BJP leaders and workers are feeling demoralized over the early announcement as they wanted the elections to be delayed," Punjab Congress president and former chief minister Amarinder Singh said.
In the outgoing Assembly, the Akali Dal has 45 legislators while alliance partner BJP has 19 – the total strength of the alliance is 64. The Congress has 44 legislators while there are five independents. Manpreet Badal had resigned from the Assembly earlier this year. Four seats are vacant, three owing to resignations and one due to the death of a legislator.
The state has 17.4 million (1.74 crore) electors this time.