Political parties have a strange life cycle. For decades organisational structures can remain
entrenched, and then suddenly everything crashes. The Congress party in Punjab, which
barely weeks back was poised to win a second term in the upcoming legislative elections, now
faces challenges that are not just electoral but also existential.

From Captain Amarinder Singh’s forced resignation and replacement by the state’s first Dalit
Chief Minister in Charanjit Singh Channi to the resignation of Navjot Singh Sidhu as the
president of the state unit, the Punjab Congress finds itself in a precarious situation.

Though the outcome of this crisis will have consequences for the party beyond the borders of Punjab, its fortunes within the state have become a focus of intense scrutiny, more importantly, because Punjab remains the only state in North India where the Congress still dominates.

But what explains this apparent paradox? How did the Congress remain entrenched in Punjab with the highest vote-share consistently, while in its neighbouring states it continues to lose ground? This question is not just a banal historical inquiry. To fully understand what is going on in Punjab, one has to first understand the unique role that the party plays in the political system of the state.

The Congress System

The answer lies in the way Congress functions under the sociological conditions of Punjab. The state’s electorate is neatly divided into two religious blocks, Sikhs and Hindus, with a third division of Scheduled Castes that runs through them.

This allows for the party to function in its old style ‘Congress System’, the phrase made popular by political scientist Rajni Kothari in the 1960s, when the Congress dominated Indian parliamentary politics, turning it into a one-party dominant system. While the Congress of today may be in decline, it is important to remember why it succeeded when it was at the top of the game.

The Congress of the 1950s and 1960s operated with historical legitimacy because of its leadership in the independence movement. But more importantly, similar to many post-colonial democratic experiments, parties such as the Congress were well suited to governing pluralistic societies because of their non-sectarian character.

The Congress became an umbrella party that attracted support from across regional and social lines. As this ‘party of consensus’, it was able to marginalise opposition parties by absorbing their social bases within its organisational framework and representative structures. Or to put it simply, it managed to internalise social competition.

During this period, any ambitious Congress leader who wanted to gain an upper hand within the party, had to build his or her faction by drawing new cadres and mobilising new social bases outside the party’s traditional base. In doing so, social competition was never fully allowed to move beyond the party’s internal politicking and become a threat in the electoral arena.

Factionalism may be ripping apart the Congress of today, partly because the conditions have changed. But when Congress was the hegemon, factionalism was a feature of the system and not a bug. And Punjab is one of the rare states today where the party continues to behave in this fashion, and this is what explains its success.

Congress dominance in Punjab

It seems Punjab structurally favours an umbrella party like the Congress. Unlike Uttar Pradesh, where the party system fractured and left the Congress with virtually no social base, or other Hindi states where the BJP has turned legislative politics into a two-party contest, in Punjab the ‘Congress System’ still survives.

It does so because the Congress expresses the state’s three main social cleavages. Take the current decision of nominating a Dalit Sikh Chief Minister, with two Deputy Chief Ministers, one a rural Jatt Sikh and the other an urban Hindu.

These three categories can be grouped as the Punjab’s main demographic blocs. Though Dalits make up 31.9% of the state’s population according to the 2011 census, the highest percentage for a state in India, there are deep religious and regional divisions within this category, limiting the possibility of them functioning as a single politically conscious vote-bank.

The Jatt Sikhs make up around 20-25% of the state’s population, while urban non-Dalit Hindus constitute another 15-20%. These figures, of course, being the best guess. If one sees the CSDS data on the voting preferences of various caste groups in Punjab, there seems a clear trend.

The Congress over the years has been able to sustain its support from all the demographics. In the last two decades, almost half of the total Dalits, non-Dalit Hindus, OBC Sikhs and a third of the total Jatts have consistently voted for the Congress. For this reason, barring one election, the Congress’ vote-share in the state assembly has always been the highest.

Community-Wise Vote Share in Punjab Assembly Elections (Source: Lokniti CSDS)

But this also brings back the issue of factionalism.

While many have been predicting a break up of the Congress in Punjab after the events this week, this still remains a distant possibility. As mentioned before, factionalism in the ‘Congress System’ is a sign of dynamism and not decline. Punjab’s Congress, like other Congress state units, has had a glorious tradition of factional conflicts.

But instead of splitting the party, like they did in other states, these paradoxically have ensured that the party remains entrenched in Punjab, as the factions are forced to mobilise new social coalitions that may otherwise be the vote-bank of an opposition party.

This advantage, as mentioned before, is only reserved for a party of consensus like the Congress, which as the dominant force is not dependent on a single social base like its opponents. Therefore, while at the national level the Congress may require some deep structural and ideological introspection, it seems in Punjab the old system still gave results.

The future

So can the Congress never lose sway in Punjab? Obviously, the answer is it can. Under the current party system, the Congress is only displaced through inter-party coalitions that add up their social bases to topple the Congress. The need for the Akali Dal to tie up with the BSP, after it ended its alliance with the BJP, is a testament to the limitation these parties face against the Congress.

With Punjab’s troubled history of communal conflict, this is perhaps the most important aspect of its party system. Punjab’s legislative politics has broadly promoted social coalition-building, either within the Congress, or outside it, like the tie-up between Akali Dal and the BJP.

So, if Congress were to decline in the state, it will certainly have consequences. If the
current crisis within the party’s state leadership is not resolved, there seem two possible
scenarios: One is where the Aam Aadmi Party just displaces the Congress as the party of consensus. The other would see the Congress just splintering and the state’s party-system disintegrating to a
multiparty one.

While generally this does not matter much for most democracies, in Punjab’s case it could spell disaster, incentivising ethnic or communal forces to take increasingly hardline stances, recreating conditions for communal violence. Such an outcome is, of course, just speculation, but as they say, in politics you can never say never.

Gurmat Singh Brar is a researcher working with the State Capacity Initiative at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.