With the 2017 Assembly elections looming large in Punjab, coalition partners Shiromani Akali Dal and the Bharatiya Janata Party are focusing on their core constituencies and strengthening their bases in a bid to regain power for the third consecutive time.

The time-tested electoral partners have successfully carved their niches – the Akali Dal is dominant in rural areas and represents the panthic agenda, while the BJP has its stronghold in Hindu-dominated urban areas.

Punjab, along with four other states, is slated to go to polls early next year.

Laying the ground

Of the 117 Assembly seats in the state, the BJP usually contests from 23, leaving the rest for the Akali Dal. This seat-sharing arrangement is likely to continue in the upcoming polls, to keep the alliance in good stead to take on a stiff challenge from the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party.

Over the last few months, while the Akali Dal has taken several initiatives directed at garnering the support of Sikhs and farmers, the BJP has been strengthening its Hindutva agenda and catering to the demands of its supporters in urban areas.

In March this year, with an eye on appeasing farmers, the state government stunned the nation when it passed the Satluj-Yamuna Link Canal Land (Transfer of Property Rights) Bill, 2016. The Bill provides for the return of the land acquired from farmers for the construction of the contentious canal that enables water-sharing between Punjab and Haryana. The move came even as a presidential reference on the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act, 2004 – which terminates all agreements on sharing of water with neighbouring states – is pending in the Supreme Court. Local leaders also encouraged farmers to level parts of the canal that had already been built.

Then, in the same month, the Punjab government passed a bill that advocates life imprisonment for anyone found desecrating the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs. This was done in the aftermath of a series of such incidents in the state, which attracted severe criticism for the government.

The Akali Dal also pursued the Centre to pass the Sikh Gurdwaras (Amendment) Bill, 2016, which allows only Amritdhari Sikhs (those who have been baptised) to vote in elections to the Shiromani Gurudwara Parbandhak Committee. This amendment would ensure that SAD keeps its hold on the committee, considered the mini-Parliament of Sikhs, which controls clergy and has at its disposal huge funds from devotees.

Moves for cow-protection

Junior partner the BJP, on the other hand, has started asserting itself in the alliance to strengthen its Hindutva agenda and is also pushing for concessions for the trading community. It recently pressurised its senior partner to generate funds for the cow protection – which resulted in the plan to implement a cow cess, as part of which, to make provisions for fodder for stray cattle and the creation of more cow shelters, a levy of Rs 10 would be collected for each bottle of India Made Foreign Liquor and Rs 5 on each bottle of country liquor and beer.

The current IMFL and beer sale is currently worth Rs 2500 crore in Punjab which translates into consumption of about 840 lakh bottles of IMLF and 504 lakh beer bottles annually, besides 18.36 crore bottles of desi liquor.

State local bodies minister and BJP member Anil Joshi said that a notification on the cess will be issued later this month.

Besides liquor, a cess of Rs 1,000 has been proposed on the purchase of each four-wheeler and Rs 500 on two-wheelers.

This in a state that already has the distinction of planning a Rs 5-crore cow memorial – the Rashtriya Shaheedi Gau Samarak – at Joga village in Mansa district, where carcasses of about 50 cows were found at the site of an abandoned mill in 2012. Work on the memorial, however, is stuck due to opposition from the local panchayat, but the government is in talks with them.

Interestingly, after the Joga incident, the Punjab Assembly had taken the unprecedented step of condoling the death of the cows in the obituary references in the Assembly. This left the Vidhan Sabha staff in a fix over whom to send the formal condolence message to – as the standard practice is to send it to the next of kin.

Punjab is also one of the few states in the country where cow slaughter can attract imprisonment of up to 10 years. It has also set up a Punjab Gau Sewa Commission, the chairman of which, Keemti Lal Bhagat, has been demanding budgetary allocation of at least Rs 22 crore.

The BJP had been asserting itself in the alliance more strongly since the 2014 elections, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi swept the party to power at the Centre.

The BJP’s recent victory in the Assam polls and its improved performance in the other state elections have come as a boost to the coalition partners.

More importantly, the Congress’ virtual decimation has increased their hopes for a hat-trick in the upcoming state polls, even as they will have to brace themselves to contend with a meticulous AAP, making it a three-cornered contest in the state for the first time.