Landslide win for Sikhs in Punjab

Chandigarh - A Sikh party was poised yesterday to rule India's Punjab state for the next five years after a landslide victory in the first peaceful elections in nearly two decades.

The Akali Dal, led by the former chief minister, Prakash Singh Badal, and its ally the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won an overwhelming four-fifths of the 117 seats in the state legislature.

"The Hindus dominate the cities. The BJP is their major mouthpiece. Sikhs dominate the countryside. The combination is formidable," said Ashis Nandy, an analyst at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi.

It was a significant win for the Sikh party, which won a dominant 74 seats after boycotting the last Punjab elections in 1992. The state's ruling Congress party was reduced to only 14 seats.

Some 69 per cent of the state's 15 million voters had turned out for Friday's polls, in sharp contrast with 1992 when 22 per cent voted in an election overshadowed by Sikh separatist violence.

A rival, pro-separatist faction of the Akali Dal won just one seat in yesterday's final tally. Its leader, former police official turned militant, Simranjit Singh Mann, was defeated.

Mr Badal, 69, is expected to take office as Punjab's chief minister later this week.

The rich farming region bordering Pakistan has been rocked by years of guerrilla violence. Analysts said the Akali Dal's poll alliance with the BJP offered Sikhs and Hindus a chance to overcome the distrust. "The Akalis never encouraged militancy. They were soft on the militants. The militancy was the handiwork of groups which were opposed to the Akalis," Mr Nandy said.

The landslide victory should reduce pressure on Prime Minister Deve Gowda's United Front alliance, analysts said yesterday. The once-monolithic Congress Party governs only six of India's 26 states and has been reduced to a reluctant supporter of the country's fractious ruling centre-left coalition.

The analysts said Congress was expected to scale down its frequent threats to topple the United Front alliance, which took power last June, and force mid-term elections at the national level.

"The Congress will simply have to pause," said Surjit Grewal, a political analyst in Punjab's capital, Chandigarh. "The lesson in Punjab is that the Congress is extremely unpopular here. The scene can't be much brighter for it in other regions."

Akali Dal leaders said the Punjab election also held a lesson for the BJP. "The BJP should now realise the benefits of having the support of minorities," said Akali Dal spokesman Kanwaljit Singh. "I do believe the party has to seek a policy of moderation if it truly wants to govern India."