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15 March 2017 Editorial


15 MARCH 2017

Fresh start in Punjab

The Congress’s victory in Punjab, bagging 77 of the 117 seats in the Assembly elections, comes as a salve for the beleaguered party. This is its first victory in a big State since Karnataka 2013, and it took a particularly feisty campaign led by Amarinder Singh. The party had to fend off not just the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance but also the challenge posed by the Aam Aadmi Party, which had made a significant foray in the State in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. The results suggest a strong anti-incumbency sentiment against the SAD-BJP coalition. In its decade-long stint in power, it may have helped build the State’s infrastructure. But during its second term, public distaste grew over the consolidation of power in the Badal family, and there were reports of corruption and high-handedness. The Congress managed to convert this disenchantment into support for itself, building a campaign around the leadership of Captain Singh and the promise of effective administration. The AAP, with its focus on rural areas, especially in the south-central Malwa region following its surprise success in 2014, made a play for the anti-Akali vote. But infighting and the absence of a grassroots presence or a clear State leader tested its organisation. In the end, the AAP was unable to substantially increase the vote share of around 24% that it had gained in 2014: a great chunk of the Akali-BJP vote went to the Congress.

The challenges the Congress administration faces are formidable. It must address the agrarian crisis as well as high unemployment in the State. Punjab leads the country in youth unemployment rate, and its urban centres need renewal. The drug problem continues to ravage rural Punjab, devastating families and nourishing a trafficking nexus. The high debt-to-GDP ratio (31.4% in 2015-16 against the national average of 22%) puts further constraints on the State administration. The Congress has no option but to deliver, as its performance in Punjab is the key to its revival in northern and western India where the BJP has won most Assembly elections over the past five years. Success here should also nudge the party to groom regional leaders elsewhere instead of being dependent on its high command, and more specifically, its vice-president, Rahul Gandhi. For the AAP, the presence of 20 members in the new legislature allows it an opportunity to develop a grassroots presence. AAP national convener Arvind Kejriwal has sought to move the party away from its early volunteer-driven model towards a more centralised organisation, with power concentrated in his hands. Its inability to convert the momentum generated in 2014 into a win in the Assembly election was partly a result of its failure in projecting a strong chief ministerial candidate.


On the rocks

The timing of the announcement by Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, to seek a second referendum on independence for Scotland may be no more than strategic. Her call on 13 March 2017 coincided with the U.K. Parliament’s adoption of a landmark legislation to begin talks to exit the European Union. But Ms. Sturgeon’s move should remind Westminster that the thought of separation from the British union has never fully been excised from the popular imagination in Scotland, despite the resounding 2014 vote to stay. Recent developments seem to have hardened public sentiment against continuing in the United Kingdom among the Scots, who had voted overwhelmingly in June 2016 to remain in the EU. The popular mood in favour of independence did surge briefly, as reflected in opinion polls soon after the Brexit vote. But the support receded in subsequent months. The prospects for a separate Scotland once again revived after British Prime Minister Theresa May’s landmark speech in January, in which she made clear her decision to quit the common market. It is futile to speculate on what better terms might have been offered to assuage sentiment in the north, as Ms. May has prioritised immigration control as the red line in her negotiations with her counterparts in the bloc. But Edinburgh has been growing more impatient of late with London over its demands.

The greatest political challenge for the Conservative government in London as it acts to take Britain out of the 28-country bloc, is to put forward a coherent and convincing case for Scotland to remain in the U.K. The economic argument for Edinburgh to leave is apparently at its weakest, given the recent slump in oil prices and a mounting fiscal deficit. The champions of access to the common market also run up against the argument that a large share of Scotland’s trade is within the U.K. However, such rational arguments against independence may not cut much ice given that London’s steps to effect Brexit continue to be divisive nearly a year after the vote. In fact, the advocates of independence are likely to argue that if London can rip apart a European partnership of four decades so easily on grounds of restoring national sovereignty, it may well one day reconsider Scottish devolution. But the proponents of Scottish separation would be most shortsighted to promise the moon to potential followers. In fact, countries such as Spain that are fighting their own secessionist movements are unlikely to back the current bid by the Scottish National Party. Edinburgh’s EU entry would have to be ratified by every single member state, a prospect that would commit them to make similar concessions. Europe’s leaders, alive to the sensitivities of undermining the sovereignty of member nations, have repeatedly cautioned against expectations of an automatic guarantee of admission in the event that Edinburgh exits Britain.


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