With neither the Congress nor the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the fray, the victory of the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal candidate in perhaps the last by-election before the Punjab assembly elections a year away, can be described as a facile win for the party.
It did not, however, stop Punjab deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal from grandly claiming the verdict this week from Khadoor Sahib Assembly constituency to be a "re-affirmation of the faith of people" in the Akali Dal. He said the rival parties had "run away" from a contest and his party together with its alliance partner, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), would replicate the performance in the assembly elections due next February.
He is entitled to his reading of the verdict but it is a refusal to acknowledge the groundswell of anger against the ruling dispensation brewing in the state. The mood in the state was reflected in the recent political rallies held at the Maghi Mela which provides a historic political platform for all major parties every year. The attendance at the rally organised by the Akali Dal, despite the use of government machinery, was far less than those organised by the AAP and the Congress.
The ruling coalition had also been facing a series of protests from farmers, government employees, workers and other sections of society. It had also recently faced a statewide agitation against a series of incidents of sacrilege.
Certainly, the by-election a year away from the high-stake assembly elections would have set the stage for a show of strength by rival political parties. The by-election was the result of the resignation of Congress MLA Ramanjit Singh Sikki in protest of the incidents of sacrilege and the failure of the government in arresting the culprits.
Two protesters were killed in police firing and Sikki had also been demanding action against the police personnel involved. His plea, and that of the Congress, for not contesting the by-election was that the issues raised by him before resigning have not been resolved and therefore, there was no point in contesting again.
Another major factor for the Congress not contesting the by-election was the advice given by poll strategist Prashant Kishor, who was consulted by Punjab Congress chief Capt Amarinder Singh. He has now been declared official advisor to the Congress in Punjab. Kishor apparently advised the party to avoid wastage of resources in the by-election and concentrate on the upcoming big fight for the assembly elections in 2017.
The AAP, which had caused a stir by winning all its four Lok Sabha seats from Punjab itself in 2014 and which is a serious contender in the ensuing assembly elections, had earlier decided not to contest any by-election from the state.
Its leader Arvind Kejriwal, who has declared that he would be replicating his party's performance in Delhi in the Punjab elections, has said that his party would rather concentrate on the larger goal of the party to attain power in the state.
This had left the field open for the Akali Dal with only half a dozen inconsequential independent candidates to deal with. The only point of interest left in the election was the victory margin and Sukhbir, who is also the SAD president, had left no stone unturned to get a respectable number of votes.
He did succeed thanks to the micromanagement in the constituency. For every group of three to five villages, the party put the responsibility on a minister or an MLA to ensure polling. Thus while barely ten per cent of the total votes were cast till noon, the obvious prompting by Akali Dal leaders ensured a decent polling in the afternoon leading to about 83,000 votes for the party candidate. However, the polling percentage dropped down to 58 per cent as compared with over 80 per cent in the 2012 assembly elections.
The constituency has been a stronghold of the Akali Dal but was wrested by the Congress by a narrow margin of 3,054 votes in the 2012 assembly elections. The Congress candidate secured about 66,000 votes against roughly 63,000 votes polled by the Akali Dal candidate. However, in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Akali Dal candidate had secured a lead of about 35,000 votes from the assembly segment with the AAP bagging 12,300 votes.
Although neither the Congress nor the AAP ran any campaign to encourage none of the above (NOTA) votes, poll observers were looking with interest at the number of voters opting for NOTA. In the end, the third largest number of voters opted for NOTA but far less than what many had expected.
What may also take the sheen away from the facile victory for the Akali Dal is that the local unit of its coalition partner, the BJP, too boycotted the election and refused to back the joint alliance candidate from Akali Dal. That was mainly due to local political rivalries but it prompted BJP national president Amit Shah to hold a meeting with Sukhbir to iron out the differences between the leaders of the two parties at the state level.
It was decided that the alliance partners would have better coordination but differences among a section of leaders and workers of the two parties continue to persist. The two parties cannot afford to contest separately, as was being contemplated by some BJP leaders after the 2014 Lok Sabha victory, but the continued bad blood may further wreck the chances of the alliance partners in the next elections.