New Delhi, Jan 14: Although two opinion polls have given different findings about which party will be the winner in Punjab, conventional wisdom is that the ruling Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) combine will have a hard time overcoming the anti-incumbency factor.
The reason is, first, the drug problem to which a sizable section of the youth has fallen victim. Moreover, not only has the Parkash Singh Badal government failed to act effectively to check the menace, there are suspicions too about the clandestine involvement of high-ups in the government, including a minister, in the narcotics trade.
Secondly, Punjab is no longer quite the prosperous state as is commonly perceived because of the prevailing bankruptcy as alleged by the former Finance Minister and the Chief Minister's nephew, Manpreet Singh Badal, who is now in the Congress after having been expelled from the Akali Dal for making the charge.
Thirdly, there is said to be an element of disquiet outside the Akali Dal's core group of rural supporters about the Badal government's conversion into a family enterprise with Prakash Singh Badal's son, Sukhbir Singh Badal, assuming the Deputy Chief Minister's post.
There is little doubt that if the Akalis win, he will be the Chief Minister, replacing his 89-year-old father. But, in case the anti-incumbency factor heralds the Akali Dal's winter of discontent, which party will gain?
At one time, the Aam Admi Party (AAP) was expected to be the main gainer if only because it unexpectedly won four out of the 13 parliamentary seats in the 2014 general elections with 24.4 per cent votes, next only to the Akali Dal, which also won four seats with 26.3 per cent votes.
But the AAP leaders then still had the reputation of being knights in shining armour, ready to cleanse the system of sleaze and provide a government close to the hearts of the people.
But that image has been dented to a considerable extent by its indifferent performance in Delhi and constant tiffs with the Centre and the Lt. Governor, with the result that few expect it to score an outright victory in Punjab.
Instead, it is expected to be the third behind the Akali Dal-BJP combine and the Congress. The political scene can be said, therefore, to have remained more or less the same with the two heavyweights continuing to be the dominant forces with the AAP and the BJP being minor players.
Of the two frontrunners, the Congress may expect to reap the harvest of anti-incumbency, not least because its 40.1 per cent vote share in 2012 was more than the Akali Dal's 34.7.
What saved the Akali Dal in that year was its alliance with the BJP since the two together won 68 seats (Akali Dal 56, BJP 12) against the Congress's 46, an increase of two seats from 2007.
However, there was a fall in the voting percentages of both the Akali Dal and the BJP since 2007 while there was a marginal increase in the Congress's vote share.
If these straws in the wind are taken into consideration, the Congress can look forward with some confidence to the ensuing contest. Besides, it has in Amrinder Singh a veteran of many battles with a "born to rule" image because of his "royal" lineage.
But the Congress's disadvantage remains its central leadership and especially Rahul Gandhi, who does not give the impression of being a hands-on, mature and responsible leader.
His equations with Amrinder Singh are also far from being warm presumably because the scion of the "royal" family of Patiala once said that the crown prince of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty lacks the experience to head the Congress party.
However, Amrinder Singh cannot be unaware that in case the Congress comes out on top, it will be Gandhi who will be credited with the victory by the latter's band of sycophants although to nearly all the others, the kudos should really go to the Captain, as Amrinder Singh is called.
A Congress victory may also pave the way for Rahul Gandhi's long-awaited ascent to the position of party president, which may not be the best thing for the Congress since, to most observers, Amrinder Singh's doubts about his capabilities are not invalid. There is little doubt, however, that out of the elections in five states in February and March, the best chance for the Congress is in Punjab.
If the party can pull it off in the state, it will go a long way to counter the demoralisation that had set in after its disastrous performance in the last general election and the subsequent defeats in a number of assembly elections, including in Delhi, Maharashtra, Haryana, Assam and Kerala. A victory may not mean that the effects of "Rahu kaal" are over for the Congress, but it will show nevertheless that there is still some life left in the old warhorse.