As the 2022 election season begins, many Australians will be focused as much on Washington as on Canberra. Australia’s elections will generate much reasoned debate, but the American midterms will probably generate more passion. Will Republicans sweep into the House of Representatives, dethroning Nancy Pelosi and invigorating the Fauci e-mail investigation? Will the Senate turn Republican before Joe Biden has the opportunity to appoint a justice to the Supreme Court? Tune in and watch the drama unfold.
Whoever wins power in Washington, the close relationship between Australia and the United States is unlikely to change. But one overseas election this year is likely to be much more consequential for Australia, and it’s not even a national election. It’s the 2022 Legislative Assembly election in Punjab.
Punjabis go to the polls this Sunday to fill all 117 seats in their unicameral Legislative Assembly. These elections are particularly relevant for Australia’s large and rapidly growing Sikh community, most of it composed of recent immigrants with close ties to their homeland. Confrontations between Sikh protesters and Hindu supporters of the Indian government even spilled over into intercommunal violence in Western Sydney last year. The December lynching of an unidentified man who apparently attempted to desecrate the Sikh holy book at the Golden Temple in Amritsar has further raised tensions.
The Punjab Assembly is currently dominated by the Indian National Congress (INC), which holds 77 seats. Its nearest rival holds just 13 seats, with India’s nationally dominant Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) holding only 5. But the INC’s supermajority is based on garnering only a thin plurality of just 38.5 per cent of the vote in 2017, making the situation inherently unstable. With much voting occurring along caste and religious lines, the potential for violence is real.
India’s prime minister Narendra Modi remains popular nationally, but holds little personal appeal among Punjab’s Sikh community. Nonetheless, shifting political alliances have returned the BJP and its local coalition partners to a competitive position for 2022. But a third national party, the rapidly expanding Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), is actually tipped to win the largest vote proportion, according to the most recent poll.
All three major electoral coalitions are fronted by Sikh candidates. This reflects the historical status of Punjab as the Sikh homeland: most of India’s 21 million Sikhs live in Punjab. But Sikhs make up only 58 per cent of Punjab’s total population, leaving many non-Sikhs potentially feeling disenfranchised in Punjabi politics. Caste divisions also complicate the situation, cutting across religious lines.
Punjab, the ‘sword arm of India’, looms large in the Anglo-Australian imperial imagination. The historical territory of Punjab was enormous, taking in today’s Punjab, Haryana, and much of Himachal Pradesh states in India as well as the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly North-West Frontier) provinces in Pakistan. It is the land of the Sikh Empire, the Golden Temple, and the ‘Lion of Punjab’ Ranjit Singh.
It was also the land of Partition. Roughly 1 million people were killed in partition of India in 1947 (no one knows the exact number), must of them in Punjab. Punjab later experienced a wave of Sikh separatist terrorism in the 1980s that was aggressively suppressed by the Indian government. In 1983, when Sikh extremists occupied the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the Indian Army stormed the complex in a bloodbath that killed thousands on both sides. Later that year, India’s prime minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards.
The Punjabi separatist ‘Khalistan’ movement is now largely dormant in India, but it remains active in exile, with important hubs in Canada and the United Kingdom. Australia’s Indian diaspora community has historically avoided the exported conflicts that have plagued other countries, but that relative peace may be coming to an end. For example, a Hindu Indian student who had been jailed for assaulting Sikhs in western Sydney was hailed as a hero on his return to his native Haryana. He claimed his violence had been motivated by protecting the Indian flag against Sikh separatist desecration.
As it happens, India’s Republic Day coincides with Australia Day. Although most locals respond to the burning of Australian flags by ‘Invasion Day’ activists with little more than a sad shaking of heads, Hindu nationalists are more likely to meet the burning of Indian flags with vandalism and beatings. All this happens in the suburbs, far from city centres and the attention of the Australian media, with coverage relegated to the SBS. But as Australia becomes an ever more multicultural country, it has to pay closer attention to international politics in countries like India. They’re likely to hit much closer to home than anything that happens in Washington.
Salvatore Babones is an associate professor at the University of Sydney