The Aam Aadmi Party’s spectacular win in Delhi, getting 62 of 70 seats and a vote share of nearly 54 percent, has undoubtedly come as a boost to the other state where AAP has a significant presence – Punjab.
AAP’s sole Lok Sabha MP – Bhagwant Mann from Sangrur – is from Punjab and it has 19 MLAs in the 117 Assembly. The Leader of the Opposition in Punjab, Harpal Singh Cheema, is also from AAP.
Besides the massive extent of the win in Delhi, what has also excited AAP’s Punjab unit is its wins in Sikh and Punjabi dominated seats like Tilak Nagar, Hari Nagar, Rajouri Garden, Rajinder Nagar, Moti Nagar, Kalkaji and Jangpura.
This is despite the Shiromani Akali Dal supporting the BJP and the fact that Congress fielded a large number of Sikh candidates.
However, there are still many hurdles in front of AAP’s revival in Punjab.
Decline After 2014 Success
In its debut Lok Sabha election in 2014, AAP made a massive impact in Punjab, winning four seats. But the party has weakened since then.
Despite leading in over 30 Assembly segments in the Lok Sabha polls, AAP managed to win only 20 seats in the 2017 Assembly polls, mostly in the Malwa region – the epicentre of agrarian distress.
This worsened further in the local body polls, the Gurdaspur and Amritsar bypolls and finally the 2019 Lok Sabha polls in which AAP was reduced from four seats to just one.
The pertinent question here is: Is AAP down and out or is there a scope of revival?
The return to power in Delhi gives AAP a unique opportunity and it could revive in Punjab provided it keeps in mind these five issues:
1. Factionalism & Differences With Central Leadership
At the root of AAP’s troubles lies factionalism in the state unit and a constant tug-of-war with the central leadership. For instance, AAP has had three Leaders of Opposition in Punjab in the last three years: HS Phoolka, Sukhpal Singh Khaira and now Harpal Cheema. Both Phoolka and Khaira have left the party.
Two of the party’s state unit chiefs – Suchha Singh Chhotepur and Gurpreet ‘Ghuggi’ Warraich also fell out with the party. Most of AAP’s estranged leaders blame excessive interference from the central leadership.
There was also criticism that AAP allowed non-Punjabi leaders like Durgesh Pathak to run Punjab affairs, which was resented by many local leaders.
One major event that created a rupture between the Delhi and Punjab leadership was AAP convener Arvind Kejriwal’s “apology” to Shiromani Akali Dal leader Bikram Majithia for calling him a “drug lord”.
Sending Majitha to jail was one of AAP’s major promises in the run-up to the 2017 Assembly polls, so this apology came as a loss of face to the party in the state. The then Leader of Opposition, Sukhpal Khaira, was particularly vocal in criticising Kejriwal for this.
2. Understand the Vacuum in Punjab
For the past two decades, the SAD-BJP combine on one hand and the Congress on the other have dominated Punjab’s politics. Right from the chief minister’s office to the entrenchment of ‘halqa in-charges’ at the local level, these two formations have mostly stood for the interests of the elite.
This has alienated much of Punjab’s masses from the political class and there is a huge clamour for change.
The Lokniti-CSDS pre-poll survey for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections showed that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had a negative approval rating in Punjab and Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh wasn’t popular either.
The Badals too continue to be disliked and Captain is seen as someone who is going soft on them on cases like the Bargari sacrilege and Kotkapura firing.
Punjab has witnessed several mass protests in the past few years, such as the Bargari Morcha as well as protests by farmers in the Malwa region. There is a massive clamour for change, not just a change in government but a change from the SAD-BJP-Congress political system.
Even in the Lok Sabha elections, alternative parties secured 24 percent of the votes, of which AAP’s share was 7.6 percent and the Punjab Democratic Alliance had 10.6 percent.
To revive in Punjab, AAP needs to capture the entire alternative space and project itself as the strongest challenger to both the Congress and the SAD-BJP alliance.
3. Unite All ‘Alternative’ Players
As of now, the alternative space in Punjab politics is badly splintered between AAP, BSP, Lok Insaf Party, Punjabi Ekta Party, SAD (Taksali) and the Left parties. To emerge as an alternative, AAP would need to bring together many of these disparate elements within its fold or through an alliance.
A beginning could be made by bringing back several estranged AAP leaders like former Patiala MP Dr Dharamvira Gandhi, Sukhpal Khaira and other rebel AAP MLAs, perhaps even Phoolka.
4. Project a Leader
One of the mistakes AAP made in the 2017 elections was to not project a chief ministerial face. The party gave mixed signals on this, at times hinting that Kejriwal could shift to Punjab and at times pitching leaders like Mann and Phoolka.
The Congress capitalised on this confusion by running a personality-centric and solution-oriented campaign focussed on Captain.
If AAP has to emerge as an alternative in Punjab, it would have to project a CM face in the state. Of all parties, AAP would know the importance of a CM face given its recent victory in Delhi.
AAP’s consultant Prashant Kishor, who worked with Captain’s campaign in 2017, also works best when he has a strong face to project.
The problem here is: Who? Phoolka, who is widely respected, is no longer with the party. State leaders like Mann, Cheema and Aman Arora don’t have the stature to take on Captain and the Badals.
The X-Factor here is Navjot Singh Sidhu. Sidelined by Captain, Sidhu resigned as minister from the Punjab government. He also avoided campaigning against AAP in Delhi, despite being listed as a star campaigner for the Congress.
This has sparked speculation that he could be open to becoming AAP’s face in Punjab if he isn’t rehabilitated in the Congress.
Also, Sidhu is one of the few mainstream politicians who remains somewhat popular in Punjab, mainly due to the key role he played in convincing Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan to construct the Kartarpur Sahib corridor.
He was one of the few Indian politicians who was allowed to speak in the inaugural function organised by the Pakistan side.
Sidhu was negotiating with AAP even in the run-up to the 2017 polls, but he eventually chose the Congress. This time, an AAP that is desperate for survival in Punjab, may be much more amenable to giving Sidhu whatever he wants.
5. Take a Stand
There are many aspects of the AAP campaign in the recent Delhi election that can be replicated in Punjab. In a state where agrarian distress and unemployment are huge issues, AAP’s thrust on welfare schemes and populism may work in Punjab.
But Punjab may involve taking a stand on certain contentious issues that AAP studiously avoided in the Delhi campaign.
Being a Sikh majority state, Punjab has a very strong anti-Hindutva sentiment and AAP would be expected to take a firm stand on any issue related to secularism.
For instance, on the Citizenship Amendment Act, even BJP ally Akali Dal had to publicly criticise the law even after voting in favour of it in Parliament. This was mostly keeping in mind the public opinion in Punjab.
The revocation and bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir also provoked large scale protests in Punjab, with Sikh bodies, farmers bodies taking to the streets against the centre’s decision.
AAP had supported this move but its sole MP from Punjab, Mann, stayed absent during the vote, ostensibly to avoid a backlash back home in the state.
In Punjab and especially among Sikhs, people like those who bat for the underdog and take on the powers that be. This is especially the case when it comes to religious minorities.
Therefore, a Delhi-style purely populist campaign may not be enough to woo Punjab’s electorate.
Also, it must be remembered that unlike Delhi, Modi is not popular in Punjab. Therefore, AAP will be expected to not pull its punches at the PM, the way it did in Delhi.
A lot depends on whether Kejriwal’s priorities remain Delhi centric like the last two years or if he is keen on a national expansion for AAP. Two other key players here would be Kishor and Sidhu. How they play their cards would also be crucial.
Punjab craves an alternative, but it’s not clear if AAP is ready to be that yet.
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