“Until now it is AAP, but if they goof up more, we shall throw our might behind the Congress". This was the refrain in the villages of Punjab in October 2016, before the political parties distributed the seats and the voters clamped up. Most of the last-round reporting before the polls reported a silent vote. The opinion polls predicted a neck-and-neck fight. What we forgot is that the people are watching. People will decide. Newsrooms and opinion pieces do not decide the elections, in Punjab at least.
To understand this, we need to step back a bit. Eighteen months ago, my forays into Punjab coincided with the Aam Aadmi Party deciding to contest elections in the state. In October 2015, the whitefly pest had struck cotton crops, farmers and workers were on rail-roko, the Guru Granth Sahib sacrilege took place in Bargadi and many other places. No one was caught.
Instead, police had killed two innocent protestors. Punjab – Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims – all froze into an angry curl. The administration halted. The ministers hid in their homes. The Sikhs called for a traditional Sarbat Khalsa. Lakhs attended it. It was an old air of conspiracy, the disenchantment with the Akalis was ripe. The mood was set for a change. That is when AAP stepped in.
AAP Couldn’t Reciprocate Punjab’s Warmth
A few weeks later, Arvind Kejriwal spoke at the Muktsar Maghi Mela. He promised to arrest the sacrilege culprits and rid the state of drugs within three weeks. People gave him a thumbs-up. If the elections had taken place last winter, AAP would have got what they claimed – 100/117 seats. Yet, the March result is for all of us to see: AAP with 22 seats has secured less than one-third of the winner Congress.
What is the reason? To me, it is gaze. The gaze with which Punjab looked at AAP and AAP looked at Punjab. In the 2014 General Elections, upon seeing the right-wing BJP projecting Modi as a messiah, the state was the only one to send four AAP MPs to Lok Sabha. Punjab had welcomed AAP with open arms. It had taken AAP at face value – a party that will rid the Indian polity of its evils and focus on transparency in governance. Punjab loves a rebel.
But AAP could not reciprocate Punjab’s warmth. Post general elections, in the midst of an internal party feud – when it threw out Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan – Punjab’s trust in AAP was a bit shaken. What exacerbated it was the suspension of its Punjab MPs – Dr Dharmvira Gandhi and Harinder Singh Khalsa. A lot of saddened Punjab volunteers, who had even worked in Delhi elections, took a backseat. The question on people’s mind was: Is it a party with inner democracy or is it ruled by one man – Arvind Kejriwal? Opinions could differ, but AAP never clarified.
Delhi Durbar Calling Shots in Punjab
Given this deliberate silence, AAP exhibited a dual understanding of Punjab – on one hand that Punjabis are simple people who stand for justice and will vote with their hearts and on the other hand that Punjab is a volatile state which cannot be trusted easily. That has anyway been Delhi’s attitude towards Punjab, given the state’s earlier stance against the Centre over Punjabi Suba, its river waters, then a decade-and-half-long militancy.
So, AAP – with about two years of knowledge of urban politics, that too in Delhi, where the Punjab cadre played a key role in elections – brought in above 50 observers to monitor a mostly rural Punjab. Sucha Singh Chhotepur became its convenor, but Kejriwal kept him beholden to Durgesh Pathak and Sanjay Singh, again not from the state.
The Congress and Akalis sought to skew AAP’s discourse by calling them ‘outsiders’ – a very loaded term in Punjab with its long cultural DNA of being a border state, a gateway to the sub-continent.
When such a term is invoked on an outsider who has good intentions towards Punjab tries to learn the state, absorb its cultural dynamics. AAP tried doing that through symbolism, Kejriwal wearing a yellow turban at Muktsar, running a campaign by speaking two lines in Punjabi over telephone, which were more gimmicky than real. These annoyed people.
It also hosted the Bolda Punjab series of dialogues with locals, which seemed real. The dialogues culminated in multiple targeted manifestos.
Sources within AAP tell me, Punjab composed the manifestoes, but they were sent to Delhi for approval where they were changed, points were dropped, and new undiscussed points incorporated. This is breach of trust in a leadership. People did not know this, but this is what we call in Punjab the working of the ‘Delhi Durbar’.
Urban Kejriwal Couldn’t Understand Rural Punjab
With the Youth Manifesto, AAP ended up with egg on its face. The Akalis construed it as an insult to the Sikh religion – the AAP symbol, a broom, on top of the Durbar Sahib on the cover page. It was a battle tactic. Delhi-based AAP was trapped, had to apologise, and it lost face.
Meanwhile, Chhotepur started growing in stature. AAP, to get back into the game, chose to cut him to size. They manufactured a bribery sting operation, never proven or disclosed. But Chhotepur was sacked. Chhotepur then disclosed that when Kejriwal asked him to own the Youth Manifesto as his mistake, he expressed his fear that the Sikhs would boycott him. City-bred, urban Kejriwal did not understand the dynamics of rural Punjab. He responded, ‘So what?’
Failure to Project Phoolka, Sandhu as Face of the Party
Punjab is the only region in the nation with a Sikh majority. Sacrilege is what had created the mood for AAP’s entry. If Kejriwal could not get this or the local sentiment right, it was his hubris playing. It was clear he saw himself as the messiah people needed.
Subsequently, in manifesto after manifesto, AAP promised the world – farm loan waiver, compensation for crops, industrial growth, overhauling of state schools and health services, but never answered from where would the funds come for all of this. They seemed as good as fairy tales.
With Chhotepur leaving, given one of the MPs – who clearly eyed the CM post, worked very hard in campaigns, but could not control his drinking habit or match Bhagwant Mann’s success and popularity – they brought in another comedian, a novice to politics, to helm the party – Gurpreet Ghuggi. Yes, rustic Punjab likes a good laugh but that does not mean AAP does not project its leaders like HS Phoolka or Kanwar Sandhu or Jarnail Singh as substantial leaders. Or declare one of them or Mann as a chief ministerial candidate.
The fear that remained in Punjab was that Kejriwal would himself become the CM. This is unthinkable in Punjab’s political dynamics. People would not accept a non-Punjabi, non-Sikh leader. Whether it is right or wrong is not the question. This is how Punjab’s politics is structured at present.
What Angered the Voters?
Within the party cadre, there brewed a fear of sting operations and lack of trust on one another. The only loyalty the party understood was the one towards Kejriwal. A journalist friend joked, the only qualification to join AAP is to remove your spine and replace it with a rubber tube.
Punjab’s voters were keeping an eye on these developments – bickering for seats within the party, the disgruntled AAP members quitting the party and speaking against it, promising the seat to multiple people in a constituency, getting them to spend lakhs on publicity, not giving the seat to any one of them or demanding money for a seat towards party funds, and finally the strict monitoring of candidate campaigns. Punjab has had enough such experiences. It did not want these from AAP.
Unable to Come Clean on Khalistani Elements & Funds
Then there is the support from the diaspora, the funds from abroad, the accusations of hobnobbing with the Khalistan sympathisers. The point is not these accusations but the fact that AAP could never come clean on them. In its hurry and desperation to win, it opened its doors to all, including those rejected by the Congress and Akali. This desperation to win, riding roughshod on people’s sensibility, not being humble to demonstrate what they promised as a goal, finally saw AAP lose the state with their dream to campaign across rest of India being shattered.
But All is Not Lost for AAP
Is everything lost now? No. It is not. Here is why:
One, their wins have mostly been in Malwa – the epicentre of Punjab’s woes. The Congress is part of the structure they blame while they seek a revolution. I can only hope they become a responsible Opposition, articulate the issues and pursue the government to bring changes on the ground. If people see them do that, they will vote for them in next time. AAP needs to spend time at the opposition benches to learn governance and not promise the sky to its voters.
Two, let us assume AAP has good intentions. The workers and volunteers have it in abundance. That is why they flocked to the party. The leaders told people during the campaigns that they have solutions for Punjab’s problems. Will they share their plans with the new government? After all, now the state needs solutions more than the party needs branding and votes.
Three, for friends in other states tilting towards AAP as they plan for forthcoming state elections. AAP is not Kejriwal. Kejriwal may have founded AAP, but unless the functioning of the party is transparent, it won’t succeed in any state. Push the party to change itself instead of letting one insecure man dominate all your good work. You cannot promise the clear sky and give people a crooked ladder to climb.
A party like AAP, which claims to stand for participatory democracy, needs to recognise its volunteers and workers and not just its leaders. Given what happened in Uttar Pradesh today, this country needs such alternatives even more urgently.
(The writer is an author and is working on a book on Punjab. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)