Post the Anna Hazare movement of 2011, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) usurped the anti-corruption discourse and scored an unexpected electoral success in its debut 2013 Delhi Assembly elections. But in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, it lost its deposit in 413 of 432 seats it contested.
The only exception to the trend, surprisingly, was Punjab, where it won four seats out of 13 parliamentary constituencies.
Political analysts ascribed AAP’s victory to the phenomenon of ‘double anti-incumbency’ which adversely affected the Congress at the national level and the Akali-BJP combine at the State level, apart from voter disenchantment with the current regime for its perceived complicity in drug running, agrarian distress, rampant corruption, de-industrialisation and rising unemployment.
Against this backdrop, there are three pertinent questions pertaining to AAP in Punjab.
One, would the party prove to be a dark horse in the 2017 Assembly elections even without the advantage of ‘double anti-incumbency’? Two, how would a victory in Punjab affect the internal dynamics of AAP? And three, how would a such a victory impact the national political scenario? The answers to these questions, despite multiple ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’, are worth seeking given their potential to shape the unfolding dynamics of the anti-BJP political space.
A longitudinal field study in Punjab reveals that despite several setbacks due to the organisational split and expulsion of leaders, AAP continues to hold the momentum gained in the 2014 LS election, and has an ‘off the block advantage’ over other parties. There are four main reasons for this. First, there appears to be a strong anti-Akali sentiment running across the three sub-regions of Punjab, Malwa, Majha and Doaba, though the sub-narrative differs across the three sub-regions and social constituencies. While in Malwa region, which accounts for almost 60 per cent of the total Assembly seats (69 of 117) the unambiguous preferred alternative to incumbent Akalis happens to be AAP, the Congress seems to have an edge over AAP in Majha and Doaba region, accounting for 25 and 23 (21% and 20%) Assembly seats respectively.
Most constituencies seem set to vote for a party that would ensure the defeat of Akalis. AAP seems to be the alternative preference in the Malwa region, where 34 of the 56 seats are held by the Akalis. This places the party way ahead of the Congress and neutralises the edge the Congress enjoys in the other two regions.
Second, analysed in terms of the shifting social base of respective parties, AAP again emerges as the default beneficiary. The youth, facing problems of unemployment and institutional corruption, seem enchanted by the theme of ‘change and new party’.
Then, the Jat-Sikhs, a dominant social constituency and traditional support base of Akalis in the Malwa and Majha regions, are angry with the incumbent Akalis and have reservations about Congress given their memory of the 1984 riots, making AAP their first preference. Moreover, the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib and subsequent police firing upon the protesting Sikhs in 2015 have not only angered the Panthic (religious) minded Jat-Sikh voters, but also projected AAP as the ‘New-Akali’ — a phenomenon strengthened by the posturing of leaders like H S Phoolka, whose credential as a crusader seeking justice for the 1984 riot victims remains undisputed. There’s also massive support for the party from NRI Jat-Sikhs.
Third, the ‘drug menace’ affecting the Malwa and Majha region in general and the border districts in particular have further compounded the post-Green Revolution agrarian distress, leading to the loss of a generation in many villages. The popular perception of senior Akali leaders patronising — and downplaying — the illicit drug trade and the reluctance of Congress to take up the issue have further alienated the voters. AAP raised the issue aggressively by naming a senior minister as the patron of the drug trade, enhancing the party’s image as a better alternative, even though the AAP-Congress dynamics varies from region to region.
Fourth, despite being a State with the highest percentage of Dalits (32%), there is no strong Dalit politics in Punjab due to sub-regional, caste and religious fault-lines. The prospect of Congress getting a lion’s share of Dalit votes would be partially affected by the incumbent government’s massive welfare and religious programmes for the Dalits, and may ensure a further split among voters.
There is thus a plausible possibility that Punjab would have AAP in power — alone or in coalition — in 2017. This would impinge upon the personality-centric politics of AAP, as the leader of the party in a State like Punjab would wield more power than the leader in Delhi, who remains handicapped due to the asymmetric federal power structure. Given Arvind Kejriwal and his close associates’ known discomfort with leaders with a strong personality — a trait considered responsible for not promoting Navjot Singh Sidhu despite the electoral dividend the move would have reaped — it is likely that some loyalist like Bhagwant Mann may be given the mantle of the State to ensure Kejriwal remains unchallenged. The possibility of Kejriwal himself donning the mantle in case AAP forms the government in Punjab seems unlikely, given his clear intention to play a role in national politics.
In Punjab, the socio-political space earlier held by the Congress is being captured by various regional parties, a majority of whom are responding to the political preponderance of the BJP in two diametrically opposite ways. One, by forging an anti-BJP alliance keeping Congress at the centre and second, by replacing the Congress and presenting themselves as the most viable anti-BJP alternative. AAP represents the latter trend.
A victory in Punjab would add muscle to the AAP’s armour and encourage Kejriwal to take a plunge in Gujarat to tap on the Patels’ anger and farmers’ distress and place itself as the credible alternative to the anti-BJP constituencies in the 2019 General Election. Whether AAP can consolidate the space deserted by Congress or further fragment anti-BJP space and end up helping BJP is an aspect only time would answer, but whose seed certainly lies in the electoral outcome of Punjab 2017.
(Sajjan Kumar has submitted PhD at CPS/JNU and is currently working as Research Associate at an ICSSR project. He is associated with Peoples Pulse, a Hyderabad-based research organisation that specialises in field work-based political and electoral study)