With the forthcoming Assembly elections looming on the horizon, the political landscape of Punjab is getting queerer by each passing day with the AAP being the main protagonist.
The question being raised now is whether the three-year-old party facing the two oldest parties in India would soon implode. Would it then be return to the bipolar party system with political power remaining with either Akali Dal-BJP combine or the Congress? The once influential CPI as well as the BSP, which had a promising start, were decimated since 1997, with both parties unable to win any seat since 2002.
Arguably, gains for the debutant AAP in the 2014 elections signified the desperation of the electorates with the firm grip of the Congress and Akali Dal over the levers of power in the state, which has been reeling under agrarian distress, drug menace, crony capitalism, corruption and overall governance deficit. What else would explain the success of a party lacking in terms of organizational presence, state-specific agenda or state level leadership? As a self-proclaimed movement party, committed to clean and principled politics with politically novice but well meaning candidates, AAP raised some hope among the people.
Since then the party has had a roller-coastal ride, suffering reverses soon after the unexpected success. Two of party MPs along with many volunteers turned rebels following the expulsion of the founding leaders. The party lost two assembly by-elections badly, and chose not to contest the third one. In an effort to revive the party, it launched ‘Punjab Mission Plan 2017’, which led to a large-scale purge of all the rebellious elements in a major organizational shakeup. Chhotepur, a party-hopping veteran politician belonging to numerically strong and landowning Jat Sikh community, was made the state convener.
The levers of power, however, remained firmly with Delhi’s representatives Sanjay Singh and Durgesh Pathak, both non-Punjabis, who in turn appointed Kejriwal loyalists as zone observers. Under this new dispensation, the last two years saw the party getting off a fresh start as it launched recruitment drive, organized well-attended public rallies, ran door-to-door campaigns, and selectively enlisted a few leaders from other parties. The opinion polls and media reports looked good. The party was considered popular especially among the state’s youth and influential Punjabi Diaspora, going by social media.
With the help of its local Sikh leaders, AAP focused mainly on the rural Sikh vote and urban Dalits as it seemed assured of the sizable urban caste Hindu support shifting away from the BJP, viewed as an ineffective junior ally of Akali regime.
Significantly, AAP also made audacious efforts to wean away the traditional Akali panthic vote by projecting leaders like Chhotepur and Phulka, credited with taking up the Sikh cause in the past.
But in a state where region along with religion, language and caste have always been a significant factor in determining the electoral choices since Partition, the AAP leadership apparently committed a blunder by nominating the candidates in a manner that gave an impression that the tickets were decided at the behest of Singh and Pathak. The sting done on Chhotepur in order to get rid of him as he raised voice against the nominated candidates was widely considered a dishonorable act of deceit against a rustic rural Punjabi with a long unsullied career. Rebellious Chhotepur with his supporters from within the party accused on the Delhi based leadership of not respecting the culture and traditions of Punjab. The earlier incident when the party symbol of broom was depicted along with the Golden Temple on the cover page of the AAP youth manifesto was raised as proof.
A slew of charges ranging from sexual to financial misconducts against AAP observers are also being made with generous help by Badal owned channels. Some of these rebels, now busy with Chhotepur-led Parivartan Yatra, are expected to join the fourth front consisting of newly formed Swaraj party as well as Awaam-E-Punjab.
The setback to AAP has come as a shot in the arm for Akali Dal, which was losing its traditional rural Sikh support base. The mass agitations last year over the compensation to the farmers in the wake of cotton crops failure due to spurious pesticides that led to a spate of farmers suicides, as well as the inability of the Badal government to catch the culprits responsible for the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib in Gurudwaras across the state, had added to voter dissilusionment . The allegations that some of the top Akali leaders were complicit in the rampant drug trade as well as transport/cable/ sand/ liquor/ real estate mafia has also gravely hurt the party’s self-projected image of doing sewa for the cause of Panth, Punjab, Punjabi and Punjabiat.
The party expected to gain the most from this cauldron in the end seems to be the Congress. That is if the state chief Amrinder Singh can keep endemic factionalism under check and is given free hand to judiciously choose candidates with clean images. Amrinder Singh has been on the campaign trail moving across the state under his well publicized Halqe Vich Captain and Coffee with Captain. Factional leaders, keenly aware what third straight defeat would men for the party, are likely to stay together and take advantage of the fact that Congress has so far has enjoyed decent support among both the Hindus and the Sikhs.
Will the AAP prove to be a ‘seasonal crop’ dashing all the hopes of the revival of Udta Punjab that it had generated? Is Punjab only a stepping-stone for Kejriwal, who is now in the state holding out promises, to conquer a seat in Delhi?
Ashutosh Kumar The author is Professor, Department of Political Science, Panjab University, Chandigarh