By wooing voters considered loyal to both the Akalis and the Congress, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) wants to occupy the central space in the Punjab assembly elections early next year rather than forge a coalition with those at the margins.
The exit of its Punjab chief Sucha Singh Chhotepur from AAP last month and cricketer-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu announcing a new front on September 8 – the day AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal began his four-day campaign tour of Punjab –had triggered speculation that the anti-Akali vote in Punjab would get divided among the challengers to the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party (SAD-BJP) combine.
But Kejriwal’s pitch to the Punjab electorate during his four days in the state has made it clear that AAP is not looking to win anti-Akali votes alone, experts say.
At a rally in Moga’s Baghapurana grain market on Sunday, Kejriwal and other AAP leaders released the party’s manifesto for Punjab’s farmers – a 31-point charter to improve their socio-economic condition and make them debt-free by 2018. The promises include debt-waivers, crop-loss comensation and implementing the MS Swaminathan Commission report that guarantees farmers a minimum income of one and a half times their input costs.
In its bid to garner farmers’ votes, AAP has announced free power to farmers – seen as the prime cause of Punjab’s depleting water table and catalyst to the agrarian crisis– will continue.
“Debt is a symptom of the crisis and not the problem itself,” says Dr Pramod Kumar of the Institute of Development and Communication. “AAP’s announcements are short-sighted but populist. And blatant doles attract voters.”
A large share of the SAD-BJP vote has already shifted due to 10 years of anti-incumbency and is up for grabs, experts say and AAP wants to capture it. The party debuted in Punjab in the 2014 Lok Sabha election with a win in four of 13 seats (as many as the ruling SAD won) and 30.4 per cent of the votes, ending the bipolarity of Punjab’s electoral politics.
After his visit to the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Kejriwal announced both Amritsar and Anandpur Sahib will be declared holy cities and the sale of liquor, tobacco and meat banned there. The announcement is aimed at the Panthic (religious sikhs’) vote just as much as it is at women who are at the receiving end of Punjab’s substance abuse problem.
It is also AAP’s attempt to align with the Sikh psyche in the light of a Punjabi-versus-outsider allegation triggered by the exit of Chhotepur. Delhi MLA Jarnail Singh, a victim of the anti-Sikh violence of 1984, was brought to the fore as co-convener of Punjab a day before Chhotepur was sacked to control the possible fallout of his exit.
Next month, AAP will release its manifesto for Dalits – who make up nearly 32 per cent (Census 2011) of Punjab’s population. The manifesto is an outcome of AAP’s Dalit dialogue, a series of meetings with the community to identify issues, held in August. Dalits in Punjab have never voted as a block but AAP hopes to change that by focusing on demands coming from the community directly.