The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) party appears to have lost a winning battle in Punjab, and the reasons are not difficult to assess.
The party, which made its Punjab assembly polls debut, came in second. But the Number 2 position will make the AAP a formidable opposition in the 117-member assembly ruled by the Congress.
Given its penchant to question the status quo, a host of fresh, raring-to-go legislators of the inherently anti-establishment party is expected to give the Congress a tough time.
Punjab was the only state in the country from where the Arvind Kejriwal-led party had won four Lok Sabha seats mopping up a 24.4% vote share by eating into Congress and Shiromani Akali Dal vote banks.
The AAP was tipped to upstage the ruling Akali-BJP alliance and relegate the Congress to the runner-up spot in the assembly polls two-and-a-half years later. The pre-poll hype indicated as much. The results on Saturday didn’t back such a view.
Prominent leaders such as comedian-politician Bhagwant Mann and Himmat Singh Shergill lost.
The loss could be attributed to the AAP losing its touch with the urban Hindu and moderate Sikh voter when a perception grew that the party was hobnobbing with Sikh hardliners.
Kejriwal chose to stay in the house of a former militant during his last leg of campaign. The Maur bomb blast ahead of polling on February 4, which killed five people, including two children, was a grim reminder of the dark decades of militancy that the state went through in the 1980s.
The party’s inability to project a credible Jat Sikh face as its candidate for the chief minister’s post ahead of the polls dented its fortunes.
The voters were unclear of who will head Punjab in case they vote for the AAP. Rival parties had a field day in suggesting that Kejriwal, a Haryanvi Hindu, was himself vying for the top post.
Top contenders such as Mann and Harinder Singh Phoolka campaigned with uncertainty. Also, Kejriwal’s inability to pull in popular cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu, who could have been a big asset for the AAP, has had an impact.
Mann too remained embroiled in controversies as parliamentarian through the election year, after he posted live pictures from inside Parliament on social media.
The fault lines in the party’s organisational structure came to the fore after the first signs of dissent. The party was divided on a trust deficit between local AAP leaders and its high command in New Delhi, leading to the emergence of an “outsider-versus-insider” rhetoric. Again, rivals made the most of that.
Starting with the throwing out its state convener Sucha Singh Chhotepur in August, the party went spirally down with mini-mutinies erupting continuously almost till the elections.
Allegations of corruption and sale of tickets made openly in press conferences by AAP members clipped the party’s calling card — honesty and transparency.
Party leaders try to brazen out the revolts, until it was too late.
The party’s campaign peaked early. Kejriwal blew the poll bugle in January last year at the maghi mela rally, which was immediately followed by a door-to-door parivar jodo campaign. The novelty of its message wore down by the time elections were called a year later.
Besides, the tone and tenor of AAP’s campaign was extremely negative, focusing almost entirely on underscoring that Punjab is in a state of mess, and in the grip of “goonda raj” under the SAD-BJP alliance.
For larger issues such as the sensitive dispute on sharing river water with neighbours such as Haryana, the AAP all but managed to offer a wavering stand. Kejriwal’s flip-flop over the issue, saying one thing in Punjab and another in Delhi confused people.
The party’s lack of experience and knowledge of local traditions led it to make avoidable mistakes. The party’s first manifesto showed a broom — its poll symbol — superimposed on an image of the Golden Temple.