The Aam Aadmi Party’s significance in national politics will depend on its performance in Punjab. As the principal opposition party in the state now, the party has an opportunity it cannot afford to fritter away.
However, AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal’s charge that electronic voting machines were rigged and 20-25% of AAP votes were transferred to the Akali-BJP coalition, may just not be the right note to start with, experts say.
Even though it defeated its own aspirations by not winning enough seats, AAP can claim credit for pushing the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party (SAD-BJP) to a humiliating third spot after 10 years in power.
“But AAP must not refuse the lessons that are coming its way. If they want to be relevant in national politics, AAP leaders will have to be more pragmatic,” says Surinder S Jodhka, Jawaharlal Nehru University professor and political sociologist.
The Punjab poll results have propelled AAP into a unique position: it becomes the only political formation other than the Congress, BJP or the Left to command a prominent place in the politics of more than one state, and that too in less than five years of its birth.
But with AAP’s reputation for disruptive politics and zero experience in opposition, there will always be concerns over whether it can carry out this role responsibly, unless it proves otherwise.
Five-time chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, or his son Sukhbir Singh, will not be the leader of the opposition. AAP’s HS Phoolka who is a first-time MLA, will take the place. But, both Badals will be present in the state assembly along with some of their more experienced and powerful ex-ministers, including Bikramjit Singh Majithia and Parminder Singh Dhindsa.
Phoolka struck the right note on Wednesday when immediately after his appointment, he said the AAP will support the Congress government when it takes decisions that benefit Punjab but always hold it accountable to the welfare of the state. For that, the party’s central leadership and its chief Arvind Kejriwal will have to allow the legislature party in Punjab to function on its own and not as an extension of the Delhi-based high-command, says Jodhka.
Among experienced legislators, the AAP only has chief whip Sukhpal Singh Khaira (formerly in Congress) and its ally Lok Insaaf Party’s Balwinder Singh and Simarjit Singh. How well the AAP-LIP combine performs in the assembly as the opposition will depend on its grasp of local issues and its ability to represent them in the state assembly. That itself is contingent on how well AAP holds together the coalition.
The party has just two MLAs from Doaba (Bholath and Garhshankar) and none from the Majha region. It will find it hard to represent the concerns of these two regions that together send 40% MLAs to the assembly, unless it makes a conscious effort to do so.
“It is also an opportunity to build the party for the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Trust the Punjabis with managing their affairs and they will place their trust in you,” says Jodhka.
“The people of Punjab have put their faith in us to lead the opposition charge and we cannot be seen as wanting in that,” Gurpreet Waraich, the party’s Punjab convenor, told HT.
If the AAP’s Punjab team cannot take the Akalis along, the Congress with its brute majority of 77 in a house of 117 will have a free run.
If it can, without ceding opposition space to the ousted combine, AAP would have proved it has matured beyond the politics of Delhi and avoided the pitfalls of becoming another high-command led party.