In the heat and dust of the historic Maghi mela at Muktsar, the unmistakable key takeaway is this: Punjab is set for a three-horse race in the 2017 assembly polls.
Going by the tumultuous response that the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) got at its political show on Thursday, the rookie outfit has well and truly emerged as a third player on Punjab’s political firmament. In doing so, it is poised to upset the state’s traditionally bipartisan politics represented by the Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP combine and the Congress.
By all accounts, Delhi chief minister and AAP national convener Arvind Kejriwal’s first public outing in poll-bound Punjab was a show-stealer. A more-than-expected turnout and, more significantly, enthusiastic crowds would have certainly warmed his cockles and those of other AAP leaders on a chilly day.
For once, AAP has leapfrogged in Punjab’s power politics – from the fringe to the frontline; from a spoiler to a stakeholder. To say that AAP is causing jitters to its rivals will be an understatement. They are mortified at a new, potent X-factor called AAP.
Notwithstanding the usual “my-rally-bigger-than-yours” comparisons, Muktsar marks a tectonic shift, the first tremors of which were felt in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls when AAP burst into Punjab in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Much to surprise of poll pundits, it picked up four seats and pocketed 25% of the votes. That, it’s evident now, was not merely a flash in the pan.
Truth be told, the AAP alarm bells have since grown louder for Akalis as well as the Congress. Nothing proved it more tellingly than the fact that at the Muktsar rallies, both centred their attack on Kejriwal – only confirming whom they see a potent challenger in electoral sweepstakes.
While Sukhbir likes to believe that AAP is getting into the opposition space at the expense of “a weakened Congress”, Capt Amarinder Singh trashes the Kejriwal challenge as “a momentary bubble”, arguing that AAP neither has a credible face nor a vision agenda to match its vaulting ambition to be Punjab’s next ruler. Yet, both parties candidly admit in private that the AAP juggernaut is on a roll, powered mostly by young and restless voters.
In popular perception, the key reason for AAP gaining traction and putting rivals in the shade is rooted in an apparent disenchantment with two major parties that have ruled the state for half a century. The Kejri outfit is seen as a refreshingly untested entity – something in line with Punjabis’ enduring fascination for new things.
It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that both the SAD-BJP alliance and the Congress have lost the script. A year is like an eternity in politics. But, Muktsar has thrown up a challenge for traditional parties to reconnect with people and rediscover their electoral mojo. With the AAP surge, that task has just got a lot harder.