Behind the record polling in Punjab, there was an "aam aadmi" surge. By the time voting ended in the state on Wednesday, the trend was discernible -- a big chunk of first-time voters, rural voters and sections of middle and working class had gone the Aam Aadmi Party way.
Whether it springs a surprise or two in 13 seats of Punjab -- it fielded candidates on all -- May 16 will tell us. But it has both the Congress and the ruling SAD-BJP alliance worried about who will it damage more. For the first time in Punjab's two-party history, most seats witnessed a three-way contest.
AAP is hoping to clinch at least three seats – Gurdaspur, Sangrur and Ludhiana. But it has the Congress worried. "It will hurt the party by dividing the anti-incumbency votes as it did well in many seats across Punjab. It may do the same damage as Manpreet Badal's alliance with left parties did to us during the assembly polls by getting 5.17% vote share and helping the SAD-BJP combine to beat state's revolving-door history," a Congress leader said.
Initially, the Congress had gained from the Aam Aadmi Party's strong foray into Punjab pollscape. While top Congress leaders bickered -- till the party decided to push them all into the poll fray -- it was Arvind Kejriwal's fledgling party that whipped up strong anti-incumbency sentiments in the state during its poll campaign by bringing drug, sand mining, liquor, transport and cable TV "mafia" under the public lens. During his two-day road-shows in the state, Kejriwal openly accused the ruling family of patronising all these mafias. .
His first stroke, however, was stealing the panthic agenda of the Akali Dal by setting up a SIT to probe the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. It evoked a strong reaction from the ruling Badals, who called it a "poll-gimmick". A jittery SAD president and Deputy CM Sukhbir Badal went a step ahead and promised to set up a judicial commission to reopen the riots cases in their poll manifesto. That the party expected AAP to hit Congress was clear when Sukhbir questioned AAP for not announcing a candidate from Bathinda, his wife Harsimrat's seat.
Knowing the emotive issue of riots still resonates with Sikh voters in Punjab, Kejriwal fielded Delhi lawyer HS Phoolka who has fought cases of riot-hit families in Ludhiana. It went for radical Sikh faces such as Sucha Singh Chottepur in Gurdaspur and Harinder Singh Khalsa in Fatehgarh Sahib. It has also dented the rural dominance of the Akali Dal in many seats. Phoolka claims to have swept the three rural constituencies of Ludhiana.
But AAP's best bet remains to be comedian Bhagwant Mann from Sangrur where both Congress and Akali candidates are on a weak footing. In Amritsar, the BJP is pegging the victory of stalwart Arun Jaitley on Dr Daljit Singh hitting the Congress hard by taking the anti-incumbency votes. In union minister Preneet Kaur's seat Patiala, her husband Captain Amarinder Singh told voters, "Every vote for AAP will be a vote for the Badals".
"In terms of vote share among states, AAP will get the highest in Punjab. We have won the first battle by proving you do not need money, muscle, drugs and liquor to contest polls. AAP has given Punjab a viable third front," says Phoolka.