Bespectacled, Hindi-speaking and soft spoken, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal hardly stands out at a first glance in Punjab’s political scene, dominated by mighty Panthic leaders and charismatic royals.
But his young Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is shaking up the state’s electoral equations barely 10 months before the assembly polls and giving well-established rivals — the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party (SAD-BJP) alliance and the Congress — a run for their money.
Propelled by popular disenchantment against the state’s major formations, the AAP is attracting mammoth crowds at rallies and has drawn up an intensive campaign schedule, including a door-to-door campaign and an early announcement of candidates for all 117 assembly seats.
Internal assessments give the AAP around 80 seats, an unprecedented majority for a party that didn’t even exist the last time Punjab went to the polls in January 2012. Even rivals grudgingly admit the novice party is going to be a strong third force.
Kejriwal and his team have a simple game plan: Create a broad coalition of youth, farmers, Dalits and non-resident Punjabis settled abroad.
“Corruption and drug menace are rampant in the state. People want a change and are looking for a party that will provide good governance,” said an AAP strategist.
The AAP hasn’t missed any opportunity in the past six months to attack the SAD-BJP government, especially on Punjab’s festering drug problem among the youth. In a state where personalities dominate, a party without a chief ministerial candidate is grabbing the headlines.
Born out of a pan-India anti-corruption movement, the AAP was initially dismissed by national parties but it sprang a surprise in Punjab during the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. The state, known for backing the underdog, supported the AAP in Faridkot, Fatehgarh Sahib, Sangrur and Patiala with handsome margins. The party netted 25% of the votes, benefitting from two parallel anti-incumbencies — one against a two-term Congress rule at the Centre and the other against the SAD-BJP combine’s eight-year rule in Punjab. “People had shown their anger against the two parties in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections by voting for us,” an AAP leader said.
The Lok Sabha wins translated to a majority in 33 assembly seats — 16 of them belonged to the SAD and 17 to the Congress. In 11 other constituencies, the AAP trailed by less than 10,000 votes. Last year, when Kejriwal swept to power in Delhi, he set his sights on Punjab, sources said. “But elections taught us one should not go beyond one’s capacity. So, we decided to focus on one state at a time. Punjab had embraced the party and had something going for us,” said Durgesh Pathak, AAP’s national organisation building head. “There is a big vacuum in the state as successive governments failed the people,” he added.
The anti-corruption movement boosted the AAP in Delhi but lack of organisation in Punjab — where polls are fought on local issues — hurt the party initially. To counter bigger rivals, the AAP replicated its strategy of working with volunteers and establishing direct contact with people. Party volunteers fanned out in different parts of the state and took up campaigns such as “Parivar Jodo”. “This was done in a unique and scientific way. We have done mapping of each family,” he added.
The party will also launch the “Punjab Dialogue” initiative on April 23 to identify issues for drafting the manifesto. The document will have 10 issues selected through a series of discussions on the lines of the popular “Delhi Dialogue”.
As in Delhi, the state was divided into zones, sectors, circles and booths. The party has functionaries and frontal organisations at the state level and 13 committees have been constituted for zones — one for each Parliamentary constituency.
Each Parliamentary zone was divided into three sectors. Then, there is a circle-level committee for 20 polling booths. The party plans to have trained workers at every booth.
“The party showed in Delhi how a political campaign can be run without money and muscle power. We will try to do the same in Punjab by raising issues of public importance and exposing corruption at high places,” said AAP’s national spokesperson Sanjay Singh.
The AAP also ramped up campaigning. In Malwa and Doaba regions alone, AAP leaders have addressed 54 public meetings during the period. It also organised a series of campaigns — ‘Beimaan Bhajao, Punjab Bachao’ and ‘Punjab Jodo’ — to expand its footprint.
Though it suffered a setback last year when two of its MPs — Dr Dharamvira Gandhi and Harinder Singh Khalsa — were suspended after speaking out in favour of expelled leader Yogendra Yadav, the party quickly got back into its stride. There is also speculation that Kejriwal could shift his base to Punjab six months before the polls though the AAP leader has dismissed such suggestions.
An AAP leader hinted there could be a rethink depending on the ground situation in the state. “Unlike Delhi, Punjab is a full-fledged state and Kejriwal will be able to fully prove his administrative and governance skills,” the leader said.
Rivals forced to change tack
The Akalis and the Congress who once dismissed the AAP leaders as “seasonal birds” are now frantically redrawing poll strategies. The stakes are especially high for the Congress, still reeling from its drubbing in the state in 2012 and the Lok Sabha polls in 2014.
To nix turf wars and factionalism, the party brought in charismatic former chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh at the helm and roped in master strategist Prashant Kishor, credited with scripting spectacular electoral successes for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar.
When embittered leaders Jagmeet Brar and Bir Devinder railed against Amarinder’s inaccessibility, working style and tendency to promote his cronies, the party acted swiftly against them, giving a clear message to others. Amarinder left for the United States and Canada on Tuesday to try and win over the NRIs, who are major AAP funders.
But some Punjab Congress leaders are of the view that Kishor’s initiative “Coffee with Captain” (Amarinder Singh) “failed to enthuse” the voters, especially the youth. In some of these programmes, Amarinder faced tough questions from the audience.
Congress sources admitted that the AAP could hurt its overall prospects by dividing the anti-incumbency votes. “Our reports suggest the AAP is doing well. It will cut into our votes,” a senior Congress functionary said.
The SAD-BJP combine is also in disarray with charges of misgovernance and the cadre’s high-handed attitude adding to mounting anti-incumbency. Chief minister Parkash Singh Badal was the target of violent statewide protests against repeated desecrations of the Sikh holy book, Guru Granth Sahib, a few months ago.
Since then, clashes between the Sikh clergy and corruption allegations against the powerful Badal family have hurt Punjab’s ruling party.
All parties are also wooing the Dalit community that makes up a third of the state and backed the AAP in 2014 with the novice party taking a lead in 14 of the 34 constituencies reserved for Scheduled Castes.
The Congress has named Dalit MLA Charanjit Singh Channi as its legislature party leader and Amarinder has repeatedly reached out to the community during rallies.
The SAD marked Dalit icon BR Ambedkar’s 125th birth anniversary with pomp and its ally BJP appointed Union minister Vijay Sampla, its Dalit face in Punjab, the state unit chief.
Hence, the AAP is taking no chances. “The public sentiment is absolutely clear. “Isko bana ke rakhna hamara sabse bada challenge hai” (Our biggest challenge is to maintain it),” said Pathak.
Long road ahead
The AAP may be on a roll but it would be mistake to count the older parties out.
“Punjab is craving for change and AAP has emerged as an alternative. It remains the top player today, despite all its maladies. But the way the party is going about inducting discredited leaders from other parties, it is fast losing its hold,” Patiala MP Dr Dharamvira Gandhi told HT.
The two traditional rivals – both having grassroots base and organisational set-ups – may seem beset with problems and down, but are beginning to get their act together and make moves.
The SAD trumped the AAP on the Sutlej-Yamuna Link (SYL) canal controversy, an emotional issue for thousands of farmers in the state who fear their crops will be hurt if water is shared with Haryana.
The AAP is on the back foot on the issue after the Delhi government filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court siding with Haryana against Punjab.
The Akalis also tried to drag Kejriwal into demolition of a ‘piao’ (water kiosk) at Gurdwara Sis Ganj Sahib in Delhi.
Amarinder and others also had a go at AAP leaders for inexperience, governance glitches in Delhi and delay in naming their CM candidate.
The AAP attempted to parry these attacks by projecting initiatives such as the odd-even scheme, reduced water and electricity bills and regulation of fee hike by private schools as achievements. It also played the victim card, blaming the Centre for its slippages.
“The AAP peaked in the Lok Sabha polls and is losing sheen. It may seem to be ahead in political discourse, but not electorally. There is no wave. The contest seems evenly balanced. There are still 10 months to go and the political situation will change from event to event,” says Dr Pramod Kumar, a political analyst.
But the AAP is hoping its bold game plan and hard work in Punjab will pay off big time. The battle for the land of the five rivers has only just begun.