Outsider—that’s the word rivals in Punjab use most to describe Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) convener and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, certainly not as a compliment. Being an outsider, however, is one of the activist-turned-politician’s positive pitches, one that’s largely unstated but hardly unheard in his campaign.
“Kehnde koi changa banda hai, Dilli ton manistar. Wekhde haan je eh hi kuch changa kar dave (Some good person he is, I am told, some minister from Delhi. Let’s see if he does something good),” says Bhajan Kaur at Sur Singh village in Tarn Taran, one of the bereaved mothers of drug addicts gathered to meet him during his five-day visit that concluded on Monday after a violent attack on his car in Ludhiana.
Besides this appeal—‘a concerned outsider wanting to make a difference from the inside’—he insists he understands Punjab better than the Akalis and Congress. Like a non-judgmental outsider, Kejriwal embraces traditional ways that people seek out of habit, yet talks of “good intentions” overriding all else, even the nearabsence of a home-grown, grassroots leadership. “Candidates do not matter, don’t you worry,” he tells HT in an interview.
The traditional paradigm, however, sticks out in hoardings welcoming, thanking, backing Kejriwal/AAP. These have his photo and of sundry local aspirants in large size; ‘mugshots’ of centrally-deputed leader Sanjay Singh, comedian-MP Bhagwant Mann and state unit chief Sucha Singh Chhotepur co-exist.
Deepak Bansal, 33, who features on three such boards in Bathinda, is also the head of the AAP’s zonal IT cell, using social media to campaign. An MBA, he is the son of a PSU employee “who had no interest in politics before the Anna Hazare movement”. Unable to enter civil services, he wants to change “the system” via politics — a quintessential AAPian. He explains the hoardings: “People said the AAP needs ‘visibility’, of the kind that others had. We had to adopt this method.”
Adoption of traditional methods is hard to miss in Kejriwal’s stops and speeches. Unprompted during an interview—in which he also claims to take India’s politics beyond religion and caste — he urges Dalits to “hear and take note” of Punajb Congress chief Capt Amarinder Singh’s statement seeking quota for the poor among the general category. “Reservation can be only 50%. This means Dalits’ share in quota will have to come down!”
He even tries the Panthic card with religious slogans in the Sikh heartland of Punjab; and is aggressive in naming rival politicians as “culprits” of all that’s wrong in Punjab.
Throughout his tour, he meets handpicked victims of three issues—drug addiction, farm crisis, systemic corruption—yet the mechanical manner reeks of a politics of patronage, lacking spontaneity and spunk.
He advertises his Delhi success, but on Punjab’s issues offers oversimplified promises: “Will finish the drug problem in two-three months… Will give exemplary punishment to the corrupt…Will turn the economy around in two-three years.”
“People see hope in us,” he says, denying that the AAP is banking on negative sentiment against the Akalis, in particular, and a rotational poll equation, in general. Punjab has always led revolutions, he says, calling the AAP ‘inquilaabi’ (revolutionary).
He reminds how Punjab gave the AAP its four MPs in 2014 even amidst a Modi-BJP wave. But he is dismissive of the two MPs suspended after a purge that started with ouster of the Yogendra Yadav-Prashant Bhushan group. “They (the MPs) have to apologise and say they won’t do it again.” The MPs hitting back is one thing, dismissal of key questions is another.
On the CM candidate, he says that doesn’t matter much. On finding 117 candidates, he says these questions interest the media more than the ‘janta’ (public). Pressed, he and other leaders underline the party is “still new”.
In fact, the Punjab AAP leadership starts with Mann who is never far from controversy, goes to Chhotepur who is seen as a spent force, and ends at HS Phoolka, who oscillates between being miffed and thrilled with the AAP and is conspicuous by his absence at the tour.
‘The ticket’ is a discussion at every corner among hangerson. Young landlords in SUVs — wearing the politician’s uniform of kurta-pyjama and sleeveless jackets — are a significant part of the caravan.
Des Raj, 50, a painter from Pathankot, is concerned. “These people are in every party. A lot of them are joining the AAP for the ticket. We should not succumb... Hun taan fayda ho sakda hai, par baad ch party khatam hojegi (Party may gain now, but will be finished in the long run),” he comments on the sidelines of a rally in Batala.
Ask Kejriwal about being a one-man show, and he says, “All our candidates will be honest. That’s all the janta wants; isn’t it?” The momentum of hope and novelty looks hard to sustain. But the sheer panic in rival parties — who protest at his every stop and issue more statements against him than each other while also calling him “irrelevant” — begets a question: Is it really as simple as Kejriwal thinks it is?