Punjab election result: Congress gains as AAP chips off Akali votes

Updated on Mar 12, 2017 08:48 PM IST

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) proved a spoiler for the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP combine in Punjab, unlike pre-poll perception that new entrant in the state’s politics will erode Congress votes

MISS THE CUT: Children carry a cutout of AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal at one of his road shows in Patiala for the Punjab assembly polls.(PTI file photo)
MISS THE CUT: Children carry a cutout of AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal at one of his road shows in Patiala for the Punjab assembly polls.(PTI file photo)
Hindustan Times, New Delhi | ByJatin Gandhi, Samarth Bansal and Gurman Bhatia

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) frittered away gains from the 2014 parliamentary polls in Punjab but chipped off the Akali support base, helping unwittingly the Congress to a runaway victory in the state assembly elections this February.

The AAP finished second with 20 legislators when results were declared on Saturday — way behind the Congress, and just two seats above the ruling alliance of the Shiromani Akali Dal and BJP.

Data from the latest elections threw up thought-provoking facts and figures such as the stagnation of AAP’s support in Punjab, where the party was making its assembly debut after winning four Lok Sabha seats during the peak of a BJP wave in 2014.

Also, the outcome proved popular perception as well as pollsters wrong — that the AAP would corrode the vote share of the Congress as the party did in the New Delhi assembly polls in 2015. The AAP won 67 of the 70 seats in the national capital, leaving three for the BJP and none for the ruling Congress.

That did not happen in Punjab, where the Congress and the Akali-BJP combine have held power almost alternately until the AAP challenged the order.

The Congress’s tally in Punjab went up from 46 in 2012 to 77 this year, despite a fall in the party’s vote share. The party got 38.5% votes, about 2.5 percentage points lower than the previous polls.

Researchers at Ashoka University’s Trivedi Centre for Political Data found that the Congress was able to retain its vote bank in most places, but the AAP couldn’t increase its base, other than cornering some Akali anti-incumbency votes.

Between 2014 and 2017, the AAP vote share remained more or less identical at 23.6%.

The triangular contest benefitted the Congress, spearheaded by seasoned former chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh, as votes split between the Akalis and AAP.

“AAP’s performance is higher than the BJP-Akali loss combined, which means that it dented other parties’ vote bases, including that of the Congress. In fact, the Congress lost to AAP candidates quite a few assembly seats in parliamentary segments that it has won in 2014,” said Gilles Verniers, a professor with Ashoka University, on Sunday.

The border state — divided into three regions of socio-political significance — has 117 assembly and 13 Lok Sabha constituencies.

The AAP led in 33 assembly segments in 2014, fighting alone. It won four Lok Sabha seats, and the Congress managed just three.

“We failed to expand beyond our strong regions. The results could have been very different if we hadn’t focused solely on the Malwa region,” a victorious AAP lawmaker said. He didn’t wish to be named.

The AAP retained its 27% vote share from 2014 in Malwa that sends 69 lawmakers to the 117-member assembly.

AAP national convener and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal concentrated his campaign in this region. All but two seats in the party’s kitty came from Malwa, but its performance in the other two regions was abysmally poor.

In the Doaba region, which has 23 seats, the party’s vote share decreased by 0.5% and it won just two constituencies. The party polled 24% of the votes in 2014 from this region.

In Majha, a region with 25 seats, the AAP’s vote share went up marginally from 12.3% to 13.7%. But it drew a blank.

The Congress’s polled four percentage points less votes than the previous elections in Malwa, but its seats increased by nine. The reason was AAP’s entry, which virtually wiped out the Akali Dal from its stronghold.

The Malwa region has traditionally been the key to power in the state. The AAP’s decision to focus its efforts in the region proved costly as its attention to the Majha and Doaba faltered.

A combined push in all three could have shown a different scorecard. The party finished second in as many as 26 seats, and the margin of loss in nine seats was less than 10,000 votes.

A combination of factors counteracted the AAP campaign. The AAP was saddled with deep divisions among its Punjab and central leaders over control of state wing; there were allegations of party chief Arvind Kejriwal trying to woo radical Sikhs; and the novelty of being a fresh entity was lost after a year of rocky rule in Delhi.

“This is consistent with Kejriwal contesting with strong Sikh identity markers, notably Bhindranwale, who figured on some AAP posters alongside the Delhi chief minister,” said Verniers of Ashoka University.

Any perception of political patronage to radicals reminds people of the dark days of Punjab militancy in the 1980s. A hint of it is good enough to put off Hindu and moderate Sikh voters, especially in urban regions.

The AAP had a house in mess. It has suspended two of its MPs — Dharamvira Gandhi and HS Khalsa —for being at odds with the party leadership. The party’s Punjab convener, Sucha Singh Chhottepur, was shown the door too over differences last September.

Chhotepur formed the Apna Punjab Party, contested 78 seats, and polled 0.36% of the votes that could have gone to the AAP.

More than his exit, Chhotepur’s allegation that the AAP is run by outsiders — a reference to its central leadership based in New Delhi — has hurt the party gravely. “We will do a detailed, clinical analysis of the loss, but after the Delhi municipal elections,” a party leader said.

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