It was widely expected to be a crowning moment for the Aam Aadmi Party in Punjab this year, but it was the Congress which took top honours. The assembly election results in March clearly redefined the political space in the state. Hitherto, Punjab was happy to see a direct contest between the Congress and the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party (SAD-BJP) alliance for the past few decades. The emergence of the AAP in the state’s political scene this time saw a re-alignment of political forces. The three-cornered contest, for the first time in Punjab, saw the Akali Dal-BJP alliance decimated. The Congress, nine months into power, swept the municipal elections in the state in December. The opposition alleged booth capturing, intimidation and misuse of power by the Congress. While the SAD-BJP combine won a few wards in the municipal polls as a face saver, the AAP clearly lost the trust of the voters.
The AAP which, at one stage last year, was predicted to sweep the assembly polls, ended up being the main opposition in the assembly even though it was the party’s first outing in the assembly elections. The party, which seemed to have peaked electorally a little too early, managed to win 20 seats in the 117-member assembly and even got the post of Leader of Opposition (LoP). The AAP’s performance, even though the voters denied an outright victory and shot at power in a full-fledged state outside of Delhi for the first time, ended up with a respectable tally compared to the mere 15 seats won by the Akali Dal-BJP combine, which had ruled the state for 10 years (2007-2017).
The re-alignment in Punjab’s political space was in the context that it was for the first time that all seats saw a three-cornered contest with the AAP putting up a fight on a number of seats to the traditional rivals — the Congress and the Akali Dal. Even though the older parties had tried to dismiss the AAP as a “non-phenomena” in the run-up to the assembly polls, the party managed to hold its own. The insistence of the AAP central leadership on remote controlling the Punjab campaign with leaders from other states, lack of faith of local leadership, not being able to project a chief ministerial face, the breakdown of talks with cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu (who ended up in the Congress after leaving the BJP), questions over choice of candidates and infighting pushed the AAP away from power.
What could have also, possibly, gone wrong with the AAP campaign was too much dependence on non-resident Indians (NRIs), especially the radical elements based in other countries. AAP leaders, including national convener and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, were accused of being associated with radical elements, including former terrorists. The ground reality in Punjab, which saw a bloody phase of terrorism between 1981 and 1995, is that not too many people are aligned to the Sikh radical ideology. It was here that the AAP conceded ground to the Congress, which managed to benefit with Sikh and Hindu votes coming into its kitty. The Sikh vote, which was the stronghold of the Akali Dal, and the Hindu vote in urban areas which used to side with the BJP, went to the Congress with a lot of resentment among the people against the decade-long Akali Dal-BJP rule.
It was the virtual hatred towards the Badal family (of former Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal) on issues of corruption, drugs, mis-governance and mafia rule and the law-defying writ of the ”Halqa-incharge” that the Akalis promoted, which led to the decimation of the SAD-BJP alliance. The AAP dented the Akali Dal vote in many pockets and the Congress benefited from this. While the Congress won an impressive 77 seats in the 117-member assembly, it was the Malwa belt which helped the party romp home in style. The Congress won 40 out of the 69 seats in the Malwa belt — the region south of the river Sutlej and considered agriculturally fertile.
The AAP was considered the strongest in the Malwa belt, since it had won four Lok Sabha seats in the 2014 parliamentary elections and had led in 34 assembly seats at that time, but it could manage a win only in 18 seats in the assembly polls. Two more seats in the belt were won by AAP ally, Lok Insaaf Party. The Congress dominated the other two regions of Punjab — Majha (north of the river Beas) and Doaba (land between the Beas and Sutlej rivers). The party virtually swept the entire Majha belt, comprising the Amritsar, Gurdaspur, Tarn Taran and Pathankot districts, by winning 22 of the 25 seats.