Punjab Elections: Has Congress served AAP victory on a platter?

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September 29, 2021 1:10 PM

With the promise of free electricity, waiver of unpaid power bills and uninterrupted power supply, the AAP has conveyed that the party’s main poll plank is on the lines of its Delhi model of governance.     

With the promise of free electricity, waiver of unpaid power bills and uninterrupted power supply, the AAP has conveyed that the party’s main poll plank is on the lines of its Delhi model of governance.     

The Aam Aadmi Party’s ambition of going national is banking a lot on its performance in Punjab, where it is tantalisingly placed. After a spectacular implosion in 2017 which positioned the AAP as the main opposition party in the state, Arvind Kejriwal is eyeing a spectacular comeback, riding on the anti-incumbency factor coupled with the ruling Congress’ long-prevailing crisis that is only worsening by the day.  

The change of guard by the Congress and the unceremonious exit of Captain Amarinder Singh, followed by the resignation by Punjab Congress chief Navjot Singh Sidhu, has changed the political equations altogether in the state, which is less than six months away from assembly polls. 

The AAP, moving cautiously this time, is no longer eyeing only the hardline Sikh vote bank, which had left the Hindu voters alienated in 2017. Along with poll-bound UP and Uttarakhand, AAP is exhibiting its soft-Hindutva approach in the bordering state of Punjab as well. 

AAP keeping 2017 blunders in mind

With the promise of free electricity, waiver of unpaid power bills and uninterrupted power supply, the AAP has conveyed that the party’s main poll plank is on the lines of its Delhi model of governance.     

Taking a cue from its past blunders, the party has also announced that its chief ministerial candidate would be from the Sikh community. In the 2017 election, AAP faced flak for not naming a CM face.

But, to what extent Kejriwal’s party manages to capitalise on the friction within the Congress and the recent fallout that led to Captain’s exit from the power game depends a lot on the state electorate’s perception towards the change of guard, the anti-incumbency factor and also the political image of AAP. 

Speaking to FinancialExpress.com, senior AAP leader and Leader of Opposition in Punjab Harpal Singh Cheema said he was sure that the party will emerge victorious in the upcoming elections. “Aam Aadmi Party in Punjab is moving forward in Punjab very firmly. Last time we fought the election for the first time and became the Opposition in the state, I am sure this time we will form a government in Punjab. The AAP will fight the elections with a CM face this time. We will announce the CM candidate right before the elections,” he said. 

Commenting on the change of chief minister by the Congress in the state, he said that the Grand Old Party will gain nothing out of this, adding that the failures of Captain’s government in 4.5 years cannot be fulfilled in the next few months by Charanjit Singh Channi and Navjot Singh Sidhu. 

Meanwhile, the Congress has called the change of guard in the state a “historic step towards social justice” as the party appointed a Dalit chief minister for the first time in Punjab. 

Speaking to FinancialExpress.com, Congress spokesperson Anshul Avijit said: “I think this is an important step towards social justice after seven years. This is the most significant and critical step that has been taken in this direction in any state, or at the Centre.”

Tightrope walk ahead for AAP

Keeping the perceptions and speculations aside, a victory in Punjab won’t be a cakewalk for the Aam Aadmi Party. In fact, the positioning of a Dalit face as the chief minister by the Congress has complicated the AAP’s strategy of wooing the state’s Dalit voters. The task has become tougher with the Shiromani Akali Dali forging an alliance with Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party, a party formed to represent Dalits and other marginalised caste groups. 

Earlier this year, there had been attempts by AAP to forge an alliance with SAD (Samyukt) and before that with BSP. However, its efforts did not succeed on both counts and while BSP forged an alliance with SAD, the talks with breakaway Akali group did not fructify at the highest levels.

With AAP now having decided to fight the elections on its own in 2022, the party has gone back to the same template that it used in 2017 polls when it fielded candidates in all Assembly constituencies.

How important is the Dalit vote-bank? 

Dalit voters are crucial for all mainstream parties. Of the state’s approximately 3 crore population, nearly one-third – 32 per cent – are Dalits, as per the 2011 Census. This makes Punjab the state with the highest percentage of Dalits as a share of the population.

Of the 15 chief ministers who have ruled the state since independence, none are Dalits. Before its bifurcation in 1966, three of Punjab’s CMs were of Hindu origin. Since then, almost all CMs – except Giani Jail Singh – are from the Jat Sikh community, which comprises not more than 21-25 per cent of the state’s population.

Will leadership crisis cloud AAP’s hopes?

Facing a challenge from Channi and Parkash Singh Badal of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), the Aam Aadmi Party lacks strong leaders within its ranks in the state. Moreover, it is yet to decide its chief ministerial face which the electorate can look up to and count upon. 

In the 2017 assembly polls, the AAP emerged as the second-largest party even as it won 20 of the 112 seats it contested. However, the AAP’s central leadership has, in the last four years, failed to groom state leaders except Punjab party president Bhagwant Mann.

In June last, Kejriwal declared in Amritsar that a member of the Sikh community would be the party’s Chief Minister ‘face’ in Punjab. But political observers are of the view that the sooner the party announces the leader, the better it would be for its electoral prospects. 

Captain’s exit a ‘suicidal attempt’ by Congress

Speaking to FinancialExpress.com, political commentator Dr Suvrokamal Dutta said, “AAP was initially in a very good position in Punjab but later, their house got completely divided. Plus, AAP doesn’t have a CM face in Punjab and neither do they have potential deep-rooted leaders.”

He said that the crisis within the Congress might not just benefit the Aam Aadmi Party, but the Shiromani Akali Dal or the BJP as well. Dutta also said that the unceremonious exit of Captain was a “suicidal attempt” by the Congress and the party will suffer the most from its decision of changing guard just ahead of the assembly polls. 

Predicting a hung assembly in the forthcoming elections, Dutta said: “I don’t rule out some very big surprises before the election from Amarinder Singh. There is every chance that he might float a party of his own, or, even join the BJP. In both the scenarios, it is going to be a massive loss for the Congress.”

Amitabh Tiwari, political strategist and commentator, believes that despite factors of anti-incumbency and dissatisfaction being there, the AAP will have a tightrope walk in emerging victorious in Punjab. 

“The victory has already been served and if AAP fails to win even after this, then there is nothing left to say. Dissatisfaction, anger, anti-incumbency – all these factors are there, but they have to be converted into votes. People are not going to just willingly come out and vote for AAP just because Congress is not performing; they have to see some vision in AAP and whether they can replicate the model of Delhi in Punjab. So, AAP will have to work hard,” Tiwari told FinancialExpress.com. 

The AAP, however, is confident about its prospects. The party says its MLAs are experienced leaders and claims it will be engaging some prominent faces as well.

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