Just over eight years after emerging as a formidable force in Delhi by toppling Congress and leaving the BJP in decline, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) led by Arvind Kejriwal is on the road to victory in Punjab by crushing traditional players, heralding a tectonic shift in Indian politics.
The AAP appears to be poised to emerge as the third pole of the country’s politics, leveling the tally of the country’s great old Congress of two chief ministers, a stunning feat for a party that has been around for less than a decade. .
Established on November 26, 2012, the scale of AAP’s success in Punjab has thrust it into the center of the national political scene which is already seeing intense jockeys from the leaders of a number of regional parties to emerge as the face of the opposition ahead of the 2024 Gen. elections.
AAP’s first meeting with Punjab
Less than a year after forming a short-lived government in Delhi in 2013, the AAP found success in Punjab, winning four seats with a 24.4% vote share in Lok Sabha polls in 2014. In 2015, the AAP returned to power in the Delhi union territory, decimating Congress and the BJP, sparking hopes of replicating its success in Punjab which was heading to the polls in two years. However, that was not the case as the party finished second with 20 seats behind Congress which won 77 seats ably led by Captain Amarinder Singh. The AAP had to deal with the status of main opponent, not an easy task for a nascent formation. However, the performance appeared disappointing as the AAP was the clear favorite in popular perception and among pollsters.
What went wrong and what followed
Punjab yearned for change even in 2017 with simmering discontent against Congressman Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and his junior partner in the state, BJP. The fact that the AAP started with a clean slate contributed to its outsized influence from the start in a state plagued by corruption, dwindling revenues from unsustainable agriculture, growing unemployment, drugs and attempts to inflame community tensions by exploiting general discontent. Naturally, the people of Punjab warmed to his promise of an “alternative policy”. However, failing to turn up at the polls with a chief ministerial face, the perception of authoritarianism by the Delhi high command and allegations of flirting with Khalistani elements have undermined the AAP’s prospects. It has only performed well in the rural belt of Malwa, the home base of Bhagwan Mann, who is set to become the state’s next chief minister. Over the next three years, the AAP lost bypolls to the Lok Sabha and assembly seats in Punjab even as the state unit was torn apart by factionalism, prompting the departure of a number of leaders.
The second coming
Between 2017 and 2020, even as it struggled to put its house in order in Punjab, the AAP made key strategic changes in its operation. First, he refocused on Delhi, his home ground where he emerged from an anti-corruption movement during the UPA II period. Despite this, he suffered a debacle in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, with all seven Lok Sabha seats in Delhi going to the BJP, triggering the second, more consequential change. Kejriwal has scaled back his aggressive public statements against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP’s brand of muscular nationalism fused with religion. Instead, he focused on the AAP’s accomplishments in governance, while taking a stand on burning issues in accordance with the prevailing public mood and unafraid of public displays of religiosity. The strategy paid off in the form of a dramatic victory in the 2020 Delhi Assembly elections. A victory that once again fueled the party’s desire to expand its footprint, including in the border state of Punjab.
With the Congressional election campaign in disarray and anger at the SAD-BJP over the Farm Bills, the AAP felt the opportunity of a lifetime to end the political duopoly in the state. Anxious not to repeat past mistakes, the party said well in advance that it would go to the polls with a chief ministerial candidate from the Sikh community. He steered clear of the NRIs, which had not only donated but campaigned aggressively for the party in 2017, to deny the opposition any chance of linking him to radical Sikh elements of the Diaspora. His campaign was mainly focused on his successful projects in Delhi in the areas of education, health and energy, and made development promises to which the electorate of a state reeling from a deficit of governance easily heated up. It has launched dedicated campaigns to win over the trading community, establishing dialogues with them in industrial centres. And finally, Kejriwal has cleverly used the attacks on him by rival parties, ironically along the same lines, to his advantage by projecting himself as a dissenting outsider with an impeccable governance record.
After that ?
While the AAP’s campaign in Goa and Uttarakhand does not seem to have borne much fruit in terms of seats, for now the victory in Punjab will give it a strong enough boost to focus on Gujarat, where it is already. in campaign mode, and capitalize on his moment in history by filling the space quickly vacated by a shrinking Congress.
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