So what is the electoral state of play in Punjab today with the assembly election fast approaching? On the ground in Punjab it is now becoming increasingly clear that the election is a two-horse race between the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and Congress, with the incumbent Akali-BJP alliance now lagging far behind. Also we can be sure that any hope of a fourth front is a non-starter, as Navjot Sidhu and his cohorts have quickly found out.
There is no need to waste too many words on the Badal Government’s odds of re-election, which are right now close to nil. After ten years of misrule the Badals leave behind a legacy of having overseen a rampant drug epidemic, rural distress leading to farmer suicides in the hundreds, limitless nepotism, crony capitalism, total breakdown of law and order, fiscal bankruptcy, and outright loot. There is now a widespread belief in Punjab that the Badal clan has sucked Punjab dry. Their beleaguered ally the BJP can do nothing but cower in fear of an AAP victory because of the national political implications of such a result. To put it simply, the writing is on the wall for the Badals.
Amarinder Singh has spent the last six months trying to ward off the wrangling ways of his campaign strategist Prashant Kishor (aka PK), whom the good Captain claims to have invited onboard in the first place. Amarinder seemed distinctly uncomfortable during the plethora of packaged events PK and his team had organised for him through the summer. But now Amarinder seems to have momentarily broken away from PK’s influence and found some of his old fire. The people of Punjab have a very emotional relationship with the erstwhile Maharaja of Patiala, they are willing to forgive him many a fault because of his obvious charm and great reservoir of goodwill that he built after resigning from Parliament and the Congress Party after Operation Bluestar. He is the only reason the Congress is largely shielded from continued voter anger about the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. Amarinder is hoping that after a ten-year interregnum the voters will forget the disaster that was his earlier tenure as Chief Minister; the corruption charges and the inaccessibility where mornings started late and the evening’s entertainment began early. If elected this durbar culture will likely return with a vengeance, his family and retainers will surround him and all promises of governance and development will be forgotten. But Amarinder is a fighter and he will campaign hard, no doubt trying to elicit every last drop of emotion and sympathy of this being what he clams is his last election and last stand.
And finally we come to AAP, who pulled a surprise against the run of play in 2014 by winning four Lok Sabha seats in the Malwa heartland of the state. Since then AAP in Punjab has been trying to put in place a party structure to fully exploit this initial groundswell of support that appeared, almost unbidden. Fortunately, Sanjay Singh, Durgesh Pathak and their top-notch team has been able to put an extensive party organisation into place on the ground over the past eighteen months or so. AAP is also well ahead in candidate selection with over half the candidates already selected and now campaigning in their constituencies. The candidate selection process necessarily led to some upheaval, as was expected, and some departures including the former state convenor who now finds himself all alone in the political wilderness. And then there was the Sidhu drama that began with a bang and then seems to have petered out. After walking out from the BJP and then overplaying his hand with AAP, Sidhu is now busy playing off one camp against the other in the Congress Party. One thing is for sure, you can’t be Awaaz-e-Punjab if you are taking orders from Rahul Gandhi.
It is important to note that the groundswell of support in Punjab of AAP is only tangentially related to the party’s support in Delhi. In fact many of those who voted for AAP in 2014 make sure to remind visitors that they voted for AAP even when Delhi’s voters failed to do so during the Modi wave and they say this with great pride in their voice. Arvind Kejriwal is the common link for all AAP voters, of course, and the more he takes on Modi in Delhi the more popular he gets in Punjab, where an underdog with a fighting spirit is always admired. So the Modi Government’s strategy to use Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung and Delhi Police in a war of attrition against the Kejriwal Government is totally backfiring on the ground in Punjab. Because of its turbulent recent history there are few states where people are more suspicious of the police and the central government than in Punjab and Modi Government’s ceaseless bullying tactics in Delhi serve as unwelcome reminders to Punjabis of their own state’s past.
This is going to be a ‘change’ election, of that there is little doubt, the only question is what kind of change Punjab’s voters decide to choose. Amarinder is promising a safe version of change, and that is all it is, campaign promises never to be fulfilled once in office, as has been the case so many times in Punjab’s past and witnessed in Amarinder’s own chief ministerial tenure. Or voters can take the more risky choice of real change promised by AAP, likely to be more turbulent but also a genuine departure from the past, a new vision for Punjab divorced from the arguments of the past.
A new beginning for Punjab is what AAP promises, but that is not enough to cross the finish line. They will need to convince voters that they are safe pair of hands to govern. Delhi Government’s example will provide some assistance in this endeavour. Modi Government’s extra-constitutional war on the Kejriwal Government is an attempt to stop AAP from crossing this final hurdle of acceptability in Punjab. Congress will target AAP’s lack of a chief ministerial candidate, a vulnerability that AAP has no obvious solution for at the moment. Arvind Kejriwal’s popularity and credibility in the eyes of Punjab voters will be invaluable but the election hinges on whether voters can make the mental leap required to envision AAP’s local leadership as a government-in-waiting.
AAP has captured the message of hope in the Punjab election, while Amarinder is relying on emotion and false nostalgia. After a lacklustre summer the Congress is resurgent but yet to begin its ticket distribution exercise, which is likely to be fractious due to prevailing tensions between the young guard and veterans, between PK and sitting MLAs, between Rahul and Amarinder, between Bajwa and Amarinder, just to name a few. As of today it is an election for AAP to win or lose, the crowds at campaign events every day speak for themselves. The electorally significant Malwa heartland south of the Satluj is where AAP is strongest, the Doaba region lying between Beas and Satluj is where the Dalits and NRIs have a major influence and AAP is also doing well, but Amritsar-centred and sceptical Majha is a weak area for AAP and a more localised campaign strategy might be the need of the hour.
There is no room for AAP to be complacent as the decisive phase of the campaign has just begun and there is a fighting Captain obstructing its path to victory.