Sunday, 8 January 2017

Spotting AAP's Election Tsunami in Punjab: Umeed & Badlaav (Hope & Change)

It was May of 2014 and I found myself sitting in a crowded TV studio discussing a news channel’s exit poll for the just completed General Election with a couple of days still to go for counting day. As we went from state to state it was becoming painfully obvious, even keeping in mind the unreliability of exit polls, that a Modi wave had swept across northern and western India; ‘a northwest monsoon’ as Rajdeep Sardesai described it. I really did not have much to say as the Modi supporters on the panel crowed with pleasure and rubbed it in. It was not the most pleasant experience. Then came Punjab’s turn and the smug pollster informed us that the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) would get wiped out even in a state where it was believed certain to open its account. Apparently the Modi wave had breached Punjab’s defences as well. However, by then I was certain that Bhagwant Mann was sweeping to victory in Sangrur and there was a corresponding groundswell for AAP in the rest of Punjab’s Malwa heartland. AAP would ultimately win four seats and come very close to winning two or three others. Anyway I awoke from my stupor on the show to contradict the pollster and said that I had first-hand knowledge of what was going on in Punjab, it being my home state, and his figures were completely wrong. The pompous pollster informed me that AAP’s much vaunted support in Punjab had been a mirage and that his numbers never lied. I was going to advise him on air about which part of his anatomy he could stick his poll number but for once, thankfully, I chose to keep my own counsel. I’ve never returned to a TV studio since. Life is too short.

My larger point being that pollsters have been unable or unwilling to spot the full extent of AAP’s support in election after election. They labelled AAP as a non-entity in the Delhi elections of 2013, they were oblivious to AAP’s Punjab in 2014, and were made to look completely incompetent by AAP’s Delhi sweep in 2015. If the first couple of polls in 2017 are anything to go by they are set to repeat the pattern in the run-up to next month’s Punjab assembly elections. What is it about AAP’s electoral fortunes that these pollsters have been unable to gauge the true scale of support? You would think the pollsters might undergo a bout of self-scrutiny and adjust their sample and methods to avoid being embarrassed again. Not that they were particularly accurate in Bihar either.

Like clockwork, after the elections were announced last weeks, opinion polls appear throwing cold water on AAP’s Punjab ambitions and all the so-called political experts of Lutyens’ Delhi start proclaiming that AAP is finished in Punjab. They claim AAP peaked too early during the summer, which is funny because these same worthies were claiming AAP was finished during the summer as well. So in the face of such mendacity I have no choice but to state clearly and unequivocally that Punjab voters are going to vote decisively in AAP’s favour on February 4th. In many ways the election is already over. (By the way, I would have much preferred to have continued writing my novel about Nehru instead of this blog, but there seems to be such a disconnect between the perception of the national media and the ground realities of Punjab I felt I had no choice but to break myself away from the joy of recreating the 1928 Calcutta Congress, now forgotten but of immense historical significance.)

So do I believe that all these respected political analysts, pollsters included, are wrong and only I am correct? Am I delusional? Quite possibly. Biased? Undoubtedly, but that need not necessarily cloud my electoral assessment. Being my home state I have a sense of what is going on the ground in Punjab much more so than I ever had during elections in Delhi where I reside. There are certain signs that are now visible as leading indicators of AAP support in Punjab that are perhaps too subtle for pollsters to quantify.

First and most importantly, the crowds turning out day in and day out for AAP campaign events, even for candidate nukkad meetings or jansabhas, across Punjab are stunning to behold. Arvind Kejriwal will attract a crowd anywhere he goes but Bhagwant Mann’s campaign stops in particular are looking more and more impressive, people are turning out in droves and can be seen standing on trucks, hanging out of windows, and standing on rooftops. There is a rock concert feel to them, reminiscent of Delhi in 2015. Don’t believe me, just follow Bhagwant Mann on Facebook or twitter, the pictures are posted daily and they speak for themselves. A Punjab Congress MLA told me the crowds were showing up to hear Mann’s jokes, I told him he should listen carefully to the well-crafted jokes because they were political satire, the most lethal form of political rhetoric, especially so in Punjabi. The AAP campaign machine may not have been the most disciplined to begin with but once it got rolling, as it now has in Punjab, it is relentlessly grinding towards its objective. Hoards of volunteers from India and abroad are being added to the volunteer army in the state every day. They aren’t paid and possess the passion of true believers. This idealism brings an invaluable energy to any campaign. It is a concept alien to campaign strategist Prashant Kishor and his team of bloodless mercenaries who work for the Punjab Congress.

In Punjab much like Delhi you have a highly unpopular incumbent party and an opposition party that lacks energy and is riven with division. The wildcard is obviously Amarinder Singh but he is being repeatedly hampered by Rahul Gandhi and his acolytes in the Punjab Congress. It is common knowledge that Amarinder and Rahul don’t trust each other. Rahul knows he needs the Captain to win the election but would like to ultimately anoint somebody else as Chief Minister if they win, which is why he wooed the eccentric Navjot Sidhu so assiduously. Amarinder, of course, knows this and has been using every effort to get as many Akali defectors, presumably loyal to him, Congress tickets as he can despite rumblings of revolt from within Congress ranks. The extended disagreement over the 40 seats with candidates still unannounced is a tussle for power for the post-election scenario. Of course, it has resulted in Punjab Congress top brass camping in Delhi for the last six or seven weeks and no one can remember the last time Amarinder Singh addressed a rally. All the while AAP has been campaigning non-stop from Arvind Kejriwal on downwards. Congress is busy dividing the spoils of a prospective victory while ignoring the battlefield. Rahul Gandhi’s week-long New Year’s sojourn means the Congress campaign will have a little more than three weeks to campaign, assuming they can tamp down the dissension certain to be caused by the announcement of the last 40 seats. With less than a month to go to elections each day that you aren’t campaigning you are losing votes.

Another important point that most commentary are glossing over when it comes to Punjab is the organisational strength that AAP now has on the ground in the state. Between the summers of 2015 and 2016 Sanjay Singh, Durgesh  Pathak and their hard-working team have put into place a party structure that is unmatched, even by the Akalis. They went from village to village, each of which were traditionally divided into Akali or Congress bastions, breaking through the duopoly and winning over allegiances. No easy task, I assure you. The AAP surge in 2014 was largely voter driven, most of whom voted for the jhadu symbol without having even seen AAP leader or volunteer, so much so that even such a lacklustre campaigner as Harinder Khalsa was swept to victory. This time is different, AAP will not only have voter intensity on its side but also a turnout machine, augmented by a comprehensive voter database, the likes of which Punjab has never before seen. There are whole villages that will vote for AAP en masse and signs of this are already becoming clear after the imposition of the model code of conduct as the villages have started putting up signs asking Akali and Congress candidates to save their breath and stay away. The added organisational prowess of the Bains brothers in the crucial seats in and around Ludhiana is fast turning what was once a closely-fought battleground into a one-sided sweep.

But the closing weeks of the campaign will matter as always and AAP must reduce its accusatory rhetoric to a minimum, concentrating on a positive message to rev up its base and attract the undecided voter. On the day the elections were announced last week Arvind Kejriwal voiced a message of ‘umeed’ and ‘badlaav’, hope and change, which should form the bedrock of AAP’s closing message to Punjab’s voters who are ready for change after ten years of misgovernance and loot. Those voters still in the undecided column are most likely to be either Akali voters ready to defect after the Badal family’s wholesale takeover of the party or urban Hindu voters fed up with the dysfunctional state BJP unit, with demonetisation only increasing the migration away. These late-deciding voters have been anti-Congress voters for a decade and therefore likely to break towards AAP in large proportion. Because of its divisive history in the state there is a defined ceiling to the Congress vote-share, and that is why their biggest fear is an Akali electoral meltdown, something that is looking increasingly likely. Whereas AAP as the new party can poach undecided voters from a wider basket without any past mistakes to impede their message of real change.

These remaining undecided voters are the same voters that won the state for an Amarinder-led Congress in 2002, but that was then and Amarinder had returned home to the Congress and brought a sense of hope and change in his wake that he subsequently betrayed with a lazy and distant leadership style, surrounding himself with a durbar and unable to control his family. He lost his second chance at Chief Ministership ten years later in 2012 when the same great pollsters predicted an almost certain Congress victory and caused the erstwhile Maharaja to take his campaigning duties lightly. Badals eked out an upset victory and Punjab has been paying the consequences ever since. There is little doubt that without Amarinder the Punjab Congress would have little to no chance. He is desperate for one last stint of power, not to change Punjab politics for the better but to safeguard the status quo and his own interests. After all, as a military historian he know better than anyone that Rajas and Maharajas historically are rarely catalysts of change, in fact more often than not they are victims of it. Punjab voters are yearning for genuine change, not more of the same in a different package.      

Just before a tsunami strikes the coast the sea recedes from the beach and an eerie calm prevails, though only momentarily and deceptively so. Those standing on the beach may misinterpret this phenomena as intriguing but nothing to be worried about or life-threatening. In Punjab I believe the tsunami is AAP and the clueless sods on the beach are the establishment faced with imminent extinction. On February 4th nature will take its course.

Of course, there’s always the possibility the polls are right and my assessment may prove to be completely wrong, in which case I’ll be the one having to undergo a strenuous bout of self-examination. That’s what I love about elections, in the end the voters cut through the campaign fog of mistruths and decide all our fates. So be it.