Monday, 13 March 2017

AAP's Punjab post-mortem...

The problem with most post-election analyses is that suddenly the victor is said to have done everything with omniscient perfection and the defeated party’s campaign is described as a total train-wreck. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) got the benefit of this phenomenon after it swept to victory in Delhi two years ago and now it is feeling the bitter end of the equation after being vanquished by the Congress Party in Punjab. AAP got it badly wrong. And, yes, I got it badly wrong as well. No AAP tsunami materialised this time despite my prediction, quite the reverse in fact. You have every reason to demand an explanation for how this miscalculation happened. Let’s begin the post-mortem.

In mid-January of 2016 all the main political parties were assembled en masse in the city of Muktsar in the Malwa heartland of Punjab to hold rallies on the day of the Maghi Mela. It was an annual ritual but this was the day AAP announced its presence as a serious player in the state with a massive show of force. The Congress had made the mistake of holding its rally too close to the AAP rally and found that people arriving on their buses were herding to hear Kejriwal speak instead. The Congress pandal was naturally rendered quite empty. The shrewder Akalis had anticipated this eventuality and held their rally at a comfortable distance away. What followed, as recounted to me by a senior Congress leader, was that newly minted Punjab Congress President, Captain Amarinder Singh, accompanied by the entire state leadership of the party had arrived in the area but did not dare show up at the still largely empty rally site. While emergency measures were taken to fill the rally with people Amarinder Singh and his entourage decided to take shelter in the house of an unsuspecting farmer in a nearby field. Two MLAs were dispatched to record the AAP rally. Until this point Amarinder had considered AAP’s surprise victories in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections as a fluke, but after suffering this indignity I imagine he had a re-think. Despite what he may have said in public it was clear from his actions thereafter that the Captain now believed AAP would be his main adversary in the upcoming campaign. An SOS went out for Prashant Kishor. 

Shortly after the Maghi Mela rallies I met AAP’s campaign manager Durgesh Pathak for the first time. After I got past the fact that he was so young he looked like he must have been barely out of college I quickly realised that underneath the youthful fa├žade lay a hardcore political operative who knew exactly what he was doing and had travelled to every corner of Punjab in the previous six months. He was also very clear that the only man who could stop AAP from victory in Punjab was Amarinder Singh. Battle lines had been drawn.

It is unnecessary to recount the entire course of the campaign over the last year in great detail. While AAP led by Arvind Kejriwal and Bhagwant Mann unleashed an onslaught on the Badals the Congress was trying to get its house in order with Prashant Kishor and his team overseeing the operation. Until, of course, Sardar Chhotepur was removed as the convener of AAP Punjab and civil war ensued for a few weeks with charges being flung from all directions. Amarinder took full advantage of this period of turbulence for AAP. But the tide soon reversed again when it seemed the entire leadership of Punjab Congress was stranded in Delhi for weeks as the high command took forever to decide on their list of candidates. While AAP campaigned relentlessly before the announcement of elections it seemed Congress had left it till too late by giving some of their candidates as little as two or three weeks before the election. But the Congress had a trump card to play in the end and that was the entry of Navjot Singh Sidhu as a candidate from Amritsar. The pictures of Amarinder and Sidhu smiling and chatting together at their press conference was very effective and major setback for AAP.

In the last forty-eight hours since the election results a flurry of newspaper articles have been postulating a myriad of reasons why AAP electorally under-performed. Let me try and address some of them. It is true the Hindu and urban vote coalesced behind the Congress, but they were traditional Congress voters who had drifted to the BJP for the last decade and were now coming home anyway. Though, I must admit, even as a Sikh, the excessive religiosity of the AAP campaign made me distinctly uncomfortable at times and the mysterious bomb blast in Bathinda on the eve of voting fed into the unhelpful narrative of AAP consorting with extremists. The inability of AAP to clinch a deal with Sidhu was a missed opportunity, certainly, because he could have provided a pan-Punjab face that the party sorely required, but agreeing to his demands would have almost certainly led to the exodus of at least two senior leaders, thus making the entire exercise self-defeating. Then there was the ever-present bogey of the threat posed by outsiders from Delhi remote controlling AAP’s Punjab unit, all the while Congress leaders were sitting in Delhi for weeks on end to find out if they made the cut in the candidate list approved by the Gandhis. Of course, there is a kernel of truth to all these observations by the media but I am not convinced they were decisive in causing voters finally backing the Congress.

AAP’s success in the state during the 2014 Lok Sabha election also has to be properly understood. At the time AAP represented everything to everyone and provided the perfect vehicle for a protest vote across central and eastern Malwa, a region known for its rebellious streak. By the time Sanjay Singh and Durgesh Pathak were deputed to the state in the wake of the expulsions of Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan the state unit was in complete anarchy, with at least two of the four Members of Parliament in open revolt. It took them six months just to calm everything down and start building anything resembling a party organisation that could compete against the Congress and the Akalis. By the time the election came along AAP had never really garnered much support in Majha and only lukewarm support in Doaba, thus staking it all in sweeping the Malwa heartland. To sweep Malwa AAP was reliant on Akali Dal suffering a complete meltdown, something I expected given the environment of strong anti-incumbency, but surprisingly they managed to maintain their 2014 performance and Congress took full advantage of the three-way split in the region. 

So you could reasonably posit that the 2014 AAP surge was an ephemeral occurrence caused by voter anger at both a deeply unpopular UPA Govt at the Centre and equally unpopular Badal Government in Chandigarh. In the Punjab assembly campaign as AAP made its stand clear on issues and stated its preferred policies it now asked voters to look at it from the perspective of a government-in-waiting and not just a faceless vehicle for protest votes. This change of perspective form the point of view of voters provided the crux of how this election was decided. The question voters needed to decide on was if AAP was ready to rule Punjab.

The turbulence in Delhi between the Centre and Delhi Governments may have earned some sympathy for AAP amongst younger voters but also may have worried risk-averse and older voters who feared Punjab’s interests would pay the price in the clash between the Prime Minister and Chief Minister of Delhi. Then there was the lack of a Chief Ministerial candidate when faced with Amarinder Singh who was unlike any leader AAP had faced so far because he fits the profile of a powerful regional satrap who has absolutely no national ambitions beyond the state and played the sympathy card of this being his last election to the hilt.

AAP was successful in convincing voters of Punjab that it would jail Majithia, that it would safeguard the holy scriptures against sacrilege, that it would import its successful educational and health policies from Delhi, that NRIs would never have it so good, and it would launch a war on drugs. But in the end none of those things mattered. Punjab voters looked at the line-up of AAP candidates, most political newcomers with little or no government experience, and could not visualise a Government-in-Waiting. They looked at Captain Amarinder Singh and saw a safe pair of hands, past his prime and flawed though he might be. End of story.

As the main opposition party in the Punjab legislative assembly the twenty-two AAP MLAs, as well as the larger party organisation, will have five years to prove to voters that they are indeed ready to govern. They must do this by being a responsible but ever vigilant opposition party. You can rest assured the Congress Government will provide ample opportunity to showcase these qualities. I’ll be keeping a close watch on the antics of the Captain and his durbar too. Stay tuned.