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Explained: How the AAP’s Punjab win heralds a tectonic shift in Indian politics

Punjab Assembly Election Results 2022: The Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is cruising to victory in the state by steamrolling the traditional players, heralding a tectonic shift in Indian politics.

Written by Sourav Roy Barman , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: March 12, 2022 12:41:09 pm
AAP convenor and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal with Punjab CM candidate Bhagwant Mann ahead of the Assembly elections. (Express Photo: Harmeet Sodhi)

A little over eight years after it emerged as a formidable force in Delhi by unseating the Congress and leaving the BJP diminished, the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is cruising to victory in Punjab by steamrolling the traditional players, heralding a tectonic shift in Indian politics.

The AAP appears to be set to emerge as the third pole in the country’s politics, levelling the grand old Congress’ tally of two Chief Ministers in the country, an astonishing feat for a party that has been in existence for less than a decade.

Established on November 26, 2012, the scale of AAP’s success in Punjab has propelled it to the centrestage in national politics which is already witnessing intense jockeying by leaders of a number of regional parties to emerge as the face of the Opposition ahead of the 2024 general elections.

AAP’s first tryst with Punjab

Within a year of forming a short-lived government in Delhi in 2013, the AAP tasted success in Punjab by winning four seats with a 24.4 per cent vote share in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. In 2015, the AAP returned to power in the union territory of Delhi, decimating the Congress and the BJP, triggering hopes of replicating its success in Punjab which was headed to polls in two years. However, that was not to be, as the party finished a distant second with 20 seats behind the Congress which won 77 seats led ably by Captain Amarinder Singh. The AAP had to contend with the status of the principal opposition, no mean achievement for a fledgling outfit. However, the performance appeared underwhelming as AAP was the clear favourite in popular perception and among pollsters.

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What went wrong and what followed

Punjab was yearning for change even in 2017 with discontent brewing against the Congress, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and its junior partner in the state, the BJP. The fact that AAP was starting with a clean slate contributed to its outsized influence from the word go in the state reeling under corruption, dwindling income from unsustainable farming, growing unemployment, drugs and attempts to stoke communal tensions by tapping into the general discontent. Naturally, people of Punjab warmed up to its promise of “alternative politics”. However, not going into the polls with a chief ministerial face, perception of high-handedness by the Delhi high-command and allegations of flirting with Khalistani elements dented the AAP’s prospects. It performed well only in the rural Malwa belt, the home base of Bhagwant Mann, who is set to become the next chief minister of the state. Over the next three years, the AAP lost bypolls to Lok Sabha and assembly seats in Punjab even as the state unit was riven by factionalism, prompting the exit of a number of leaders.

The second coming

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Between 2017-2020, even as it struggled to put its house in order in Punjab, the AAP brought some key strategic changes in the way it functions. First, it refocused on Delhi, its home ground where it emerged from an anti-corruption movement during the term of UPA II. Despite that it suffered a debacle in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, with all the seven Lok Sabha seats in Delhi going to the BJP, triggering the second, and more consequential, shift. Kejriwal dialled down his aggressive public utterances against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP’s brand of muscular nationalism fused with religion. Instead, he kept focus on AAP’s achievements in governance, while also taking stands on hot button issues in conformity with the dominant public mood and not shying away from public displays of religiosity. The strategy paid handsome dividends in the form of a spectacular victory in the 2020 Delhi assembly polls. A victory that, once again, fuelled the party’s desire to expand its footprint, including in the border state of Punjab.

AAP workers celebrate in Bathinda on Thursday. (Express Photo: Gurmeet Singh)

AAP 2.0

With the Congress’ poll campaign in complete disarray, and anger against the SAD-BJP over the farm laws, the AAP sensed the opportunity of a lifetime to end the political duopoly in the state. Mindful of not repeating its past mistakes, the party declared well in advance that it will go to the polls with a chief ministerial candidate from the Sikh community. It kept away from NRIs, who had not just donated but campaigned aggressively for the party in 2017, to refuse the Opposition any chance to link it with radical Sikh elements of the diaspora. Its campaign was predominantly focused on its successful projects in Delhi in the areas of education, health and power, and made developmental promises that the electorate of a state reeling under a governance deficit readily warmed up to. It launched dedicated campaigns to win over the community of traders, establishing dialogues with them in the industrial centres. And lastly, Kejriwal smartly used the attacks made against him by the rival parties, ironically along similar lines, to his own advantage by projecting himself as an anti-establishment outsider with an impeccable track record in governance.

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What next?

While the AAP’s campaign in Goa and Uttarakhand does not appear to have borne much fruit in terms of seats, for now the win in Punjab will provide a strong enough impetus for it to focus on Gujarat, where it is already on a campaign mode, and capitalise on its moment in history by filling in the space being fast vacated by a diminishing Congress.

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First published on: 10-03-2022 at 01:00:18 pm
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