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Wednesday, July 06, 2022

How AAP swept to victory in Punjab

Ajay Vir Jakhar writes: Voters disenchanted with Congress, SAD were desperate for change and sought it in a party unencumbered by a legacy

Written by Ajay Vir Jakhar |
Updated: March 11, 2022 12:10:56 pm
Delhi Chief Minister and AAP convener Arvind Kejriwal and AAP's Chief Ministerial candidate Bhagwant Mann flash the victory sign, as the party heads to a landslide victory in Punjab Assembly elections. (PTI Photo)

Punjab was in the throes of an economic, sociological and environmental meltdown when the state assembly elections turned into a political tornado. The Aam Aadmi Party uprooted not only a whole forest of leaders from Parkash Singh Badal to Amarinder Singh but possibly the Congress party from the national mantlepiece as well.

The trajectory of the decimation of the traditional parties is not difficult to map. The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) was identified with and supported by the Sikhs and the farmers.

The sacrilege charges had already eroded its identity as a party for the Sikhs. It blundered further by initially supporting the farm laws, thus losing the faith of the farmers. Being disconnected from the masses is not the exclusive domain of the Congress.

If demonising the Badals had provided Amarinder Singh with the licence to power in 2017, his consorting with the same Badals after he became the Chief Minister became his nemesis. It was his bonhomie with the Badals that made Punjab hold him in contempt and eventually forced the Congress high command to show him the door. The occasion provided the opportunity for change that the people were seeking from the stranglehold of the two families who had been at the helm of affairs for over a quarter of a century.

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Of the 79 Congress MLAs whose opinion was sought, other than Charanjit Singh Channi himself, only one other MLA opted for him. Still the Congress high command put Channi at the helm. Not to forget, Navjot Singh Sidhu, a person who has delusions of having daily conversations with the gods and who had been earlier imposed as the state party president on the hapless Punjab Congress, was acceptable to only four Congress MLAs. Consequently, the party was laughed out of power.

It was no surprise that the Congress in Punjab, a party with raging internecine feuds, could not capitalise on the social engineering of appointing a lower caste chief minister, which was seen as a ploy to beat the anti-incumbency factor. But in its hubris of appointing a lower caste CM, the party grossly miscalculated the backlash from other sections. Hindus in Punjab felt slighted when a few senior party leaders objected to a Hindu CM and the party high command buckled. That the blatant indiscipline of CM Channi in supporting his brother as an independent candidate against a Congress candidate went unchecked is a telling sign of the terminal decay in the Congress leadership. To top it all, January 18, 2022, became the tipping point of the election campaign, when the family of the CM was raided by the Enforcement Directorate. Unaccounted cash amounting to Rs 10 crore was recovered from the operation, along with humongous sums of unexplained money in bank accounts. It validated what people had long suspected: The CM was just another version of the earlier regime.

 

Decades of misgovernance, easy availability of drugs, rampant corruption, illegal sand mining, liquor lobby pay-outs, lack of employment opportunities had people frustrated and clamouring for change. If the Akali Dal is to blame for initiating the cynicism, the Congress is largely at fault for allowing the wounds to fester. Other than the obvious crisis of leadership, the Congress faces a deeper crisis of purpose.

Indeed, the only real loser in the elections is the Congress party. Amarinder Singh, in spite of his loss, has exacted his sweet revenge for the humiliation seemingly sanctioned by the Congress high command.

The level of dejection with the traditional parties was so large that people did not care to notice that like these parties, the AAP too has a high command that sits in Delhi, that 51 per cent of its candidates have criminal records and over a fourth of its candidates were turncoats from other political parties. Desperately seeking a change, the people concluded that the AAP would provide it. The AAP did not need to be intelligent; it just needed to be seen as being different. As a party unencumbered by the past and without a legacy to drag it down, the AAP thus won decisively.

The BJP’s gambit achieved two advantages. One, a clear AAP victory in Punjab muddles the chances of opposition unity at the national level in the run-up to 2024 parliamentary elections as AAP becomes the “go-to national party”. Next, with the help of Amarinder Singh, some farm union leaders were incentivised to form the Sanyukt Samaj Morcha to contest the polls. Apart from the expected thorough rout of the Morcha, its leaders lost the trust of the people and the chance of a farmers’ protest effectively targeting the BJP again in the future has been neutralised.

Looking ahead, the AAP will quickly realise that it is easier to make poll promises than to deliver on them. After the GST compensation comes to an end in three months, the appalling gap between revenue receipts and the committed expenditure will be impossible to plug. This shortfall does not account for the humongous cost of fulfilling the election promises. There is little doubt that after the elections, the real “aam aadmi” will feel short-changed by the long list of promises and expectations that simply cannot be fulfilled.

The AAP is also different because its state leadership is without administrative experience, devoid of ideology and a party structure for checks and balances. This and the high number of MLAs (many of them first-time) will make it very tricky for the party to govern a state where expectations have peaked and emotions always run high. Time will tell if Bhagwant Mann as the chief minister can wield power as a statesman. That will decide the fate of the AAP as the road to India’s capital leads through Punjab.

This column first appeared in the print edition on March 11, 2022 under the title ‘In Punjab, a clear wind for change’. The writer is chairman, Bharat Krishak Samaj

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