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AAP’s Punjab gamble raises the stakes for SAD and Congress; now it’s three-way race and anybody’s win

A charismatic leader, Amarinder was hoping to lead the Congress to victory after a humiliating defeat in the last two terms.

Written by Kanchan Vasdev | Chandigarh | Updated: December 30, 2016 3:33:30 pm
Ranchi: Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal addresses a rally against Demonetization at Harmu ground in Ranchi on Thursday. PTI Photo (PTI12_22_2016_000223B) Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal PTI Photo

For the border state of Punjab going to the polls early next year, 2016 was a confounding year that saw the emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) as a formidable alternative, despite several controversies, to the traditional parties — the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) combine and the grand old Congress. AAP was the flavour of the political scene in the state for most part of the year with Delhi Chief Minister and national convener of AAP Arvind Kejriwal leaving his political opponents baffled after putting up a tremendous show at the historic Maghi Mela in Muktsar on January 14.

The Maghi mela, a litmus test show of strength for political parties in the state, saw all roads leading to Kejriwal’s first rally; people left the pandals of traditional parties to catch a glimpse of Kejriwal who addressed a hugely responsive crowd in his “signature muffler”. Kejriwal hit out at the drug menace and promised to bring back Punjab’s days of pristine glory. The crowds cheered in response. It was a bolt-out-of-the-blue for Capt Amarinder Singh who had taken over as Punjab Congress president just a month earlier. A charismatic leader, Amarinder was hoping to lead the Congress to victory after a humiliating defeat in the last two terms. Kejriwal’s rally and the encouraging response indicated that the AAP was a force to be reckoned with.

Fears in the Congress were not unfounded as it had been wiped out by AAP in the Delhi Assembly elections in 2015. With Amarinder taking on board the political strategist Prashant Kishor, the duo put their heads together and Amarinder hit the road with his `Coffee with Captain’ programme to appeal to the youth, considered the force behind the emergence of AAP. Then came a series of programmes like `Halke Vich Captain’ as his mass contact programme. The year saw promises galore from Amarinder including smart phones for the youth, one job in every family and a waiver of farmers’ debts.

The Congress took a stance against dynasty with Amarinder enforcing a rule of one-family-one-ticket and a promise to do away with VIP culture. The Congress was also forced to start its ticket distribution process much before the election by AAP. The ruling SAD-BJP combine, led by Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal depended on its tried and tested vote-catching “poll-doles” with the state budget for the current fiscal announcing doubling of old age pensions, a free pilgrimage scheme, recruitment of over one lakh jobless youths, free utensils and free electricity to poor.

Towards the end of the year the SAD-BJP government regularised 27,000 contractual employees, initiated a facelift exercise for the historic cities, constructed memorials, and rolled out its much hyped amphibious bus. Mid year, the traditional parties were struggling: the SAD-BJP coalition is swimming against double-incumbency, a drug menace and the first family facing allegations of conflict of interest; the Congress is still trying to reverse the ‘anti-Congress’ sentiment at the national level. So it seemed like a smooth ride for the AAP: it did not carry any baggage from the past and was buoyed by an excellent performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections with the party’s only four MPs coming from the state. This year, it had forayed into urban and rural Punjab and enjoys a presence in almost every village in the state.

All was well with AAP till it hit a major roadblock in August. It all started with the first list of 19 candidates in the first week of August. The first list opened a Pandora’s Box for the party with rumblings of revolt from most of the seats. The party that had lent hopes to a number of ticket seekers, had not anticipated such a revolt. The first list also led to the exit of its state convener Sucha Singh Chhotepur and many volunteers. He alleged his recommendations were ignored as were the volunteers.

Within a few days, news of a video-clip showing Chhotepur accepting money from a ticket-seeker surfaced and Chhotepur confessed to have accepted party funds from a volunteer. The video-clip never came out in the public domain but Chhotepur quit the party to float his own Apna Punjab Party (APP). With him went several zonal leaders and AAP found itself on a shaky pedestal. Later, allegations of “kick-backs” for tickets flew thick and fast while the Delhi based leaders, who were at the helm of affairs in the state, faced protests and got an “outsiders” tag.

Within that time, the Congress was able to create a buzz with its promise of scheme for farmers, smart phones and jobs.

The AAP heaved a sigh of relief after virtually the entire Congress spent over a month in Delhi to decide on the tickets, leaving the political battlefield virtually deserted. AAP has in the meantime fielded its big wigs against Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Badal and Revenue Minister Bikram Singh Majithia. Kejriwal’s announcement of a Dalit leader as its Deputy Chief Minister candidate has created a buzz for the party, especially among the Dalits who comprise 32.5 per cent of state’s population.

SAD-BJP has been playing the development card by pumping over Rs 10,000 crore into the urban and rural renewal mission, under which the state roads have turned into a delight to travel on. Amarinder Singh is banking on his charisma and his successes while CM of the state. AAP depend on its promise to bring about change, with its door to door campaign and of course Kejriwal holding rallies in all parts of the state.

As 2017 knocks on the door, the state is locked in a triangular contest — as the political pundits say, a triangular contest is the most difficult to predict so it remains to be seen who wins the battle of the ballot. Over to the voters now.

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