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AAP sweeps aside stalwarts, shifts ground in Punjab: ‘We changed the system’

Divided Congress is voted out, Badals and Captain among giants who fall

AAP CM candidate Bhagwant Maan addresses his supporters at his residence in Sangrur. (Express photo by Jasbir Malhi)

ON JUNE 22, 2017, during the first major Vidhan Sabha session in Punjab after the state polls, several AAP legislators were dragged out of the House on the Speaker’s orders, their turbans getting dislodged in the melee. It was a clear message from the Congress to the “upstart” party, which had emerged as the main Opposition, on who was the boss in Punjab.

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Nearly five years later, AAP has bounced back from infighting, mass desertion and losses in every subsequent poll in the state since then, to claim the largest mandate in recent years and trounce the Congress as well as SAD. It was a clear message from AAP on who was the new boss in Punjab.

Today, over eight years after it first emerged as a formidable force in Delhi, AAP has marked a tectonic shift in national politics, winning 92 of 117 seats in Punjab with a vote share of 42.1 per cent, up from 20 seats and a vote share of 23.7 per cent last time.

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And by equalling the Congress tally of two chief ministers, it is now the third political pole in the country at a time when regional leaders are jockeying to emerge as the Opposition’s face for the 2024 general elections.

On Thursday, the massive margins by which some of AAP’s candidates won — over 50,000 votes in nine seats — signalled that Punjab’s voters had overwhelmingly decided to opt for change.

It also showed that AAP’s line of “Ik mauka Kejriwal nu, ik mauka Bhagwant Mann nu” (one chance for Kejriwal, one chance for Bhagwant Mann) had found resonance with voters disenchanted with the traditional two-party politics of Congress and SAD.


“Pehle Dilli mein inquilab hua, phir Punjab mein inquilab hua, ab yeh inquilab poore desh ke andar phailega (The revolution came to Delhi first, then Punjab, now it will spread to the entire country),” Arvind Kejriwal, AAP’s national convenor and Delhi Chief Minister, said.

Referring to allegations levelled against him during the campaign, Kejriwal said: “Everybody came together against AAP and said Kejriwal is a terrorist. The people of the country have said that Kejirwal is not a terrorist, he is the real deshbhakt (patriot).”

He said: “Bhagat Singh had said once that after getting Independence, if we don’t change the system, nothing will happen. In the past 75 years, these parties and politicians have kept the system of the British. They didn’t make any schools or hospitals. The AAP has changed the system in the past seven years.”


Established on November 26, 2012, AAP first tasted success in Punjab by winning four seats with a 24.4 per cent vote share in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. In 2015, it returned to power in Delhi, decimating the Congress and the BJP and triggering hopes of replicating its success in Punjab which was headed to polls in two years.

But that was not to be, as the party finished a distant second behind the Congress, which won 77 seats led by Captain Amarinder Singh. Subsequently, AAP’s dismal record in the 2019 general elections, when its vote share dropped from 23.7 per cent in 2017 to 7.38 per cent, and the failure to put up a decent performance in by-polls and local bodies elections, did not inspire confidence. Until the middle of 2021, no political pundit would have been confident of an AAP victory in 2022.

However, even as it struggled to put its house in order in Punjab, AAP had brought in some key strategic changes in the way it functions.

After suffering a debacle in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls in Delhi, where all seven seats went to the BJP, Kejriwal dialled down his aggressive public utterances against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP’s brand of muscular nationalism. Instead, he focused on AAP’s achievements in governance, while taking stands on hot button issues in line with the public mood and not shying away from public displays of religiosity.

The strategy paid dividends in the form of a spectacular victory in the 2020 Delhi assembly polls, which once again fuelled the party’s desire to expand its footprint in Punjab. Compared to the euphoria of 2017, when the enthusiasm of voters did not translate into votes, AAP took its time to rebuild its grassroots cadre and select candidates.


At the same time, the Congress infighting that broke out, with Navjot Sigh Sidhu’s challenge culminating in the sacking of Amarinder as chief minister in September 2021, came as a boon. Kejriwal did not lose any time in capitalising on the situation, knowing that the SAD, too, was compromised due to its initial pro-farm laws stance.

Within a month of the installation of Charanjit Singh Channi as the new chief minister, Kejriwal was in Punjab to make the first of his “guarantees” — Rs 1,000 per month as allowance for women and free power upto 300 units per month. Soon, AAP started looking like a viable alternative, riding the wave of Kejriwal’s promises which by 2021-end included transformation of school education and free medical treatment, or “padhai-dawai” (education and medicine).


Even as AAP consolidated at the ground level — spearheaded by Delhi MLA and party co-incharge for Punjab, Raghav Chadha — it was not free from internal turmoil. Its most popular face in Punjab, Bhagwant Mann, started getting his supporters to gather at his house and demand that he be made its CM face. The party leadership relented.

But what really worked for AAP was the tried and tested “aam aadmi” approach — its raison d’etre.


Around noon on Thursday, some of AAP’s winning candidates reached Mann’s house inside a colony in Sangrur. But the policemen at the barricades would not let them pass because they could not recognise them. One of those candidates was Labh Singh, a mobile repair shop owner from Ugoke village in Barnala — he had just defeated the Chief Minister of Punjab.

First published on: 11-03-2022 at 03:18 IST
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