New Delhi: A little over three months after it registered a thumping win in Punjab, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) lost the bypoll to the Lok Sabha seat in Sangrur, the home turf of Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann, Sunday.
With this defeat, the AAP is left with no MPs in the Lok Sabha, even though it has 10 Rajya Sabha MPs – three from Delhi and seven from Punjab. The poll was necessitated following the resignation of Bhagwant Mann who took oath as the chief minister on 16 March.
Gurmail Singh, the AAP president in Sangrur district, was the ruling party’s candidate for the bypoll held on 23 June, with many leaders of the ruling party calling it a prestige battle. The AAP has been banking on its Punjab performance to expand its footprint across the country.
According to the Election Commission (EC), Singh lost by a narrow margin of 5,822 votes to Simranjit Singh Mann, the president of the Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar) – a splinter group of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) led by the Badals.
Simranjit Mann polled 2,53,154 votes and recorded a vote share of 35.61 per cent. Kewal Singh Dhillon of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) got 66,298 votes (9.33 per cent vote share), Congress’ Dalvir Singh Goldy tallied 79,668 votes (11.21 per cent), SAD’s Kamaldeep Kaur Rajoana received 44,428 votes (6.25 per cent) and AAP’s Gurmail Singh managed 2,47,332 votes (34.79 per cent), as per the Election Commission (EC).
While Congress’ Goldy had unsuccessfully contested against Bhagwat Mann from the Dhuri Assembly seat recently, SAD’s Kamaldeep Kaur Rajoana is sister of Balwant Singh Rajoana, a death row convict in the assassination case of former Punjab chief minister Beant Singh.
A former police officer-turned-politician, Simranjit Mann has been an MP twice — Tarn Taran in 1989 and Sangrur in 1999. He is married to Geetinder Kaur Mann, whose elder sister Preneet Kaur is the wife of Punjab’s former chief minister Amarinder Singh.
Simranjit Mann has been in the news for his pro-Khalistan stance, with his Twitter profile describing him as “striving for #Khalistan(sovereign state for Sikhs)”. The SAD (Amritsar) is the only party which still contests the elections in Punjab with demand for a separate Khalistan, according a report in the Indian Express.
After the humbling defeat, the AAP spokesperson came out saying that the dispensation respects the decision of the people, while the leaders in Punjab conceded that introspection is a must given that the party had come to power riding on the promise to deliver ‘badlav’ (change) in the state.
Big loss for Bhagwant Mann
The Sangrur parliamentary constituency has nine Assembly constituencies – Lehra, Dirba, Sunam, Bhadaur, Barnala, Mehal Kalan, Malerkotla, Dhuri and Sangrur. Currently all nine are with the AAP.
While Bhagwant Mann himself is the MLA from Dhuri, finance minister Harpal Cheema represents Dirba and education minister Gurmeet Singh Meet Hayer is the legislator from Barnala.
In the 2004 Lok Sabha poll, the SAD won the seat while the Congress won it in 2009. But it was with the AAP for eight years since 2014. Bhagwant Mann won Sangrur in 2014 – just two years after the AAP was founded – by defeating SAD-BJP candidate Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa by a record margin of 2,11,721 votes in his Lok Sabha debut. It was one of the four Lok Sabha seats which the AAP won in 2014.
In 2019, the AAP leader retained the seat by defeating Congress candidate Kewal Singh Dhillon by a margin of 1,10,211 votes, and became the AAP’s lone MP in the Lok Sabha.
The AAP’s vote share in Sangrur was 48.47 per cent and 37.40 per cent in 2014 and 2019. On Sunday, it further went down to 34.79 per cent.
CM Mann personally spearheaded the Sangrur bypoll campaign and party chief Arvind Kejriwal too visited the region to lend his weight for the party candidate.
While the AAP largely centred its campaign around issues of welfare and development, often highlighting Bhagwant Mann’s performance as an MP so far and the party’s work in Delhi and Punjab, the Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar)’s theme primarily revolved around the release of Sikh political prisoners in its campaign.
Sangrur recorded a low voter turnout of 45.30 per cent this year as against 72.40 per cent and 77.21 per cent in 2019 and 2014 Lok Sabha elections, according to the EC. On 23 June, while urging the EC to extend the voting time in Sangrur, CM Mann had said that a large number of people could not come out and vote because it coincided with the peak paddy cultivation time.
Law and order was a big issue
However, the ruling party had its own anxieties too.“During the campaign, we did come across concerns regarding law-and-order situation and sporadic protests in the region demanding jobs, with unions citing assurances from the AAP government which came to power three months ago. And then there was the Sidhu Moose Wala factor too,” said a senior Punjab-based AAP leader.
Moosewala’s killing on 29 May had raised questions, especially from the youth, on law-and-order issues concerning Punjab. Moosewala, a popular artist-turned-Congress politician, has a huge fanbase in the state. He had unsuccessfully contested the Punjab Assembly polls from Mansa earlier this year. At one point especially after a meeting with Union home minister Amit Shah, there was a speculation that Moose Wala’s father Balkaur Singh would contest from Sangrur. Singh later put the speculation to rest.
The Congress too was banking on Moose Wala’s assassination by highlighting law-and-order concerns in Punjab. On June 12, the Congress released a campaign video song which had visuals of Moose Wala’s body and the site in Moosa village in Mansa district where he was cremated.
In response, the AAP had accused the Congress of trying to get sympathy votes in Sangrur. “We thought we had addressed the issues but now it seems there is a lot of introspection needed,” said the AAP leader.
In a media briefing in Chandigarh, AAP chief spokesperson Malwinder Singh Kang said the party respects the people’s verdict. “As a party, we definitely need to introspect. Despite such a steep decline in turnout, AAP’s vote share has gone down by 2-3 percentage points compared to 2019. But one should look at the way the people have rejected candidates of traditional parties like the Akalis, the Congress and the BJP,” he said.
Another Punjab-based AAP leader said a mass perception still prevailed that the government was taking orders from the AAP leadership in Delhi. “We have still not been able to convince masses that there is nothing wrong in it as long as it is for Punjab’s welfare. Then there was also a lot of dismay among people over the choice of the Rajya Sabha candidates. People either saw the party’s candidates as outsiders or as individuals who do not adequately represent the spirit of Punjab,” he said, adding the win of Simranjit Singh Mann to represent Punjab in the Lok Sabha is a clear message from the people.
A Delhi-based AAP leader asserted that people often talk about the huge mandate the party got riding on a wave of ‘badlaav’ (change). “But this mandate has also come with a precondition that the change should be visible at the earliest. It is clear that our government in Punjab has to be quick in delivering its promised governance model if it has to retain the mass support. Also, the low turnout suggests that a large number of people who earlier supported us refrained from voting in the bypoll. The party has to invest a lot to understand why it happened.”
(Edited by Tony Rai)