For a party that has struggled to get around the ‘outsider’ tag, and has been on the defensive for more than five years or so for being essentially non-Punjabi, the Aam Aadmi Party has turned this disadvantage into a virtue with brilliant ease. We see the AAP wading into the electoral waters in Punjab for the second time, sans fluent Punjabi-speaking leaders from Delhi, sans Punjabi headgear — the pagri — and without even talking about conventional Punjabi issues of territory and river waters. Instead, the AAP is now unabashedly presenting itself as the ‘outsider messiah.’
The AAP has once again displayed political nimble-footedness by rewriting an old script and shedding its past baggage as it goes into this crucial election with the ‘Kejriwal hai’ slogan. Nowhere was this more evident than in the party’s election anthem for Punjab released last week. The three-minute video features Delhi Chief Minister and AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal in a trademark half-sleeved shirt, sometimes with an AAP cap, and also a muffler, but never with a turban. Except for a fleeting visual of the party’s Punjab president Bhagwant Mann, the video only talks about Kejriwal. No other AAP leader from Punjab finds a place in the video because the party realised early on that it is the Delhi model of governance that would work as AAP’s main attraction.
A substantial portion of Punjab’s Dalits, whose children fill up the state’s ramshackle government schools, are particularly hoping that an AAP government might just be good for their children. The party’s political managers, most of them from Delhi, have picked up the buzz that if the AAP can bring in some aspect of what it has done in Delhi, Punjabis might just give it a chance. So, if in the 2017 assembly election — when the AAP stood second with 20 legislators — we saw Kejriwal and his Punjab team labouring to project themselves as more Punjabi than the others, this time the focus is on the Delhi government and Kejriwal’s persona. “Ek mauka AAP nu, ek mauka Kejriwal nu” — the party’s anthem for the 2022 election seems to indicate exactly that.
AAP’s chief ministerial face
Is the AAP is gearing up to project Arvind Kejriwal as the party’s chief ministerial face for Punjab? Perhaps not. Most of the non-political individuals, whom the party had approached to be its CM face, declined. Then, the buzz was that if it managed to ally itself with the splinter group of farmers led by Balbir Singh Rajewal’s Sanyukt Samaj Morcha (SSM), Rajewal, a Jatt Sikh, could be projected as the face the party was searching for. But the proposed alliance with the SSM is now off due to seat-sharing issues.
It now seems most likely that AAP’s Punjab president Bhagwant Mann, who has long been the CM face-in-waiting, might eventually be called in to fill the slot. But make no mistake, in AAP’s new strategy, the CM face is just that — a slot. Because if the party does manage to extend its footprint beyond Delhi to form a government in Punjab this March, the strings will be firmly in Kejriwal’s hands. That is the message that the AAP is sending to the people of Punjab.
Kejriwal himself realises that even if he wants to, shifting to Punjab will be politically suicidal because he cannot be seen abandoning Delhi. It is another thing that in 2017 — when the party was hopeful of winning handsomely — Kejriwal did flirt with the idea of slipping into the Punjab chief minister’s seat post election, but the strategy was only playing out in the shadows. He was on the defensive because the Opposition targeted him for his non-Punjabi roots — with support from radical Sikhs — and for not understanding the Sikh ethos and culture.
Punjab is not all about Sikhs
This time around, all that has changed. Kejriwal’s narrative is not about the Sikh religion, or sacrilege issues because the party realises this is a minefield that it is ill-equipped to negotiate. It has also learned its lessons about Punjab not being all about Sikhs doing bhangra. Hindus comprise 40 per cent of the population and a sizeable chunk are Dalits with different concerns and aspirations.
There are other pointers that tell us how the AAP is trying to show Punjabis the Delhi way. The campaign is led not by its leaders in Punjab like Mann and Harpal Cheema, but by Delhi leaders like Kejriwal and legislators Raghav Chaddha and Saurabh Bhardwaj. The lone Sikh from among the Delhi leaders, Jarnail Singh, is hardly seen in Punjab. The party’s Punjab office-bearers are virtually non-entities and it can become hard to put names to designations.
Those crisscrossing the state are Kejriwal and his ministers Manish Sisodia and Satyendra Jain, mainly to showcase the Delhi government’s work in the education and health sector. Part of the reason for roping in Delhi leaders is also the hard truth that despite being in Opposition for five years with 20 legislators, Kejriwal, the interloper, did not nurture local Punjabi leadership, or allow them to grow in stature.
Ten of the party’s 20 MLAs have left the party and gone elsewhere. But again, the shrewd politician that Kejriwal has come to be, has turned this too to his advantage, and surprisingly Punjabis are not complaining as yet. The Opposition barbs about his team’s non-Punjabi credentials and their inability to speak in Punjabi have not stuck so far. His Modi-esque rhetoric to the voters is: “You have given the Congress 25 years, Akalis 9 years. Give us only 5 years and kick us out if you don’t like us after that.”
That said, it’s early days in the election campaign. The AAP has announced 90 per cent of its candidates, while rival Congress is still finalising its list. AAP is not the only one without a clear CM face in Punjab. In just the last 48 hours, both Punjab CM Charanjit Singh Channi and Congress chief campaigner Navjot Singh Sidhu have signalled to Congress headquarters that they are the real CM candidate. The Bharatiya Janata Party and Capt. Amarinder Singh’s Punjab Lok Congress and the breakaway Akali group alliance has not even finalised seat-sharing. The buzz is that the BJP is planning to contest the election as a senior partner and will field candidates on a lion’s share of the seats. Once the campaign gets underway and the BJP plays its cards, Kejriwal’s strategy could plummet downhill.
Chander Suta Dogra is a senior journalist and author who was associated with the Aam Aadmi Party until 2017. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)