New Delhi: There are many factors that have contributed to the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Punjab. For one, AAP convenor and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal must thank the Gandhis.
The Congress was looking comfortably placed, given how its principal challenger, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), had tied itself in knots over the contentious farm laws — first being a part of the decision-making process as an NDA partner and then pulling out of the NDA in protest.
The Gandhis, however, chose to rock their own boat, ousting the then chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh. The Congress was on a downward spiral after that, with its state unit chief and the Gandhis’ confidant, Navjot Singh Sidhu, continuously sniping at his own government and other leaders also doing “chik, chik”, a term used by senior leader Abhishek Manu Singhvi in a debate on NDTV.
That only whetted the people’s yearning for a change after decades of indifferent governance by the two established parties — the Congress and the SAD. With the exit of Amarinder Singh, who had consistently backed the farmers’ agitation, the Congress also lost its ambassador among them.
The AAP, which had actively supported the farmers when they were agitating on Delhi’s borders for a year, capitalised on their goodwill.
But the AAP’s historic victory in Punjab can’t be attributed to its political adversaries’ failures. Behind it was a carefully crafted strategy by Kejriwal who, unlike the Gandhis, is a quick-learner. The AAP didn’t repeat the mistakes that had squandered its chances in the 2017 assembly elections.
Broadly, there were three things that Kejriwal got right in his party’s 2022 election campaign in Punjab.
Declaration of chief ministerial candidate
In 2017, the AAP had refrained from declaring a CM candidate. It was a flawed strategy, given that SAD’s Parkash Singh Badal and the Congress’ Amarinder Singh had distinguished careers in public life. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) could afford to go without a chief ministerial face in assembly elections, given Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity.
But the AAP’s Kejriwal was still a brand in the making in 2017. The Badal-versus-who question would naturally bring Captain to the fore.
In the 2022 election, however, Kejriwal finally decided to project Bhagwant Mann as the CM face although there was scepticism in the AAP whether he would be seen as a “serious” candidate, given how his drinking habit became a matter of public discourse.
But Mann’s popularity couldn’t be dismissed. He was the only AAP parliamentarian — out of four who got elected in 2014 — who got re-elected in 2019. Kejriwal finally reposed faith in Mann and it has clicked.
Distancing from radical Sikh elements
The AAP’s campaign in 2017 had witnessed planeloads of Sikhs coming from Canada to campaign for the party. Political adversaries projected it as the AAP’s dalliance with extremist elements, a sensitive issue in a state with a history of militancy.
Kejriwal’s political opponents also made an issue of him spending a night at an ex-Khalistan Commando Force (KCF) militant’s house in Moga. This led to the alienation of the Hindus and a large section of Sikhs from the AAP. It ended up as the principal Opposition party with just 20 seats. Kejriwal learnt his lessons.
Even though there were AAP supporters coming from Canada to campaign for party candidates this time, they did it discreetly. AAP leaders stayed afar from anyone that had the potential to be projected by adversaries as its support for radicals.
Delhi model to tap people’s disillusionment
Unlike 2017, when the AAP’s ‘Delhi model’ of governance was still in the making, in 2022, it was ready to be launched as a poll plank. In their election meetings, AAP candidates would talk about the Kejriwal government’s achievements in health and education sectors in Delhi and tell tales about how people in the capital city get everything at their doorstep just by making a phone call.
Disillusioned with established parties for their lip service when it came to unemployment, drug abuse and other day-to-day problems, the people were looking for an alternative and the AAP’s narrative successfully fed into it.
Apart from these three, there were other factors. As AAP MLA from Kot Kapura, Kultar Singh Sandhwan, had told ThePrint on the campaign trail, the party had tremendous support in 2017, too, but the people were not sure if the AAP would be able to form the government.
“It’s different now. People of Punjab are emotional. They don’t hesitate to take risks. They have decided to give Arvind Kejriwal a chance this time,” Sandhwan had told ThePrint.
(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)