Expanding AAP’s reach in Punjab and eastern states are checkpoints on Kejriwal's road to 2019 General Election
It isn't often that Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal finds himself in a dilemma. But the forthcoming Assembly election in West Bengal is likely to push him into one.
It isn't often that Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal finds himself in a dilemma. But the forthcoming Assembly election in West Bengal is likely to push him into one. Unlike Punjab, where his Aam Aadmi Party will go the whole hog to try and wrest the state from the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP combine, and displace the Opposition Congress as the main alternative; in West Bengal, his political and personal rapport with the Communists on the one hand, and Trinamool Congress chief and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on the other, will make it difficult for him to adopt a Bihar-like strategy.
During the recently-concluded Bihar polls, Kejriwal openly supported the JD-U’s Nitish Kumar as chief minister to help him fight off the BJP and its mascot Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The only satisfaction for Kejriwal will be that no matter the victor in West Bengal, it will be a party with which AAP can identify and work on a larger canvas.
And yet the eastern state is far too crucial for him to watch from the sidelines, more so since the polls in the 294-member Assembly ties up with the elections for 126 Assembly seats in Assam where the ruling Congress is on a slippery wicket as Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi battles the incumbency of three consecutive terms in office. Besides the regional Asam Gana Parishad party and Maulana Badruddin Ajmal’s All-India United Democratic Front which won 18 seats in the last Assembly elections, the field in the northeastern state is wide open for an aspiring third player ranging from the Left to the Trinamool and even AAP, particularly because the BJP, which had only five Assembly seats in 2011, managed to win seven out of the 14 Lok Sabha seats in 2014 and is now targetting 84 seats in the forthcoming Assembly polls.
The saffron party had done well in the 2014 General Elections in West Bengal where it had won only two seats but secured 16.8 percent of the votes — an increase of over 10 percent compared to its previous tally.
Elections in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Assam and Puducherry are slated for the first half of 2016, with the Assemblies completing their terms between May and early June. Punjab, along with crucial states like Uttar Pradesh, Goa, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Manipur and Uttarakhand, head to the polls in 2017. However, the real test for AAP will be in 2018 in the bipolar politics of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, where it will seek to replace a decrepit Congress as the main and fresh alternative to the ruling BJP. AAP will ideally like to explore this vast political landscape.
But the 2014 General Election has been a major lesson for its agitationist-turned-chief minister: Not to spread his resources too thin or get into 'misadventures' that drag the party down.
"It is one step at a time now," maintained a source, thereby indicating that AAP’s path for the immediate future lies in turning Delhi into a successful model of governance of, by and for the people, so that it fetches the party political dividends in other parts of the country in general, and the neighbouring states in particular. At the same time, the party will hope to build linkages with other non-BJP, non-Congress formations and leaders.
This, in effect, means that AAP will resist the temptation of rushing in unless it hopes to capture the political space as it did in Delhi, and as it hopes to do in the 2017 polls for 117 seats in Punjab, where it might project state convenor Sucha Singh Chhotepur as its chief ministerial candidate. However, its main rival in the quest for power against the decade-long SAD-BJP government is not the Congress party, but the towering persona of Congress leader Captain Amarinder Singh.
With 13 months in hand, AAP is expected to pour all its efforts into Punjab where its internal surveys, it claims, have shown positive results. But the party also cannot forget that the only state that elected four of its members to the Lok Sabha, summarily rejected its candidates in the two Assembly by-elections in 2015 — so much so, that they had to forfeit their security deposits. The lack of an effective organisational base and infighting, including among its lawmakers, are major hurdles that Kejriwal has to contend with in the coming days.
After its stupendous victory in Delhi, adding Punjab to its kitty becomes particularly critical for AAP for three reasons.
First, it will help the party break out of the mould of a regional force, a groove that region-based parties find themselves stuck in, notwithstanding their impressive electoral victories in the states where they matter — be it the Trinamool in West Bengal, the AIADMK or the DMK in Tamil Nadu, the PDP or the National Conference in Jammu and Kashmir, the Samajwadi Party or the Bahujan Samaj Party in UP, the Biju Janata Dal in Odisha, the JD-U/RJD in Bihar, or the NCP and Shiv Sena in Maharashtra. Barring a token presence in some cases, most of these parties have not been able to make a viable dent in another state. Will AAP succeed where others have failed?
Second, a stake in another state will increase its national relevance. Holding power in Delhi has already made AAP a part of the national discourse, evident in Kejriwal’s move to convene a meeting of CMs to discuss and ensure cooperative federalism, or the move to back Nitish Kumar in the Bihar elections. Similarly, other chief ministers have rallied behind one of their ilk. The JD-U leader had endorsed Kejriwal’s call for full statehood for Delhi, Mamata had urged the Delhi electorate to vote for AAP and has often tweeted her support to him on various issues; and parties like the SP, the Trinamool and the Left had, in a parliamentary standing committee in early 2015, called on the Centre to give control of the Delhi police to the AAP government — something Kejriwal has been demanding repeatedly.
Third and perhaps most importantly, AAP’s performance in Delhi and the victory it is eyeing in Punjab will go a long way in helping AAP expand into a semi-national force and pitch Kejriwal as one of the many possible PM candidates in the 2019 General Election, especially if the Congress and Rahul Gandhi are not able to provide a counter to the BJP and Narendra Modi.
Indeed, the Congress’ failure is likely to translate into a political gain for AAP and Kejriwal.
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