Why AAP may have caught people’s imagination but it doesn’t guarantee a win in Punjab

There are too many political and social dynamics that are at play during the Punjab Assembly elections, and this makes any prediction a risky exercise

Chander Suta Dogra January 19, 2022 09:53:15 IST
Why AAP may have caught people’s imagination but it doesn’t guarantee a win in Punjab

Bhagwant Mann (L) with Arvind Kejriwal (R). PTI

Even as all eyes are on the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), the party that has caught the imagination of the voters with its message of ‘change’ and promise to bring in the Delhi model of governance to Punjab, the political landscape in Punjab remains muddy and uncertain. The AAP has announced 90 percent of its candidates and is also first off the blocks in announcing its chief ministerial face — Bhagwant Mann.

Besides being an acceptable Jatt Sikh face, Mann passed the loyalty test in the AAP, as he is one of the few top leaders who did not desert the party in the aftermath of its defeat in the 2017 elections. Coming from a humble background, rooted in a rural Punjabi ethos and with a finger firmly on the pulse of the average Punjabi, Mann is the perfect counter to the Congress’ Dalit Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi who strains hard to project himself as the real ‘aam aadmi’. The Congress is also struggling to balance the ambitions of Chief Minister Channi and state president Navjot Singh Sidhu, both of who want their names to be declared... and quickly. With Mann now leading the AAP charge, the Congress might be forced to do a re-think and choose between Channi and Sidhu.

Against the two-horse binary of previous years, Punjab is seeing a four-cornered contest this time, made more interesting with the entry of the farmers’ group, the Sanyukt Samaj Morcha (SSM), flush with its victory against the Centre’s farm laws. Though the Congress seems to be giving the AAP a tough fight in the campaign so far, the entry of the SSM, a breakaway group of the formidable Sanyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM), that camped on Delhi borders for months, has emerged in recent days as a spoiler.

Notably, it is not being viewed with the same awe as its parent organisation and in fact, the SKM has removed the SSM components from its fold, after the latter group led by prominent farm leader Balbir Singh Rajewal decided to jump into electoral politics. Buoyed by support from agrarian Punjab, after the Modi government withdrew the controversial farm laws last November, leaders of the victorious farmer organisations began to be wooed by political parties, chiefly the AAP.

Their proposed alliance fell by the wayside over seat-sharing issues and now sees them competing for the same vote-bank—the Punjabi Jatt Sikh farmers. The SSM plans to fan out as the ‘real’ voice of farmers, but hampered by the lack of a proper structure or electoral experience, it may not sweep the countryside. It does, however, have the potential to take away a sizeable chunk of farmer votes that will damage the AAP the most.

So, in the heated world of election campaigning, the same AAP which till the other day was trying to get Rajewal as its chief ministerial face, is now accusing the SSM of being hand-in-glove with the BJP in order to divide its votes. AAP’s Punjab in-charge Raghav Chadha has publicly accused the BJP of pressurising the Election Commission to register the new outfit after election dates were announced and the code of conduct was in place, “as vested interest groups are conspiring to eat into the AAP’s share”.

The SSM has responded by accusing Chadha and others of selling tickets. The mudslinging apart, the presence of the SSM in the electoral arena does have the potential to queer the pitch for the AAP which in recent weeks is seeing a surge for itself in rural Punjab. Its message to the voters, therefore, is: “Do not waste your vote on parties who are unlikely to win but are there only to divide votes.”

In the 2017 Assembly election, when the AAP came second with an overall 23.7 percent votes against the Congress’ 38.5 percent, even then it secured more Jatt Sikh votes than the Congress. According to figures released by the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), which mines electoral data, in 2017, the AAP got 30 percent of the Jatt Sikh farmer votes as against the Congress’ 28 percent. The Jatt Sikhs, who are Punjab’s powerful landowning community comprise about 20 percent of its population and dominate its politics.

This time the AAP is hoping to improve on that figure because this community is miffed with the Congress for foisting a Dalit (Channi) on them. Until the Congress sprung Channi on the unsuspecting Punjabi polity, it was unthinkable for anyone other than a true blue Jatt Sikh to occupy the chief ministerial chair.

A new alliance led by the BJP-Captain Amarinder Singh’s Punjab Lok Congress-Sanyukt Akali Dal combine that has emerged before the voters has not generated much interest as yet. Former Congress chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh is now standing with the BJP, which has led to a loss of support from the Jatt Singh farmers who don’t trust the BJP. The saffron camp, which doesn’t enjoy much support in Punjab, winning only three seats in 2017, is nonetheless planning big.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s election rally in Ferozepur early this month may have ended in a fiasco, but the BJP has other ammo to deploy. As against the junior partnership it suffered in the erstwhile Akali Dal-BJP alliance of previous elections, this time it plans to contest on the lion’s share of the seats with its new ally Captain Amarinder Singh being the junior partner. The idea being to expand its footprint in Punjab.

The BJP plans to concentrate on its urban Hindu vote-bank, particularly the non-Dalit Hindus, 48 percent of who had voted for the Congress in 2017. This segment, comprising the upper caste Brahmins, Banias and Hindu Khatris, are also not happy with Channi’s elevation. The BJP is also reaching out to other communities mainly Sikhs and has secured some high-profile entries from other parties in recent weeks. The newbie alliance has still not firmed up seat-sharing among itself, but the postponement of the polling date by a week to 20 February will enable it to get its act together.

Preliminary voting surveys have projected that the AAP could get the largest share in the 117 seats in the Assembly, if not a clear majority — between 52 and 58 seats. The Congress is second with a projected seat range of 37-43 seats. The AAP’s main fight with the Congress is over Dalit votes because until the elevation of Channi, Dalits were rooting for the AAP in Punjab. The community is hoping that an AAP government will improve Punjab’s miserable school and health infrastructure on the Delhi pattern and till a couple of months ago the AAP was the flavour in Dalit colonies.

In 2017 it had secured only 19 percent of the Dalit Sikh votes against the Congress’ 41 per cent. After the initial euphoria, Channi’s appeal among the Dalits is beginning to wane as many see him as a token offering by the Congress. Others are unsure if he can implement a pro-Dalit agenda in any future government because the upper caste Jatt Sikhs will still call the shots and stymie his outreach.

Polling date has been postponed by another week in Punjab. It is a tired old cliché, but a week is indeed a long time in politics. In the 2017 election, we saw how the AAP ascendant was stopped in its tracks in the last week before polls, when jittery Punjabi Hindus were persuaded to vote for the Congress and not for the AAP as it was perceived to be close to Sikh extremist groups. As Arvind Kejriwal’s aam aadmi slogans are once again resounding in the countryside, knives will be sharpened and out in the next one month to prune the AAP rise.

The author is a journalist and author. Views expressed are personal.

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