Is the Aam Aadmi Party slipping in Punjab?

For the past two years, the Aam Aadmi Party(AAP) has been campaigning vigorously in Punjab with an eye on the assembly elections in the state. As the day of reckoning inches closer and victory seems within its grasp; has the party shot itself in the foot by alienating all those supporters who helped build it up?

Hardnews Bureau Delhi

On February 4, Punjab will vote for a new government. Unlike the election in Uttar Pradesh, the poll in Punjab is not just a ‘referendum’ on demonetisation or the Narendra Modi-led NDA government at the centre, it is a lot more.

 Besides ascertaining the popularity of the incumbent Akali-BJP government, this election will also gauge the sway that AAP, the veritable new kid on the block, has over the electorate. After all In the past two years, despite the many ups and downs that the party has seen, the AAP has been considered by many as a strong contender in the border state. Some reports and opinion polls, if they are to be trusted, even predict the impossible: a win for AAP.

There are some precipitating factors that have worked in favour of the AAP. Ten years of misrule by the Badal family has left much to be desired. The incumbent government has been tagged allegedly as a consortium of goondas, a corrupt cabal that has facilitated the drug menace that continues to ravage homes across the state. The Congress under Captain Amarinder Singh, on the other hand, was traditionally seen as the natural alternative but the bashing that the party took in the 2014 elections has left many sceptical of any chances of its revival. Moreover, by labelling the Congress as hand in glove with the Akali Dal, the AAP strengthened its own narrative in the eyes of potential voters.

For a long time the obvious allure of the party had been that it offers a clean and viable electoral alternative. However, now things seem to be slipping out of the parties hold as AAP has given tickets to the same discredited politicians masses resent. A ready-made opportunity is slowly vanishing on the horizon. As the halo and euphoria associated with AAP  evaporates, many in the Congress are breathing a sigh of relief, “There was a time that there was a tidal wave in favour of AAP, much similar to the one in Delhi. Things seem different now. We were prepared to lose these elections, the popular sentiment was heavily tilted towards AAP, but now their graph seems to be slipping,” said a source in the Congress. The wave of support for the party had left many rivals in awe. The sudden changes in the party leadership, the selection of candidates, the lack of a Chief Ministerial candidate and finally dissent, infighting and factionalism have left the soft underbelly of the party exposed.

It would be imprudent to assert that the AAP is done and dusted, but the gap between the party and its rivals has lessened considerably. Its ability to parlay its 'cleaner' than thou reputation into electoral votes might have also taken a beating.Professor Jagroop Singh Sekhon, head of the Political Science department at Guru Nanak Dev University in Amritsar, said that there is a perceptible tilt in favour of the AAP in over seventy seats out of the one hundred and seventeen seats that are up for grabs. In most of these seats, the AAP is in a head-to-head fight with the Congress. The Akali’s according to him, aren’t in the running. According to Sekhon, the problems arose because of the candidates chosen by the AAP. The selection of H.S Phoolka, as one of the most prominent faces of the party caused widespread consternation. Sekhon asserts that Phoolka has little or no credibility left in the state and his projection has left many questioning the party’s electoral strategy.

The wave of popularity that the AAP was riding was dependent on its ability to eat up other parties votes and capitalise on the anti-incumbency sentiment. For senior leaders in the party, this did not seem enough. After the encouraging results of the Lok Sabha elections in 2014 where the party won four seats in Punjab, the party has tirelessly worked to change its image. The most remarkable metamorphosis that has taken place in Punjab is the shift of the Aam Aadmi Party from a city-centric, urban party, to a party with a substantial presence in rural areas. “After 2014, we were given an opportunity to do something different and Sucha Singh Chhotepur realised that the party had to go rural, go to every village and house to spread awareness on the issues that plagued the state, in order to win. We set up tents in villages and went from house to house to spread the word about the party. Many of us switched sides from other parties because we were given an opportunity to do something new,” said an AAP member.  

Leaders from other parties, and workers gladly jumped ship and were sent to rural districts to build up the party’s presence as a grass-root movement. The messaging of the party was simple and effective: the corruption and drug menace that crippled the state was because of the established parties–the Congress and the Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal). However, things soon began to change: Chhotepur left the party amidst much controversy, news about corruption during ticket distribution came to the fore and many devoted and hard working party workers were left out and denied tickets.“What we learnt the hard way, is that the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is no different than the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Congress or the Shiromani Akali Dal,” said a disgruntled Aam Aadmi Party party worker from Firozpur, over the phone.

“Once we had laid the foundation, the party slowly began sidelining us from the decision process and began centralising it instead” said Col. Jasjit Singh of the Apna Punjab Party that has emerged out of the AAP dissidents. The lack of a cohesive ideology on the part of AAP has both helped it and may leave it in a quagmire. According to Suneet Chopra, president of the All India Kisan Sabha, who has been campaigning in Punjab, the party has been going into rural areas and trying to co-opt the networks of the old Khalistani movement – the ultra separatists. This move in the Malwa region according to Col. Singh might come back to haunt them, “The people in the party don’t know about the social fabric of Punjab, they will pit the more conservative Nirankari sects with the ultras.” This gamble could work for Kejriwal, but Punjab has been ravaged before and the voters will definitely try to exercise a more conservative vote.

The convenience of not having a hard and fast ideology has also helped the AAP brave many political storms, from being called anti-Punjabi, to allegations of Delhi's overwhelming influence in the state executive.  

There is discontent brewing amongst the party cadres in AAP which could be detrimental to the party with elections only a week away.  Many feel left out and  are choosing to stay home than campaign for candidates they want nothing to do with, One party worker from Firozpur asked "Narendra Singh, is a former Congress thug, and he was given a ticket over people who are far more deserving, those who have given everything to the party, why should we go and campaign for him? If the ticket had to be given to someone from ourside, why not to a vegetable vendor, or a street sweeper? We would have worked very hard to make him win."  Others have joined other parties namely the Apna Punjab Party (APP), SAD (Amritsar), or have chosen to fight on their own as independents. Lal Singh Sohlami, is one such candidate who is now fighting for the Firozpur (SC) seat from the Dalit Kranti Party in alliance with Simranjit Singh Mann's SAD (Amritsar). Sohlami is one of the hundreds of workers who helped build the party in its early days, but when the time to announce seats came, he was summarily snubbed. He is now both campaigning for himself and against the AAP: even though he might not win, the thousand odd votes he is expecting might play spoilsport in a three-cornered election.

This political rebellion could be hazardous for the AAP because these were the faces that were associated with the party for a long time. On the other hand, the wave of change that is sweeping through the state doesn’t need individual candidates alone, but just another option.

These are not the only notes of dissent emerging from within the AAP, as the state goes to vote in a weeks time.