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Opinion: Why Punjab Will Be The Real Test For AAP Brand Of Politics

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Punjab is a border state and elections are being held here on June 1. The world will know only on June 4 whether Narendra Modi will again take oath as the Prime Minister for the third time – which no doubt will be a great achievement – or if someone else will lead the country. But elections in Punjab are not like the elections in the rest of the country.
If in other parts of India there is a straight fight between the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the INDIA bloc, in Punjab, both these formations are non-existent. In Delhi and other states, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the Congress are contesting as one entity, campaigning for each other, doing road shows and rallies together. But in Punjab, both parties are fighting bitterly and have left no stone unturned to defeat the other.

A Four-Cornered Contest

On the other side of the political spectrum, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), old allies which contested as NDA constituents in 2014 and 2019, are fighting separately. Their alliance fell apart due to the farmers' agitation. Farmers are still on the warpath and opposing BJP candidates in various constituencies. The BJP, this time, is contesting all 13 seats alone, whereas the Akali Dal, which had been one of the principal parties for decades, is now fighting for its survival and trying to reclaim lost ground. The four-cornered contest has made the Punjab election not only interesting but also unique.

Read | “Give All 13 Seats To AAP”: Arvind Kejriwal’s Appeal To Punjab Voters
Even before the AAP could win the historic mandate in 2015 in Delhi, Punjab had given hints in the 2014 general elections that the state was up for grabs for the party. The AAP had contested the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in more than 400 seats, but it was only in Punjab that it won four seats. Even in Delhi, considered to be its bastion, the AAP could not open its account in the parliamentary elections of that year.
In the 2017 assembly elections, in Punjab, the AAP was proclaimed as the front-runner by many opinion polls, but it lost the elections to the Congress. The AAP then emerged as the main opposition party with 20 seats and 23.7% vote share, no mean achievement for a party that had been only four years old back then. It eclipsed Akali Dal, which could win only 15 assembly seats.
But shockingly, in the 2019 parliamentary elections, the AAP just withered away. It could win only one seat; the most shocking was the drastic drop in its vote share. It could garner only 7.38% votes. The Congress was the clear winner with eight seats and 40.12% votes.

How AAP Rose In Punjab

This was the time when AAP was in shambles in Punjab, infighting and indiscipline was rampant, and its leaders were more interested in pulling each other down. The AAP had no hopes to begin with in the 2022 assembly elections.

But the Congress, which had mastered the art of snatching defeat in elections from the jaws of victory, took many suicidal steps. If the removal of Captain Amrinder Singh as the Chief Minister on the eve of the election was a blunder, then appointing Navjot Singh Sidhu as the party president was a bigger mistake. He directed his energy towards discrediting his Chief Minister, Charan Singh Channi, and his government. The Akali Dal was also discredited in the eyes of Punjab voters due to 10 years of misrule, and the BJP was never in the race. The AAP, thus, emerged as the default choice, and the people of Punjab obliged the party with an unprecedented 92 seats out of 117.

Simranjit Singh Mann and Amritpal Singh

But a very significant incident occurred after the AAP's massive victory. Bhagwant Mann resigned as a Sangrur MP after becoming the Chief Minister. The AAP lost the by-poll for that seat within months of its victory in assembly elections. Simranjit Singh Mann, an extremist and known Khalistan supporter, won the byelection. Simranjit Mann's victory was followed by the rise of Amritpal Singh, who claimed to be a Bhindranwale follower and reignited the demand for Khalistan. His entry and rise remained shrouded in mystery. His popularity grew by the day and he was emerging as a serious threat to national security. For reasons unknown though, he was not arrested early even though he was challenging the might of the state openly.
There was a growing chatter that the AAP government was committing the same mistake that the Congress governments did in the late 1970s and the early 1980s. Finally, good sense prevailed and Amritpal was arrested by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and taken to Assam for imprisonment. Now, the same Amritpal is contesting elections from jail from Khadoor Sahib. If he wins, serious questions will be asked of the AAP.

A Wise Split?

Punjab has a troubled past. It has a history of terrorism and separatism, and normalcy returned to it after much bloodbath. It is a state where the line between religion and politics blurs. For those who want to create disturbances in the state, religion is an easy refuge. It is in this context one should say that it was a wise decision that the AAP and the Congress decided not to join hands and fight the elections together. Because, if the ruling party and the main opposition had fought elections together, then that would have created a void and would certainly have provided an opportunity to mischief-mongers to fill the vacant opposition space with extremist elements. Simranjit Singh Mann's victory in Sangrur and the rise of Amritpal Singh are indications of that.
Irrespective of the results, the AAP has to focus on governance in a big way. The land of the Green Revolution is witnessing a very uncertain phase. The AAP is new to governance. The politics of free water and electricity can win them elections, but to run a border state with a history of terrorism requires delicate and mature handling.

Punjab Is A Serious Game

The AAP has evolved a kind of politics that thrives on sensationalism and brinkmanship, a kind of urban guerrilla warfare that can be called anything but maturity. Politics of this nature might get a few brownie points among its urban voters in Delhi but can lead to disastrous results in Punjab. Even in Delhi, its support base is depleting fast because those who expected serious and transformative politics and governance are getting disappointed by the way the AAP is running its affairs.

The future of the party depends not on how Delhi is run by Kejriwal but on how Mann performs in Punjab. If the AAP succeeds in Punjab, which is a full-fledged state unlike Delhi, then the doors will open in other states too. But a failure in Punjab will have consequences.

(Ashutosh is the author of 'Hindu Rashtra' and co-founder of SatyaHindi.com)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author

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