Is Punjab another Delhi now for the AAP and Congress

By Vinod Sharma
Mar 10, 2022 05:04 PM IST

For the nationally enfeebled Congress, the loss of face in Punjab over Aam Aadmi Party huge win is way bigger and self-inflicted after the head-start it had with Charanjeet Singh Channi’s elevation as the state’s first Dalit chief minister.

NEW DELHI: In the people’s parliament in Punjab, the voice vote was consistently for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Those with their ear to the ground could hear it loud and clear in the campaign that had five pretenders to the throne in what was a first for a state habituated to bipolar contests.

Punjab election result: Aam Aadmi Party’s presumptive chief minister in Punjab Bhagwant Mann (REUTERS File Photo)
Punjab election result: Aam Aadmi Party’s presumptive chief minister in Punjab Bhagwant Mann (REUTERS File Photo)

The ballot has only formalised the electorate’s resolve to discard the jaded, oft-tested claimants to help the novitiate-in-waiting take a shot at power. The mandate is brute for the probationer of 2017 that was AAP as the principal Opposition in the outgoing assembly.

The blizzard of support that hoisted the hitherto Delhi-centric outfit to power also left in ruins the iron poles around which the state’s polity revolved for decades: the centenarian Congress and the Shiromani Akali Dal, which parted company with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in these elections. The SAD celebrated its 100-year heritage at a rally on December 14 in Moga in the early stages of the campaign. But the fanfare was to no avail, the AAP juggernaut decimating its prime rivals together with the stalwarts who were their calling card.

So is the vote a rejection of the state’s mainline political parties or their leadership?

Among the big trees that fell were four former chief ministers: Parkash Singh Badal, Capt. Amarinder Singh, Ms R K Bhattal and Charanjeet Singh Channi.

The Congress’s pathetic scorecard and Channi’s defeat from two constituencies is an eye-opener in the state that has 34 reserved seats and 32% scheduled caste population. The incumbent’s audacious outreach to the community failed to stop the AAP in its tracks.

Only a closer study of the rural-urban polling can indicate at whose expense Arvind Kejriwal’s start-up has expanded proportionally? The vote’s anatomy is crucial for a realistic peep into the future:

Will Punjab become another Delhi? The proposition isn’t rhetorical, especially when the national capital, which the AAP decisively wrested from the Congress seven years ago, is now the latter’s graveyard! Even the BJP is a bit player in Delhi as it is in Punjab.

For the nationally enfeebled Congress, the loss of face is way bigger and self-inflicted after the head-start it had with Channi’s elevation as the state’s first Dalit chief minister. Rather than rallying around the central leadership’s nominee, several of its state-level functionaries, the most notable among them being Navjot Sidhu, engaged in public spats that robbed the initiative of its perceived socio-political benefits in the elections. The one-upmanship game was mutually and equally destructive. Sidhu too lost his Amritsar (East) seat to an AAP greenhorn.

The cricketer-turned-politician damaged not just the authority of the new chief minister but raised questions about Channi’s ability to lead a united charge in the poll arena. With each passing day, the Congress lost the perception game to AAP, the latter repairing its self-immolating image of 2017 by naming its foremost local face, Bhagwant Mann as its presumptive chief minister.

The widely anticipated move added tremendous value to its “ek mauka” (give us a chance) catch-phrase which till then had evoked old suspicions of a putative regime controlled from Delhi.

With front-loading Mann in the pecking order, the AAP seemed ready to go for the kill. The humongous popular endorsement underscores its rise as a pan-Punjab party with a spread and reach across the border state’s three regions: Malwa, Majha and Doab.

The success has to be measured against its maiden show when all the 20 seats it won were from Malwa which sends 69 legislators to the 117 member house. It’s the region where migration for jobs abroad has divided families, not to talk of countless households destroyed by rampant drug abuse. Jobless youth in most villages there are either addicted or involved in pushing a heroin derivative, colloquially referred to as chitta. The psychotropic substance fetches them a high, or easy money.

Besides Kejriwal’s “Delhi-model of governance” that had resonance across cities and the countryside, the one big attraction for the voter was Mann. The electorate was convinced the two-time Sangrur MP would put a stop to the drug menace that the Congress and the Akalis did precious little to contain. The sentiment found articulation at dozens of roadside kiosks; the village folk were self-assured that the stand-up comedian-turned-politician wouldn’t betray their faith.

The resounding mandate is proof also of the Punjabis giving the AAP the benefit of doubt on Kumar Vishawa’s curiously-timed claim of Kejriwal having made an outreach to Khalistan protagonists in the previous polls. Even if the smoke wasn’t without fire, they were unwilling to twice punish the party for the same indiscretion. “The charge-sheet against AAP’s rivals was longer and way more serious,” argued a Faridkot-based lawyer. “We’ve chosen a party we believe will serve us better.”

That’s exactly the challenge now for Mann. Big mandates are predicated on bigger expectations. In governance terms, Punjab, which sits as it does on the borders with Pakistan, could be a difficult state to rule.

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