A resounding electoral triumph inevitably sets off a ripple effect beyond Ground Zero. Therein lies the real import of the Aam Aadmi Party(AAP)’s spectacular second sweep in Delhi for its politics elsewhere. Will it rekindle the party’s ambitions of power beyond the national capital? Nowhere will that urge be more intense than in Punjab, the only other state where the party has a political base.
That is, after all, where the fledgling party had come tantalisingly close to taking a shot at power in public perception. It won 20 of 117 seats , an unprecedented feat for any third party in the border state’s long history of a two-party system in which the Akalis and the Congress ruled by rotation. It stumbled and lost to the Congress, but not before shattering the bipolar mould and catapulting itself on the podium as the official opposition ahead of the Akalis.
The Punjab assembly elections are still two years away, but the Delhi verdict has the potential to alter the state’s political landscape. It will surely buoy the AAP, which has been plagued with a host of debilitating challenges: internal squabbles, desertions, dejected and depleted cadres, and a dispirited leadership.
The party proved to be its own worst enemy. So stark has been its unravelling in the past two years that even its national convener and Delhi chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, appeared to have taken a distant attitude to the party’s Punjab affairs. A dismal showing in the summer Lok Sabha elections last year in which the party could retain only one of 13 contests and lost deposits in all the others was the last proof, if any were needed, of the erosion of the AAP base, which, in any case, was limited to Malwa region.
The party today is a pale shadow of its pre-2017 self. In such a backdrop, the Delhi dividend couldn’t have come at a more opportune time for the Punjab AAP. State Congress chief, Sunil Jakhar, was the first to read the political tea leaves when he said that the AAP will get a second chance in Punjab if it wins in Delhi. The crucial question is: Can the AAP bounce back and re-brand itself, again, as a potent third alternative?
The road ahead is arduous, more than it was in post-2014 Punjab when the AAP, having caught the popular imagination, was ascendant. Clearly, the party will need to sort out the leadership mess, revitalise its cadres and amplify public issues through street mobilisation to be in the reckoning.
ALARM BELLS FOR CONGRESS, AKALIS
The Delhi victory, by no means, guarantees the AAP’s resurgence in Punjab. Yet, it gives pause for thought for both Congress chief minister, Capt Amarinder Singh, and Shiromani Akali Dal chief, Sukhbir Singh Badal, who have dismissed the AAP as “a bubble that had burst”.
Now on, the Congress government will face an energised and pugnacious AAP that will aim as much at ramping up anti-incumbency sentiment as at outdoing the Akalis in the opposition space.
A steep hike in power rates in Punjab in three years by almost 20 per cent – the recent hike was 30 paise per unit in December last – is one issue that the AAP will aggressively harp on, juxtaposing it with Kejriwal’s populist Delhi model that slashed power bills and doled out a raft of freebies.
More crucially, the AAP surge in the national capital could well turn it into a potential suitor in Punjab for breakaway Akali factions to forge a third front for the 2022 Assembly polls. It will unleash new political alignments.
But the man to watch out for is Navjot Singh Sidhu, the estranged Congress face, who has been enigmatically silent since he fell out with Amarinder. Amid allthis churn, here is a delicious irony: what may help the AAP in renewing the focus on its Punjab project is ace poll strategist, Prashant Kishor, who is now in the Kejriwal team, and had crafted Amarinder’s winning campaign in 2017.
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