AAP makes first impression in Punjab as Channi hamstrung by factionalism
The first impression isn’t always the last impression in electoral politics. Narratives change, laggards rise, and leaders lag behind as campaigns progress.
It happened in 2017 in Punjab where an ascendant Aam Aadmi Party got complacent along the way, letting the Congress gallop ahead by a mile. Captaining the Congress then was Amarinder Singh, whose political heft blended perfectly with the sparkle of Navjot Sidhu — at that time a face integral to the party’s succession plan.
Sadly, the incumbent and the aspirant fell out sooner than later. As Nobel laureate Toni Morrison wrote: “Good things do not last as people cheat, people leave, and people die.” Sidhu has since found another adversary in the Captain’s successor, Charanjit Singh Channi; the Shiromani Akali Dal has walked out on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to betroth the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP); and Amarinder Singh is friends now with the BJP he roundly critiqued before and after becoming CM.
In that sense, the battle for Punjab is between haemorrhaged entities. Not just the Congress, the SAD and the BJP, even the neophyte AAP suffered desertions from its ranks in recent years. Voted the principal Opposition in the previous polls, the “nano” party with limousine-sized ambitions has retained, nevertheless, its newness.
The campaign for Mandate 2022 hasn’t gathered full steam. But the AAP’s “ek mauka Kejriwal nun” (give Kejriwal a chance) pitch has reverberations across Punjab’s three regions: Majha (24 seats), Malwa (67) and Doaba (26). If the trend sustains, the Congress that gave the state its first Dalit CM, would have none except its feuding leaders to blame.
The party hasn’t ever been factionalised the way it is today; the tussle for supremacy led by Channi, state party president Navjot Sidhu, home minister Sukhjinder Randhawa, and senior leaders Sunil Jakhar and Pratap Bajwa. They’re fast expending the respect the Congress earned among the 32% Scheduled Castes with Channi’s elevation.
Rather than shielding the CM in his wordy duel with the AAP, the Congress factions have provided cannon fodder to rivals by planting stories in the media against each other. There were no unified ripostes when Kejriwal flaunted his achievements in Delhi to rubbish Channi’s humble moorings: “I don’t play gulli danda, I open schools. I don’t play marbles, I run clinics in mohallas.”
Not surprising then that the vox pop mostly was about the AAP’s governance model along the 300km drive from Ludhiana (Malwa) to Gurdaspur (Majha), en route Jalandhar (Doaba) and Amritsar(Majha). The refrain from some was clear: we’ve tried others; it’s time we gave AAP a chance.
At Kartarpur near Jalandhar, Biker Singh, a hardcore Akali, appeared inclined towards the AAP under pressure from his children. Like him and several others, an auto-rickshaw driver, Ashu Sharma said Kejriwal’s party deserved one opportunity: “eik mauka AAP ko dena banta hai.”
Much would depend, however, on the CM-face Kejriwal projects, there being a groundswell of support for Bhagwant Mann, the MP from Malwa’s Sangrur, who isn’t reportedly his first choice. The other name in circulation is of Malwa’s farmer leader Balbir Singh Rajewal.
Locally done polls had political analyst Sunil Rudra place the AAP ahead of the Congress in vote percentage terms. The early lead might be lost if the party fails to field at least 60 recognisable MLA candidates besides a CM face whose social identity and past record inspire confidence.
An excellent speaker, Mann is popular among AAP’s rank and file. But pitting him against Channi, a Dalit, and fellow caste-man Sukhbir Badal of SAD, will be an audacious gamble. A fading copy of their glorious past, the Akalis are regaining acceptance in their old cadre-base, enhanced by local Jathedars who’re formidable in their pocket boroughs.
The SAD’s December 14 rally at Moga to mark its 100 years was a reassertion of its relevance in rural Punjab. Among those who addressed the gathering with SAD patriarch Parkash Singh Badal and his son Sukhbir, were Suchcha Singh Chhotepur (who quit AAP before the 2017 polls) and Congress rebel Jagmeet Brar. Their fiery speeches were a trailer of sorts of the aggressive Akali battle plan.
“Our failure to crack the sacrilege and drug cases has given the SAD a counter-narrative,” bemoaned an Amritsar-based Congressman. Praising Sidhu for persisting with the issues that hurt the Akalis, he worried more about urban Hindus, who overwhelming voted for the Congress in 2017, gravitating back to the BJP.
There are signs indeed of the Akali revival in Majha’s panthic belt of Tarn Taran, Khadoor Sahab and Amritsar-Gurdarspur rural. With the BSP in toe, the Dal hopes to steal a chunk of Dalit Sikh vote from the Congress. “If the Sikhs could accept the Congress despite 1984, is the SAD being unrealistically optimistic,” wondered a teacher at Gurdaspur’s Beant Singh University. The AAP’s USP, he said, was its vocal support by youth across social/ gender divides: “Their aspirational choices are driven by the opportunity they see in Kejriwal’s promises.”
In the upcoming quadrangular contest, the Congress, which isn’t out of the reckoning, will need also to safeguard against Amarinder Singh’s damage potential. He could do to his erstwhile party what Chirag Paswan did to relegate Nitish Kumar to the third rung of Bihar’s electoral ladder.