Every Punjabi voter irrespective of the party choice, every journalist that visited Punjab in these last few months, every newspaper’s editorial section and even the opponents of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in private unanimously expressed a common thought before the March 11 results. The thought being, AAP will secure anywhere from 45 to 75 seats in the new assembly and be the major player in government formation. AAP leaders, aware of this strong perception were not at all modest and could be often seen making tall claims, some even vouching for 100+ seats in the 117 member assembly. Along with the public mood, they had other more reliable cues to be as confident as they were. Lakhs of Punjabis turned up in hundreds of rallies that AAP organized in 6 odd months before the elections. Having not relied on distributing liquor, money and other favours to attract the crowd, it made the leaders, the volunteers and the supporters extremely confident of a landslide victory. So did something change suddenly? Why did Congress come out victorious in the Punjab battle? Did anything transpire behind the scenes that completely falsified and destroyed the virtual AAP-wave? Let us divulge into few of the post-result theories to explain this unexpected result of AAP ending up with just 22 seats.
Looking at the constituency-wise polling data, the most obvious reflection is that the worst areas of performance for AAP were the urban centres and the Hindu-dominated pockets. What deficiencies did AAP suffer from that it ended up repelling this demography completely? It is extremely intriguing because out of Kejriwal and his opponents Capt Amarinder and Prakash Singh Badal, he is the one and the only Hindu face. To understand this, we should go back 18 months to the time when the AAP-wave started emerging. The Sikh groups were up in arms because of the inability of the Akalis to nab the culprits responsible for numerous sacrilege incidents of the Guru Granth Sahib. The disenchantment with the government was at its peak and the only one that listened to all these folks was Arvind Kejriwal. He came to the Muktsar Maghi Mela and roared, promising to punish the culprits in front of this crowd of lakhs of Sikhs. The Panthic vote that normally used to sway elections in the favour of the Akalis started moving towards AAP. This shift continued when AAP pandered to the affluent NRI Punjabis in Canada, US and rest of the world. The NRIs (mostly Sikhs) not only donated large amounts of money but also came in droves to campaign for the party. All seemed to be going well for AAP until the strategists in the Congress decided to turn the tables. It is noteworthy here that thousands of Punjabis left India and took asylum in different foreign countries during the dark days of militancy. After being unsuccessful in attracting any NRI support for these elections, Congress decided to take its chance and took an anti-NRI stance. Capt in his speeches started blaming AAP for using Khalistani money in its campaign and for cozying up with anti-national secessionist forces. This rhetoric did strike well with the Hindus, also because they have suffered historically at the hands of Sikh extremists. To add to the fear, just 40 days before the polls, a right-wing Hindu leader was shot dead in Ludhiana by unidentified gunmen and just 4 days before the polls, a blast ripped through a Congress political rally at Maur near Bathinda. Nobody has till date been arrested for any of these two incidents and it seems nobody will ever be.
An outsider might tend to think of Punjab as a Sikh state which is without any doubt an ignorant and faulty assessment at multiple levels. Hindu voters have always been the deciding factor in Punjab elections, be it when they helped Congress of 2002 topple the Akalis or when they sided with BJP-Akali alliance in 2007 and 2012. Even within the Sikhs of Punjab, divisions run deep on the lines of caste, urban-rural divide and even the occupation. Affluent urban Sikhs along with the service-class could not come around supporting a risky, macho and unconventional party being run on the ground by young and passionate volunteers. They just could not believe that AAP had it in it to give them a stable government. The same slogans of Kejriwal and Bhagwant Mann that drew and attracted thousands of rural voters every single day, fell flat in front of this group of people. This was supposed to be the silent voter that could take AAP across the 59 seat mark but on the voting day it spoke up for the tried and tested leadership of Capt Amarinder. AAP did realize this mistake around a month before the polls and even came up with a special manifesto for the government employees, but maybe it was too late.
One of the main reason why AAP could not come across as a stable option was its inability to project a CM-face. This gave the opposing parties a chance to spread numerous conspiracy theories such as AAP importing a parachute CM from outside the state. For a state known to always elect a Sikh CM, this uncertainty was too much to digest. AAP on the other hand, feared creating factions within the party and thus kept several leaders like Mann, HS Phoolka, Sukhpal Khaira, Kanwar Sandhu and even youngsters like Harjot Bains and Himmat Shergill in fray for the CM post. It did not want to pitch the supporters of these leaders against each other by announcing any one name. These leaders belonged to Punjab and given a chance, anyone of them could have carved a niche in people’s hearts and minds but with uncertainty looming over the heads of these leaders, the voters always perceived them as one rung below the Delhi appointed duo of Sanjay Singh and Durgesh Pathak. Punjabis are known to be loving, kind, affectionate and accepting, but they are also known to be people with pride. When Congress and Akalis told the voters again and again about people from UP deciding AAP’s candidates and thus their future, AAP suddenly started to seem as the outsider party to the voters. The same voters who had passionately chosen AAP in 2014 Lok Sabha elections now seemed hesitant. Even the well thought and researched AAP strategy of attacking Akalis on the rampant drug usage in Punjab was projected by the Akali-BJP alliance as a ploy of some outsiders to malign the Punjabi youth.
Coming to ticket distribution, the failure of AAP leadership to placate Navjot Sidhu should be seen as a major factor contributing especially to its dismal performance in the Majha region. It can however also be debated that promising the CM post to Sidhu would have resulted in Mann and Phoolka turning rogue and thus hurting AAP even more but in politics, you are expected to be astute and smart enough to manufacture compromises that suit multiple sides and Kejriwal failed to do so in this particular case. Another peculiar problem for AAP was the lack of funds with regards to certain candidates. Even if the party was willing to offer tickets to old time volunteers and workers, certain potential candidates were not well-off financially and could not garner sufficient donations to run a decent campaign. These tickets were thus awarded to the next best choice or to the most affluent one, which along with inviting dissent from the party workers also meant weak candidates.
In the end, what was supposed to be an AAP-wave ended up being Congress’s baby in spite of the Congress losing 2% votes in comparison to 2012. The main reason being, AAP severely denting the Akali vote-bank of 2012 and bringing it down by almost 10%. AAP did extremely well in the reserved seats in Malwa and gained some rural Congress vote-share too but the same Congress was able to snatch BJP votes and thus managed to produce terrific performance in cities across the state. BJP came out as the worst in these elections with just 3 seats out of the 23 it contested.
It is worth mentioning that post-failure, it is easier to point out the flaws and invent plausible theories to satisfy the outcomes but it should not be forgotten that a 4-year old party is now the official opposition in the Punjab assembly while the 95-year old Akali Dal has been decimated to the third position. No doubt AAP has a lot to learn from this election, but it should take solace in the fact that its entire campaign was executed on the ground by inexperienced but passionate and hard-working youngsters who were extremely close to out-maneuver Prashant Kishore, who himself tweeted acknowledging this fact.