What should worry the Akalis is that for the first time a party has cut into their traditional ‘panthic’ religious vote bank in rural Punjab
To describe the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) surprise success in Punjab, where it won four seats and 25 per cent of the votes, as being the result of a deep anger against the high-handedness and misrule of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alliance in the State, is to present only half the picture. Given that the AAP won no seats in any other State including neighbouring Haryana, where it deployed all its might to get only 4 per cent of the votes, its stunning performance in Punjab has flummoxed rivals and its own leadership alike.
The AAP’s surge
Till today the AAP does not have a proper State unit in Punjab. Its election campaign was managed by a hurriedly put together committee of 12 persons, some of whom came over from Delhi to lend a helping hand. Its candidates were a ragtag group of little known people, some of whom were reluctant to even go out and campaign due to shortage of funds. In Faridkot for instance, Dr. Sadhu Singh, a retired principal and poet who had joined the AAP a few months ago and who won with 4,50,751 votes, had been unable to campaign in more than 10 per cent of the villages. Bhagwant Mann, the Punjabi satirist who was a runaway hit in Sangrur, and who campaigned with bands of youths following him on motorcycles from village to village, won by a margin of more than two lakh votes. Dharam Vira Gandhi, an unassuming cardiologist of Patiala, defeated Minister of State for External Affairs Preneet Kaur in an area that is considered her pocket borough.
Many are beginning to say that such a development could take place only in Punjab, because Punjabis are not afraid of taking risks. The legendary Punjabi appetite for venturing into areas where others fear to tread and receptiveness to anything new is one reason why they have embraced the fledgling party, in a manner in which no one else did. Out of the 117 assembly segments in Punjab, the AAP won in 33 and stood second in 25, which covers roughly half the State. The party’s spread spans urban and rural areas. It performed best in the State’s Malwa belt, where a deepening agrarian crisis, drug abuse and cancer have created a sense of hopelessness.
In a society that is traditionally liberal and inclusive and does not tolerate injustice or ‘dhakka,’ AAP workers found to their delight that people rallied around the party because they saw Arvind Kejriwal as the underdog who could deliver them from the arrogance of the Akalis. “There is a visceral anger against the Akalis and the BJP and this vote is the deep desire of the average Punjabi to teach them a lesson. [It is] equivalent to a slap,” says Professor Harish Puri, historian and Punjab watcher.
But the Sikhs are also a macho, martial race who admire strong men and have rallied around heroes like Guru Gobind Singh who stood up to the atrocities of the mighty Mughals. The difference, however, is that they like their heroes to be Sikhs and are unkind to non-Sikhs posing as strong men. “Narendra Modi’s superman image, his style of talking and his arrogant stance actually fuelled the sentiment to teach the ruling dispensation a lesson,” points out Professor Puri. “A swagger in a Sikh is welcome, but they don’t like it when a non-Sikh from outside wears it.” The ‘Modi wave,’ therefore, not only left the Sikhs untouched, but Mr. Modi was even see as ‘anti-Sikh’ by many.
This point is best illustrated by what happened in Amritsar where Captain Amarinder Singh of the Congress trounced BJP stalwart Arun Jaitley, despite the latter having everything going for him. Capt. Singh won by more than one lakh votes, making Mr. Jaitley’s loss one of the biggest upsets in the BJP’s stupendous pan-Indian performance. The story was similar in Bhatinda, too, where Manpreet Singh Badal almost wrested the seat that eventually went to his sister-in-law Harsimrat Kaur Badal, who won by a slim margin of a little more than 19,000 votes. “Both Capt. Amarinder and Manpreet were seen as Sikh strongmen who could shield the public from the atrocities of the hated Akali-BJP combine. The acceptance for a home-grown Punjabi hero is seen in both these places where these two got massive support, even though there is plenty of disillusionment with the Congress-led UPA government at the Centre,” says Dr. Pramod Kumar, a political analyst. None of the other Congress candidates — Pratap Singh Bajwa or Ambika Soni or Sunil Jakhar, all of whom lost — enjoy the same stature in Punjab’s politics. In other constituencies where there were no iconic Sikhs to look up to, the Sikhs mostly voted the AAP. The SAD-BJP combine has won six seats, one more than in 2009, but the mood is sombre in both parties, because the writing on the wall is clear.
What should worry the Akalis more is the fact that for the first time someone has come along to dent their ‘panthic’ religious vote bank in rural Punjab. The singular achievement of the AAP in the State has been the dent it has made in this core Sikh vote. Much of the credit for this goes to Mr. Kejriwal for his decision to set up a Special Investigation Team to re-investigate the 1984 riot cases. The Akalis have always taken for granted this section of voters. The AAP appealed to those who were upset with the Akalis for exploiting Sikh issues and not doing anything substantial to redress them. The radical Sikhs also rallied around the party. The AAP’s strategy — of drumming up the matter of Sikhs in Gujarat being hounded by the Modi government there — worked to build up his ‘anti-Sikh’ image, notwithstanding his posing with a turban at one of Mr. Jaitley’s rallies. The party also galvanised the leftists in the Malwa belt. Activists of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) who were inactive for decades were seen riding high on the AAP fervour.
Role of the NRI
Adding to this, the formidable non-resident Indian component of Punjab’s extended population, who worked overtime on social media, reached out to youngsters and rooted for the AAP, said Baljit Balli, a veteran Punjabi journalist who runs an online news portal.
Among those who won is Dr. Harinder Singh Khalsa, a former diplomat who resigned as the ambassador of Norway in 1984 in protest against Operation Bluestar. He was in exile for six years and returned in the 90s to live a quiet life. He won handsomely from Fatehgarh Sahib.
The object of the Punjabis’ unexpected ardour for the moment is the AAP and the new love affair has thrown past passions into a tizzy. No one quite knows what this augurs for the future, but the AAP certainly has the State Assembly in its crosshairs now.