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AAP surge rattles parties in Punjab

Chander Suta Dogra
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Its candidates are drawing unprecedented and spontaneous crowds during campaign

Polling officials checking the Electronic Voting Machines on the eve of polling in Mohali on Tuesday.- Photo: Akhilesh Kumar
Polling officials checking the Electronic Voting Machines on the eve of polling in Mohali on Tuesday.- Photo: Akhilesh Kumar

When the election process for the Lok Sabha began roughly a month ago in Punjab, most expected it to be a two horse race between traditional rivals the Shiromani Akali Dal–BJP and the Congress. As the State prepares to go to polls on Wednesday, the surprise surge seen in favour of new entrant the Aam Admi Party (AAP) has not only left the established parties rattled but may well add a whole new dimension to politics in Punjab.

The AAP that had been dismissed as a “summer storm” by Amarinder Singh of the Congress and its candidate from Amritsar and another People’s Party of Punjab (a regional outfit floated by his cousin in 2011 that is on its last legs) by Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal is set to prove them wrong as its unassuming bunch of candidates are drawing unprecedented, spontaneous crowds in constituency after constituency during the campaign.

Mr. Sukhbir publicly conceded a few days ago, that the AAP could pick up 15 to 20 per cent of the votes, far more than the 6 per cent that the PPP got in the 2012 Assembly elections. The uncertainty about the results of Punjab can be gauged from the fact that as campaigning came to an end on Monday, it became clear that the AAP will not just dent the two major political entities but is likely to pick up a few seats as well.

That this is happening in a State which was not even seriously on the party’s radar has taken its own leaders by surprise. Is it possible that no one anticipated the double anti-incumbency in Punjab? A deep anger against the highhanded ways of the ruling SAD-BJP combine is matched by an equal disenchantment with the United Progressive Alliance and its Sikh Prime Minister’s 10-year-rule at the Centre.

The AAP has stepped into this space, offering not just its attractive new style of clean politics but captured the imagination of the Sikh voters by reaching out to them on issues like injustice of 1984 anti-Sikh riots, agrarian distress and everyday corruption. The party even had the Sikh hardliners queueing up to honour leaders like Yogendra Yadav and Arvind Kejriwal, which the latter declined. As Mr. Yogendra Yadav pointed out, “We are not here to do politics of the Sikh panth or community.” He also believes that the AAP will perform than what the opinion polls predict for it because, “There is a silent revolution backing us, that sees us as a clear alternative to the cynical politics practiced by the bi-polar polity in this State.”

But if the election discourse in the last few days was dominated by the ‘AAP story’ in Punjab, earlier the Congress’ surprise decision to field its stalwarts like Captain Amarinder, Sunil Jakhar, leader of the Opposition in the Assembly, PCC president Pratap Singh Bajwa and Union Minister Ambika Soni unsettled the Akali –BJP gameplan. So, Captain Amarinder’s entry into the electoral battle in Amritsar where he is pitted against Arun Jaitely of the BJP has become one of the most keenly watched in the country. The stakes are high for both and a victory for Captain Amrinder could catapult him into prominence in the party and the State.

Getting Captain Amarinder to contest also galvanised the Congress party’s demoralised cadres and put the party back in the fight, that it had almost given up. Elated at the strong current of anti-incumbency against the ruling combine the Congress is hoping to do well here.

The party played smart on the Bhatinda seat when it put up Manpreet Badal, the Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal’s estranged nephew against sitting MP Harsimrat Kaur Badal, the Chief Minister’s daughter-in-law. Ms. Manpreet who floated the PPP in 2011 is contesting on the Congress symbol.

The election will also decide the political fates of several other big wigs like Ms. Ambika Soni from Anandpur Sahib, Vinod Khanna from Gurdaspur and Supreme Court lawyer H.S. Phoolka from Ludhiana.

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