Pre-monsoon rains bring some relief in the June heat as farmers sow paddy in the fields. The fields gradually give way to the bustling, noisy Sirhindi gate in Malerkotla. The only Muslim-majority town in Punjab, which remained untouched by violence even during the dark days of Partition, convulsed in anger on the night of June 24 after torn pages of the Koran were recovered outside a cemetery. Vehicles were torched and a few people, including local policemen, were injured. Elsewhere in Punjab, pages from the Bhagwad Gita were found strewn on the street in Ludhiana in November last year; a month prior to it, the Guru Granth Sahib was mutilated in many towns of the State.
Taheed Mohammad, a fruit-and-vegetable vendor in Malerkotla, lays the blame squarely on politicians for such ‘mischievous’ acts intended at diverting attention from the real issues ahead of the Assembly elections in the State some months from now. “I’m not going to vote this time. It’s a sheer waste of time and effort. They [political parties] are all the same. After grabbing power, they are least bothered about our problems,” says Mr. Mohammad, in a rush to sell his wares so that he could be home in time to break his roza (fast).
Many in the Malerkotla market share Mr. Mohammad’s cynicism, of the ‘sameness’ of Akali and Congress rule. So, it is not without reason that there is guarded optimism about the new party on the block, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which made a spectacular debut in the State by grabbing four of the 13 Lok Sabha seats in the 2014 general election. As it bids to make a winning debut in the Punjab Assembly next, the AAP is making a lot of noise here. Posters of a recent CVoter survey predicting an AAP victory are plastered all over town in Malerkotla. “We want better roads, regular water supply and jobs for youth, and if AAP assures us of these, we might consider supporting it,” says Mohammad Shamshad Hazi, a local barber across the street, as customers waiting in line for a snip nod in agreement.
The third player As battle lines get drawn in Punjab between the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) combine and the Opposition Congress for the 117 Assembly seats in early 2017, there’s a third player on the horizon seeking to tap into bipolar anti-incumbency — the AAP — turning it into a three-way contest.
The ruling Akali-BJP government, in power for over nine years, is battling a deep agrarian crisis, which has led to indebtedness experts peg at roughly Rs.60,000 crore, with 20 farmers committing suicide every month on average. The rampant drug menace in the State has only added to its bag of woes. With inter-sectarian fights between religious groups to boot, many are taking a dim view of the stranglehold of the Badal family — Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and his son and Deputy-Chief Minister Sukhbir Badal — on the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (that manages all gurdwaras in the State) and State politics at large.
The AAP, which is pitching itself as the alternative to the Akalis and the Congress, is preparing its cadre at the grass-roots level harping on anti-incumbency. “We present an honest alternative. We will get support from all sections, specially those [aged] between 18 and 40 years which will be the deciding factor in these elections,” says Sanjay Singh, in charge of Punjab affairs for AAP, adding that the party will focus on the agrarian debt, the drug mafia, the transport mafia and the sand mafia which he alleges enjoys the patronage of Akali leaders.
It is easier said than done, though. Says Pramod Kumar, director of the Institute for Development and Communication, Chandigarh, “The ruling party is under pressure this time on these issues but I doubt whether this will work to AAP’s advantage as it is unable to address the complexities of Punjab politics. The AAP does not have a historical baggage, but neither does it have historical advantage.”
For starters, finding a leader with mass appeal across the State and deciding on candidates have proved to be the biggest challenges the party is grappling with. Insiders say Sangrur MP Bhagwant Mann, State convener Sucha Singh Chhotepur and senior leader H.S. Phoolka are the top chief ministerial contenders but as Dalit writer Desraj Kali points out, the party does not have a local mass leader who can pose a challenge to heavyweights such as Parkash Singh Badal and Congress leader Captain Amarinder Singh. In fact, the CVoter survey in April that predicted a win for AAP had Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal as its chief ministerial party face for Punjab!
The campaign constituencies The AAP’s campaign is primarily endeavouring to tap into the unrest and anxieties of farmers, youth, women and marginalised sections such as the Dalits. Borrowing a leaf out of its successful Delhi playbook, it is leveraging bands of volunteers in every Assembly constituency at the booth level. In Ludhiana zone alone, the party has 10,000 active volunteers on its rolls. All AAP wings — those for farmers, industry & traders, youth, women, ex-servicemen and Dalits — have team heads in place for outreach activities. “Within one week of the ‘Parivar Jodo’ campaign in February, we had connected with over seven lakh people,” claims senior AAP leader Kanwar Sandhu.
Dalits account for nearly 32 per cent of the population in Punjab, the highest percentage among States, and it is in the Doaba belt — Jalandhar, Hoshiarpur, Kapurthala and Nawanshahr districts — that they are in large numbers. The district is also known as the NRI hub of Punjab due to the significant numbers migrating overseas. Hence, all parties, including the AAP, are courting the Dalit and NRI vote in this belt. Mr. Sandhu claims “the party is getting huge support from this unexpected quarter [NRIs]”. The Doaba belt has had support for the Bahujan Samaj Party in recent years, but could rally behind the Congress this time unless the AAP has a clear programme for Dalits, says Gurmeet Singh, a senior Jalandhar-based political commentator.
The party is also focussing on women and youth by linking issues such as drug addiction to the two demographics. “Drugs and liquor have ruined the lives of my husband and son. I have tried to get my son treated at de-addiction centres, but all efforts failed. It’s the [drug] supply chain that has to be cut. No NGO has approached us, but an AAP volunteer of the village made a commitment to me to help out,” says Baldish Kaur of Diwali village in Jalandhar. With the youth constituting more than 30 per cent of the State’s population, Mr. Kejriwal, the party’s national convenor, will release a ‘Youth Manifesto’ for the Punjab polls in Amritsar on July 3. But manifesto apart, there is a lot of work ahead if one goes by what Vineet Bajaj, a BTech final-year student of Guru Nanak Dev Engineering College, Ludhiana, has to say: “I don’t think AAP will be able to make a huge difference in Punjab as they are not performing well in Delhi. However, people are fed up of Akali-BJP rule, while the Congress is marred by infighting. So AAP has the chance to grab a few seats.”
The agrarian crisis has given the AAP the opportunity to tap into farmer resentment. In Dhudike village of Moga district, consistently lower prices for the produce against rising prices of farm inputs have pushed farmers into a debt trap. “We have been suffering losses year after year but the government hardly pays adequate compensation. Last year in April, my wheat crop failed due to unseasonal rains and while I was lucky that my rice variety fetched a decent return during the last kharif season, many farmers in the neighbouring villages suffered huge losses as prices of basmati rice crashed,” says Nirbhay Singh, who owns 14 acres and has mortgaged three acres with Rs.20 lakh still to be repaid to local moneylenders and a bank. Mr. Singh feels that a new government at the helm may just be what it takes for his fortunes to change — a sentiment shared by fellow farmer Balwinder Singh, though he hints that he is still undecided between the AAP and Congress.
The challenger’s challenges The AAP’s first list of candidates will be out in mid-July or July-end, followed by lists every fortnight. The campaign will go full steam in October. “Our message to the voter is that you have seen them all — they are all the same. Try us this time,” says Mr. Sandhu.
But the message has been foreshadowed by mutiny in the AAP ranks. Two of its MPs, Dharamvira Gandhi and Harinder Singh Khalsa, had their primary party membership suspended in August last year after raising their voice against what they termed as Mr. Kejriwal’s “autocratic” style of functioning.
“If AAP plays its cards well, it still has a chance. But if people of dubious character from other parties are enrolled, it leads to the perception that AAP is not a party with a difference... and this is exactly what is happening,” says Dr. Gandhi, adding, “The Punjab unit of the party is being controlled directly from Delhi like a colony.”
“The way old dedicated volunteers are being marginalised by Delhi and Punjab leaders, many would leave as I did,” says Harmeet Kaur, who has now joined the Swaraj Party, the rebel group of AAP floated in May by Manjeet Singh which is backed by the Swaraj Abhiyan of former AAP leader Yogendra Yadav.
The Punjab Congress unit, which fancies its chances after the long spell of Akali rule, considers the AAP to have “already peaked” during 2014 parliamentary elections. “In 2014, the AAP got the advantage of double-disillusionment in Punjab — the nationwide disillusionment after 10 years of Congress rule at the Centre and a strong anti-incumbency sentiment against the Akali-BJP combine in Punjab,” says Punjab Congress chief Amarinder Singh.
“The AAP peaked then but its progressive decline started soon after. Today the party is not in a position to win even a single seat in Punjab,” he claims. The Congress chief is, however, mindful of their appeal: he has scaled back his trademark style of addressing large rallies in favour of an interpersonal outreach through campaigns such as ‘Halke Vich Captain’, i.e. Captain in your constituency, for you.
The ruling SAD-BJP government too claims the AAP is no threat. “Arvind Kejriwal’s anti-Punjab stance had been exposed in the Sutlej-Yamuna canal issue. He displayed a soft corner for Haryana as he hails from that State,” alleges SAD spokesperson and Education Minister Daljit Singh Cheema.
Whether the AAP peaks in time or not, the dismissive attitude of its opponents will turn into no-holds-barred attacks as the campaign plot thickens in the months leading up to the elections.