When an electorate is tired of the ruling parties both at the Centre and at the State level during an Assembly election — even if these parties are opponents — the chances that people will vote for a fresh alternative are high. But this does not always happen in Indian elections. Parties professing to be an alternative to the established ones take time to emerge, even if they are the product of social or political movements. Electoral success is achieved only if they cross a high threshold of competitiveness that is made possible through messaging and organisation besides peoples’ yearning for change. The Aam Aadmi Party’s spectacular triumph in Punjab — winning 92 of the 117 constituencies — needs to be tempered with the fact that it won 42% of the votes in what was largely a triangular contest with the Congress (23%) and the Shiromani Akali Dal (20.2%). In 2017, AAP won 20 seats with a 23.7% vote share, but its victories were largely concentrated in the southern Malwa region. This time, in 2022, its vote share (47.2%) was the highest in Malwa. It also managed a credible 30.2% and 36.8% in the Doab and Majha regions, respectively, helping it sweep the State.
Of the three major losing parties including the BJP, the Congress looked to be the best placed a year ago. Strongly mobilised opposition to the BJP government’s farm laws had caused the BJP-SAD alliance to break up. While the Captain Amarinder Singh-led Congress government had not fully lived up to expectations, the party had little to lose from the agitations and could have capitalised on the public mood by seeking to implement its promises made in 2017. But an ill-conceived move by its high command, forcing out Capt. Amarinder and empowering the rabble-rousing, party-hopping former cricketer, Navjot Singh Sidhu, to take over the reins of the party created unnecessary tumult. Even the party’s last minute promotion of the new Chief Minister, Charanjit Singh Channi, was not enough to shift the mood of the electorate, which had lost patience with the party, now riven by internal bickering. The electorate’s dissatisfaction with the Centre and the Congress regime in the State is evident in the CSDS Lokniti Survey: a net negative satisfaction of -44 and -52 points, respectively. With grievances and anger over the corruption under the previous SAD regime still fresh, AAP emerged as the default alternative. Its promises of clean governance and populist measures in health, education and power supply — already implemented in Delhi — were able to sway a large section of a disenchanted electorate. But it is one thing to succeed in governance in what is largely a municipality by eschewing ideological perspectives and focusing on just populist measures. It will be a challenge to effect this in an important border State such as Punjab. AAP has its task cut out.