Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s mega rally at the Maghi Mela in Muktsar three days ago has left no doubt in anybody’s mind in Punjab that the Aam Aadmi Party will be the party to reckon with in the state Assembly polls early next year. Both Punjab Congress president Captain Amarinder Singh and Shiromani Akali Dal leader and Punjab Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal virtually acknowledged the looming electoral threat by asking people to be wary of the “Topiwalas” who were “there to fool you”. Their attack on Kejriwal was instinctive, given that the gathering at his rally was massive and the response equally supportive.
The AAP success story in the border state has been scripted by its committed cadre, who have worked overtime to ensure that every household was made aware of the party’s programmes. In fact, during the past one year and a half after the AAP secured four seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the organisational set-up up to the village level has been strengthened. A senior Congress leader admitted that infiltration by the AAP in the rural belt had been so extensive that there is no village that does not bear Arvind Kejriwal’s poster staring back at one.
The organisational web in the state has been created by putting in place the party structure in various zones and circles. The 117 Assembly segments have been divided into 39 zones, with each zone comprising about three constituencies. Each zone is headed by a pradhan, who has been holding regular and systematic meetings during the last several months. These meticulously planned meetings have been attracting crowds of over 15,000-20,000 people and the USP is that they are being addressed by state level leaders. It was only after ensuring that the organisational network was in place, did the party invite its top leader Arvind Kejriwal to Muktsar at the competitive Magi Mela gatherings by various political outfits.
To the disappointment of many Akali Dal-BJP supporters, the crowd at the Akali pandal left a lot to be desired. Initially, the response at the Congress pandal appeared lukewarm, but the crowd began swelling when Captain Amarinder Singh arrived, thereby forcing the organisers to open up the side flanks of the shamiana to accommodate more people. However, it was Kejriwal who was the rock star at the overflowing AAP pandal and people listened in rapt attention as he launched a scathing attack on the Badals for pushing the youth towards drugs and narcotics, and the Congress for being silent on this front. On the other hand, both Captain Amarinder Singh and Sukhbir Badal lashed out at Kejriwal for selling dreams to people and making false promises.
The AAP now plans to hold zone wise meetings of Kejriwal and the Maghi Mela rally is being considered by the cadre as the launch pad of campaign for the February 2017 showdown with the Akalis and the Congress. Sources, though, stated that there has been no decision as yet on whether the AAP will have a Chief Ministerial face for the polls. This has led to unnecessary speculation that Kejriwal could shift from Delhi to Punjab, leaving the capital in the trusted hands of his close aide Manish Sisodia. However, AAP sources dismissed the probability as a conjecture and nothing else.
To counter the Akalis and Congress propaganda that the AAP was planning to bring in a “Bania” or some other non Sikh as its Chief Ministerial nominee, as suggested by their description of AAP cadre as “topiwalas”, the AAP ensured that posters on the eve of the Maghi rally bore only Sikh faces. The rally posters carried pictures of Bhagwant Mann and Sadhu Singh, both MPs, and Sucha Singh, its Punjab convener. To carry the battle into the enemy camp, AAP sympathisers have been focusing on tweets in their support by senior Congress leader Jagmit Singh Brar, who has complimented Kejriwal for the rally’s supreme success.
The Congress, on the other hand, is at pains to describe Jagmit Brar as a “frustrated and disgruntled colleague wanting to attract the attention of the high command”. It is being aptly pointed out that after the belated appointment of Captain Amarinder Singh as the PCC chief in place of Partap Singh Bajwa, the grassroots workers are ebullient, as they believe that the change at the top had put them back in the power race. However, Captain Amarinder Singh has acknowledged in a statement that his party’s fight next year would be with AAP. Whether it was a part of a strategy to belittle the Akalis is something which would be known over a period of time.
The Akalis have their own share of problems and nine years of anti incumbency has led to the diminishment of their overall popularity. The troubled and turbulent relationship with their key ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party has also led to the perception that all was not well between the two partners. The BJP, which at one stage was indicating that it could fight the Punjab polls on its own is silent on this front since the last six months.
The colossal irony is that both in 2007 and 2012, the Akalis had come to power on the strength of the seats won by the BJP. But thanks to some byelections, the Akalis on this day have a majority of their own and thus do not need support of the saffron brigade if it decides to pull out. Significantly, the Congress loss in the last two polls was also on account of BJP winning most of the 23 Hindu dominated seats. While in 2007, the BJP bagged 19 of these seats, it followed this up in 2012 by 12 seats. This was also partly because the Congress put up inappropriate candidates and some Jat Sikhs were fielded from traditional Hindu seats, culminating in their defeat.
The Akalis have yet not lost hope and even the severest critics of the Badals acknowledge that Sukhbir was an immensely formidable fighter on the electoral field and his aggressive campaign could overcome a stiff challenge from his opponents. This combative streak had resulted in the Akalis thrashing the Congress in its strongholds in the 2012 polls.
There has been renewed enthusiasm in the Congress after Manpreet Badal, the estranged nephew of Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal merged his party with the Congress on Friday. The Doon School educated Manpreet, who had walked out of the Akali Dal in 2010 to form his own organisation had attracted huge crowds in the last Assembly polls, but, however, failed to convert the turnout into votes. According to AAP sources, Manpreet had sent overtures to Kejriwal in 2014 and 2015 and had expressed his desire to join hands with him. However, he was not encouraged due to internal opposition. AAP has further denied that there was any move to bring in noted cricketer Navjot Singh Sidhu into the party and emphasised that “this would never happen”.
The Congress, which was widely expected to be the main challenger to the Akalis, is reviewing its strategy due to the “AAP factor”. Captain Amarinder Singh is unanimously considered to be the worthiest person to dethrone the Badals, but much would depend on the extent of free rein that would be accorded to him by his high command. In the past, the Congress has fumbled and lost because undeserving candidates got the party tickets due to needless interference by many top leaders. This is something which would have to be curtailed if the party has to make a comeback in the state.