The latest opinion poll on the forthcoming Assembly elections almost gives Punjab to AAP outright. At 53-57 seats expected to be won by it, it is just short of a majority in the 117 seat Punjab Assembly. This is up from the 20 it opened its account with in the 2017 elections. These present indications are higher than another poll conducted a few weeks ago.
If these poll predictions turn out to be true, and the AAP’s good showing in the recently held municipal elections in Chandigarh suggest that they are, it is a momentous shift in Punjab politics.
It means the people there are fed up with the binary of the Akali Dal and Congress that has dominated its politics for decades, ever since the state was formed. It wants to give the AAP a chance to tackle its many woes. It does not want the elderly, do-nothing, Amarinder Singh in another configuration. It rejects the noisy, Pakistan/Khalistan loving Navjot Sidhu, and the sudden emergence of Christian-Sikh Charanjit Singh Channi. It won’t countenance the corrupt Badals yet again.
The AAP, according to the same poll, is expected to open its account in Uttarakhand and Goa as well. This stands in contrast with the efforts of Mamata Banerjee, a wannabe leader of the Opposition gathbandhan, with or without Congress. The TMC, mighty electorally in West Bengal, where it defeated the BJP in a straight contest, making it an apparent giant killer, was trounced in neighbouring, largely Bengali-speaking Tripura. From all accounts, it is likely to do badly in Goa too. If the TMC remains confined to West Bengal electorally, can it properly aspire to a national role?
So will these results, if they are borne out on election day, position Arvind Kejriwal as a dark horse prime ministerial candidate at the head of the Opposition alliance under formation?
The problem with Congress is that its leadership is unacceptable to many in the Opposition, despite its position in power, with its own chief minister in Rajasthan, Punjab and Chhattisgarh. This looks like it will be reduced to two. The Congress also supports the state governments in Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, but with small potatoes.
Still, no Opposition alliance, as of now, can do without the Congress numbers if it keeps over 40 MPs after the general election of 2024. Even if it is reduced further, the arithmetic demands its inclusion. But Rahul Gandhi is not acceptable to many, even as the mother-son duo in Congress are unwilling to cede the leadership of both the party and the Opposition to anyone else.
Arvind Kejriwal is relatively young, IIT educated, an excellent orator in both Hindi and English. He has held a government job in the Income Tax’s CBDT. And done considerable social work in his early activist career. He has won the Magsaysay Award. He has worked with Mother Teresa. He is already a two-term chief minister of Delhi with a thumping, absolute majority on both occasions.
Kejriwal has worked hard with his fellow party strategists to widen the AAP footprint, and now looks on the verge of succeeding, with a big-prize border state. Kejriwal’s desire to have control of a full-state under the Indian Constitution is about to be realised.
His politics is decidedly leftist and populist, but it resonates with a large section of the poor voting public, migrant labour, the largely powerless, the ‘shirtless’ in an Eva Peronesque way. He also has quite a few adherents amongst the elite. Even if Kejriwal cannot break into leading the Opposition in 2024, he could be very well positioned by 2029.
India is largely in love with socialism. It does nothing for the economy, as Mamata Banerjee and Arvind Kejriwal well know, but it keeps their cadres happy to receive regular handouts. Years of 2 percent GDP growth or less, plus double-digit inflation have not cured the Indian public of it.
Both West Bengal and the half-state of Delhi have precarious financials. Punjab is equally bad, but it is likely to wreck its finances further if the AAP takes over. It is a style of government that wilfully keeps the voter happy on borrowed money and by diverting funds from any other heads of account. A fair amount of corruption and slush money is also par for the course. Development is reduced to future promises and IOUs.
The Congress, in power for decades earlier, has bred this corruption, subsidy, freebie, loan-waiver culture into the political DNA of India, by always positioning this nation as a poor country. Foundation stones may be laid in profusion but projects were rarely completed.
The GDP growth and modernisation that the BJP has pushed is largely incomprehensible to India’s teeming millions. The IMF and World Bank might like our fiscal responsibility, as do foreign investors, but the vast public finds all this remote from its reality. And this includes quite a few in the middle class.
What it does understand is Hindutva and Hindu pride. It is this that has taken the BJP to the pole position and is likely to keep it there through 2024 and 2029. That is, as long as it remembers what works with its voting public fed up with minority appeasement. It wants a Hindu Rashtra as soon as possible.
But the rise of the AAP cannot be ignored. The public loves its style of apparent concern for the poorest. The BJP, like the Congress before it, must give away even larger tranches of money to please the electorate. And yes, have a two-tier system aimed at the have-nots and the haves.
The public at the bottom of the pyramid does not think it has the capacity to self-propel itself out of its poverty, even with government help. It has too many bullying local bosses. It possibly does not aspire to a better life that involves much hard work and uncertainty at the end of it.
The ‘teach a man to fish’ logic that Prime Minister Narendra Modi believes in, has its counterpart in getting something just for existing. A significant section of the Indian public is not convinced about the concept of being given opportunities under various government programmes supported by government incentives and infrastructure. This model may have worked in Gujarat, but does not stand a chance in West Bengal and those who want to copy its electoral success and mass popularity.
The Indian way is to assimilate all influences into itself to strengthen its core. The best way to beat the AAP which has a long march ahead before it attains central power, is to outdo it at its own game. The BJP that rules in most of the states and at the Centre has immense resources to work with. If it puts a lot of it to work for Hindus, the AAP and TMC model of minority appeasement-cum-populism can be stemmed and confined.
The writer is a Delhi-based commentator on political and economic affairs. The views expressed are personal.