The Punjab poll is over. But the outcome of this election will redefine a lot in Indian politics. After the high-voltage campaign in the state, it seemed like there would be a wave polling. But at the end of the election with the low voter turnout, several questions arise on how much of a real “wave” it was. However, a significant outcome of this election was low turnout in the Aam Aadmi Party bastion, which is the Malwa region. The AAP has most of its sitting MLAs from this region.
For Delhi Chief Minister and AAP supremo Arvind Kejriwal, the Punjab election is of very high stakes. In 2017 the party fought Punjab with its full force. It was Kejriwal’s — and the AAP’s — one of the biggest ventures outside Delhi. However, the AAP's debut election in the state was the 2014 general election. Amid the Modi wave, the party won four seats out of 13. Then came the 2017 election.
Why AAP lost 2017 Punjab Elections
There are several analyses about why the AAP lost the 2017 elections. Before the elections, the AAP removed its state convenor Sucha Singh Chhotepur, who then joined the Shiromani Akali Dal. His removal created a massive revolt within the party and affected its poll journey. The problem intensified when in the last week of January 2017 Kejriwal spent a Saturday night at the house of an acquitted Khalistan militant Gurinder Singh. The separatist leader was not present at the house as he was then a resident of England and gave his house on lease to his friend Santam Singh. According to reports, the latter was present at the house. This erupted a big political row and was one of the important reasons behind Kejriwal’s defeat in Punjab.
Similarly, there were allegations that Kejriwal sidelined the state leaders and was controlling the poll from Delhi which irked Punjabis. Lastly, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh reportedly transferred its votes to the Congress at the last moment to stop the AAP. The reason behind this was AAP’s alleged anti-Hindu image.
How AAP suffered from the loss
The AAP has suffered from an unprecedented leadership crisis in Punjab. From 2014 till the run-up to the 2022 Assembly elections, the party had appointed around five state conveners. Similarly, the party had appointed around three Punjab state in-charges and two co-in-charges in the past eight years. Significantly, all these changes happened because of growing infighting within the Punjab unit of the AAP and miserable election results. The party’s first Punjab convener was Sucha Singh Chhotepur who was removed in 2016 and Gurpreet Singh Waraich was appointed as the state convenor.
In 2017, the AAP appointed Bhagwant Mann who is now the chief ministerial candidate of the party as AAP state convener and Hindu face Aman Arora as co-in-charge. This irked Waraich and he resigned from the party. In March 2018 both of them resigned from the post after Kejriwal apologised for his drug remarks against SAD leader Vikram Singh Majithia.
Amid massive infighting, the AAP appointed Balbir Singh as acting state convenor. However, the Mann-Arora duo returned to their earlier posts in 2019.
Similarly, the AAP first fought its 2014 and 2017 elections under the leadership of senior leader and now Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Singh. Durgesh Pathak, who is now the Delhi MCD election in-charge, was then the key person working with Singh to build the unit. In 2016, the AAP appointed journalist-turned-Delhi MLA Jarnail Singh as the co-in-charge of Punjab affairs as the party was lacking a credible Sikh face. Meanwhile, Sanjay Singh resigned from his post after the AAP’s poor performance in the 2017 elections and Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia became the Punjab state in-charge.
The party infighting did not stop and the AAP won just one seat in the 2019 parliamentary elections. Thereafter, Kejriwal appointed three-term MLA from Delhi's Tilak Nagar Jarnail Singh as the in-charge of Punjab in 2020.
Meanwhile, after AAP’s massive Delhi victory, Kejriwal planned to take over the control of the Punjab unit under him and appointed one of the closest confidantes, MLA Raghav Chadha, as Punjab co-in-charge in 2021.
How Kejriwal took over control Of Punjab unit
Just after the Delhi victory, Kejriwal put in place his expansion plan. To fulfil this, he appointed Manish Sisodia as in-charge of Uttarakhand, Rajya Sanjay Singh as the in-charge of Uttar Pradesh, Atishi as the in-charge of Goa, and Raghav Chadha as the Punjab co-in-charge.
The message from Kejriwal was very clear: That the decisions of Punjab will be taken directly by him through Chadda. In the Delhi political circle, Chadda is considered the most trusted person of Kejriwal. For example, after Chadda became an MLA, Kejriwal appointed him as the vice-chairman of the Delhi Jal Board. DJB is the body that has a lot of responsibilities and Kejriwal wanted to be associated with its day-to-day updates as earlier he was the DJB chairperson. Similarly, inside the AAP, it was also very clear that Kejriwal will appoint Bhagwant Singh Mann as the chief ministerial candidate of the party.
Mann is not only very close to the Delhi leadership but also is a person on whom Kejriwal will be able to depend fully. He is one of the very few AAP politicians in Punjab who have followed the instructions given by the party’s Delhi leadership.
How Punjab can fulfil Kejriwal's national ambitions
Kejriwal has the potential to become an alternative to the BJP. His presence in the Hindi heartland, age, hunger for power, and fluency in Hindi make him a strong contender. Right now no leader other than Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and SP chief Akhilesh Yadhav has all these qualities together.
Despite defeating the BJP for two consecutive terms and decimating the Congress in Delhi, the AAP does not even rule a full state. A full state means where the chief minister and the leaders have control over the bureaucrats, police, administration in every aspect. Delhi is the national capital of India and that is why the power of the cabinet and the Assembly is very limited.
In this situation, Punjab can fulfil a lot of Kejriwal’s dreams. First, if the AAP forms a government in Punjab, then it will be the first full state for the party. Kejriwal believes that if his party gets control of the police, then many changes can be brought. Thereafter he will be able to use those as examples during his national expansions in future.
Punjab sends seven MPs to the Rajya Sabha and the term of all of them will end this year. If the AAP wins the state or even improves from its last performance, then Kejriwal will have the power to send more MPs to the Rajya Sabha. This will not only increase the party’s presence in Parliament but also help it become a significant voice within the Opposition.
Lastly, if the AAP can get over 6 percent votes in Goa and Uttarakhand, then with Punjab and Delhi vote share it will get the recognition of the national party.
Kejriwal and Pro-Khalistan charges
During the high-voltage 2022 Punjab Assembly election campaign, everyone — from Rahul Gandhi to Narendra Modi to the Badals and even Kumar Vishwas — has accused Kejriwal of being pro-Khalistan. No one in politics wants to survive with such allegations of terrorist links. If the AAP can win Punjab, then the tag of being pro-Khalistan will go. But if the party loses, then there is a chance that this tag will do more harm in his political future than imagined.
In the opinion polls and the general perception, it is clear that the AAP has an edge over other political parties in this Punjab election. However, in 2017 too, such mega hype about the AAP was there but the outcome was very much different. Several political analysts have opined that in 2017 the shift of votes from the AAP happened at the very last moment. This time also rows over being pro-Khalistan or AAP’s alleged intention to create the Hindu-Sikh divide emerged in the last few days. And then the low turnout in the AAP bastion may hamper the party’s chances.
Be it a victory or a defeat, the Punjab election will be a very personal battle for Kejriwal. And irrespective of the outcomes, this election will redefine his political future.
The author is an independent journalist based in Kolkata and former policy research fellow at Delhi Assembly Research Centre. He tweets as @sayantan_gh. Views expressed are entirely personal.