Anand K. Sahay | After Punjab, can AAP be a real alternative to BJP?

How the party proceeds from here will naturally be watched closely by the people of Punjab and the party’s supporters and its opponents

By chalking up a huge electoral victory, the Aam Aadmi Party has seized power in Punjab by the scruff of its neck. This is an extraordinary achievement as it comes barely eight years after the party emerged on the public stage in Delhi, which is not quite a state and is more in the nature of a very large municipal authority.

Therefore, for the AAP, the best that can be said is that its recent victory reflects a yearning of Punjab’s people for hope in a sea of wilderness, such is the legacy left behind by the established political parties. Basing any projections for the AAP’s future trajectory on this sparse basis -- as some are tempted to do -- can be premature.

Aside from the prevailing local factors, the AAP’s phenomenal Punjab victory is a tribute to its ambition, the dedication of its cadre and to the leadership of its founder-supremo Arvind Kejriwal. How the party proceeds from here will naturally be watched closely by the people of Punjab and the party’s supporters and its opponents alike.

The AAP’s reputation in Delhi was based principally on two elements -- the large subsidies the Kejriwal government provided on water and electricity, making these practically free for the lower economic strata and to some others; and running government schools and mohalla health clinics efficiently and making these easily accessible to the public. It's these that may have aroused hope in Punjab.

Are large subsidies sustainable on a long-term basis in a revenue deficit state where sources of tax collection are way more limited than in a megapolis like Delhi. Punjab primarily means agriculture, from which incomes aren’t taxed, and fertiliser and power consumed by farmers are already subsidised.

On the political side, Delhi voters have backed the AAP in a big way in order to extract relatively free water and electricity from the system, but while electing their MPs they have tended to show a marked preference for the BJP, powered by the saffron party’s religio-political appeal -- a larger-than-life communal feature projected strongly under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership.

In Punjab, the majority communalism factor is hardly present in day-to- day life since the Muslim community factor is nearly wholly absent after Partition, which accompanied Independence. The “other”, around which the typical BJP election campaign is spun in practically every other state, is missing. That’s why the BJP hasn’t had an independent existence -- in electoral terms -- in Punjab, and has traditionally tagged along with the Akali Dal, though this was not so in the recent election.

In the absence of the communal factor in everyday life, which it is important to note has emerged as a key element of national politics as the BJP’s influence has gained hegemonic proportions in much of India, a party like the AAP -- with its emphasis on the efficient distribution of public goods and services, and little else -- has found traction with relative ease in Punjab.

In the last Assembly election (2017) too, the party had emerged as the principal Opposition, edging out the Akali Dal, which was dethroned by the Congress. The Akalis couldn’t get even to second place although they are a political behemoth possessing wide and deep-going social influence for historical reasons in a Sikh-majority state.

The AAP is thus not a newbie in Punjab. The Akalis had mired Punjab in controversies, many over corruption, high-handedness and the misuse of constitutionally-given authority for personal benefit of the powerful rather than public welfare. As for the Congress, which lost power in this election, it was mainly a story of the party shooting itself in the foot.

The party controversially removed its chief minister just months before the polls at the behest of its national leadership, which sought to pander to an irresponsible and super-ambitious politician in its midst who was named state party chief, and then proceeded to belittle and destroy the party’s chances. The stage was thus set for the AAP’s victory. It’s the scale of its victory that is the real surprise, and may give us a sense of the Punjab voter being left bereft of even hope.

On most subjects other than service delivery -- which is of course very important and is generally missing in governance in most states -- the AAP’s political and ideological positions come closest to the BJP’s, while many of its slogans seek to mimic the Congress to buttress its so-called secular appeal.

For elections in Delhi, this has proved a plus so far. What happens outside the national capital is a question mark for now. Punjab is an important Indian state, and the AAP’s first test is to prove itself here. That said, Punjab is not a so-called “normal” state as the country’s biggest religious minority is nearly wholly absent in its demography and social and political consciousness.

It has been posited that since the Congress is in serious decline – as the recent elections showed -- and could be perilously close to organisational chaos and possible disintegration, the AAP is suited to take its place nationally. The basis of such an analysis hasn’t been made clear by its proponents, unless it is meant to be kite-flying! Do the claims made for the AAP take precedence over several other regional entities who may aspire similarly? This question is also not tackled. But these aspects aside, is the AAP best suited among India’s political parties to take on the BJP ideologically?

Unless a challenger threatens the BJP ideologically and offers a coherent and credible narrative on an all-India basis, there seems little hope for it, given the current scenario. If anything, the BJP’s spectacular results in the recent state elections show that its ideology has prevailed with voters across a swathe of the country -- and all its opponents, not just the Congress, have bitten the dust.

So, how should the AAP be judged on this matter? The party’s stance on the Shaheen Bagh movement of resistance against the law to threaten the citizenship of millions of people two years ago -- in sharp contrast with its fulsome support to the farmers’ agitation that gripped Punjab, Haryana and western UP -- and its stance on the Delhi riots that took place alongside the Shaheen Bagh mobilisations, shocked lakhs of AAP supporters in the national capital as it was practically indistinguishable from that of the BJP. With credentials such as these, can the AAP take on the BJP nationally? Does the alternative to the BJP have to be a “Chhota BJP”?

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