Punjab set for a cliffhanger

Punjab set for a cliffhanger

2017 polls: An aggressive AAP and a resurgent Congress look to prevent an Akali-BJP hat-trick

Punjab set for a cliffhanger
While some mainstream political parties, including the Congress and the BJP, still struggling to finalise candidates with barely 20 days of campaigning left in Punjab, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)   the new third force in the state – is way ahead of the pack.

The AAP kicked off its campaign over a year ago by forming ward-wise committees which visited virtually every household in rural areas. The Congress as well as the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and its alliance partner the BJP have been traditional rivals since the present boundary of Punjab was drawn half a century ago. The rivals swapped power over the years except for the previous elections when the SAD-BJP combine retained power for a second term.

The AAP, which won all its four Lok Sabha seats from Punjab, is now looking at the state as a stepping stone to enter the national electoral arena. The Arvind Kejriwal-led outfit made a mark in 2014 due to the political vacuum created by the double anti-incumbency faced by its main rivals. The people were evidently unhappy with the performance of the Congress-led UPA government at the Centre and the SAD-BJP government in Punjab.

But much water has flowed down the rivers of Punjab since 2014. The coalition partners in the state are now also the rulers at the Centre. After its dismal performance across the country, the Congress has its best chance to revive or reverse its fortunes from Punjab. The public ire against the SAD-BJP government and the 'outsider' tag pulling down the AAP could work in the Congress’ favour. With a charismatic leader like state unit president Capt Amarinder Singh, who defeated present Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley during the height of 'Modi wave' in 2014, the party appears set to stage a comeback.

However, the Congress seems to be afflicted with a death wish and is bent upon self destruction. Despite starting its campaign in time and vowing not to repeat the mistakes it had committed during the previous Assembly elections   when a combination of delayed and wrong ticket distribution led to a host of party rebels in the fray   the party appears to be back to square one. And this despite the party roping in election strategist Prashant Kishor, who successfully managed the campaigns of Narendra Modi in 2014 and Nitish Kumar in 2015.

Kishor’s team has been camping in the state for several months and has devised several campaigns like ‘Punjab da Captain’, ‘Halke wich Captain’ (Captain in constituency), Coffee with Captain etc., all aimed at projecting Singh as the mascot of the Congress and possibly the future chief minister. Ironically, the Congress high command has been shying away from declaring Singh as its chief ministerial candidate. This is apparently due to pressure from rival groups within the party.

Not just this, the Congress forced Singh to stay away from campaigning during the crucial period for a month and a half before the elections to sort out ticket distribution issues. The 40-odd seats where candidates have not yet been declared are also the seats where the various factions are staking their claim. Thus there is every possibility of rebel candidates entering the fray. With such little time to placate the rebels, the party may find itself in a similar situation as it did last time. The equation in these constituencies would be the key to the party's fortunes in the state, as indeed that of the other parties.

The internal wrangling within the Congress have undoubtedly pleased its political rivals. The AAP as well as the SAD-BJP alliance did not waste any opportunity to take a dig at the plight of the Congress. The Congress appears to be banking on the fact that even in the worst of times, its vote percentage had not dipped below 30%. For that matter, even the SAD and BJP can claim a solid vote bank. During the previous Assembly elections in 2012, the Congress received just 2% less votes than the SAD and BJP combined.

Even in the 2014 election, when the AAP made its debut in the state, the Congress retained a vote share of 33.1%, though it won only three of the 13 seats. The SAD and BJP together bagged 35% of votes, while the AAP bagged 24.4% votes.

Aam Aadmi effect

Coming to the AAP, the party has been facing several setbacks over the last few months. The AAP has ousted its most respected leader from Punjab, state convener Sucha Singh Chhotepur, on charges of corruption and also imposed senior leaders from Delhi to select its candidates. A big handicap is the absence of a ‘face’ or a chief ministerial candidate. The party kept the issue simmering till Kejriwal's deputy Manish Sisodia asked the people to vote as if Kejriwal is the next chief minister.

This kicked up a controversy till Kejriwal clarified that only a Punjabi would be the chief minister if his party wrested power, but refrained from announcing a chief ministerial candidate. The other major factor that the AAP has to deal with is the “outsider” tag and that it is remote-controlled from Delhi. The party is also facing rebellion in some of the seats and some feel that the party's campaign peaked too early.

The ruling SAD-BJP coalition is not only facing anti-incumbency as a fall out of remaining in power for the last decade, it is also facing anger over high handedness of local leaders, corruption, menace of drugs, control over trade and a series of incidents relating to sacrilege of the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib. These incidents have angered the SAD's core panthic vote and that is something the party has to seriously worry about.

The presence of a plethora of other political parties in the fray, including the Bahujan Samaj Party which has put up candidates in all the 117 constituencies, several splinter groups of the AAP as well as those of the SAD have complicated the poll scenario as never before. The presence of rebels in the Congress and the AAP has further added to the confusion.

In the absence of any wave in favour of any particular party, most analysts are looking at the prospects of a hung Assembly. It is here that at last there is some clarity: the SAD can never tie up with the Congress and the Congress cannot be seen together with the BJP. So any post poll alliance between them is ruled out. Similarly, the AAP and the BJP can never imagine entering into any alliance. This leaves only one alternative, the Congress and the AAP joining hands if it comes to the crunch.

(The writer is a senior journalist based in Chandigarh)