A triangular contest in every seat

Arguably, the most talked about politician at the centre of Punjab’s 2017 joust for power is not even in the fray.

His opponents say he wants to become the chief minister, the man incessantly clarifies that he does not. Clearly, the incumbent Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and traditional challenger Congress have realised, to their utter dismay, that the Arvind Kejriwal phenomenon that Delhi witnessed was no flash in the pan.

The disdain - the “sneaky little fellow” references thrown around by Patiala’s scion royal and other heavyweights - has all gone with the wind. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has turned every single seat in the 117 constituencies into a triangular contest. All three parties are going for a ‘take no prisoners’ approach.

The “topiwala” bashing, beginning and ending with Kejriwal and his `vices’, continues to consume a sizeable share of electioneering. Now, if that’s a sign of edginess, the AAP has done its job to prove it’s at least relevant on Punjab’s political landscape. For the formidable AAP, the Punjab gamble is not anymore a game of dice left to chance by stroke of luck. The AAP has certain clear advantages, of course the disadvantages weigh it down equally. Like the Congress and the SAD-BJP alliance in Punjab, the AAP carries no historical baggage, which in fact cuts both ways.

In a short time, the AAP has managed to flood Punjab with a sea of leaders, many unfamiliar political greenhorns who are yet to prove their mantle. But that was true even in the case of elections in Delhi when the AAP pulled out an unexpected surprise from many such novices. But even the AAP isn’t fooling itself by comparing Punjab’s political turf with Delhi’s cosmopolitan characteristics. The party knows its acceptance with the urban-centric Delhi voters cannot be the same in Punjab.

Kejriwal is out of the poster and sweating it out real time in Punjab. He knows his party’s showing here has been the best. Out of hundreds of candidates who contested in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections that reeled under a Modi wave, four won, and all were from Punjab. The AAP managed a vote share of close to 25%, which is more than that of the BJP and just a tad less than the established grand old party of the Badals.

The AAP’s posturing in Punjab appears to exude confidence. Unlike many other parties which often prefer weaker candidates against leading politicians to ensure a friendly contest, the AAP has put its best foot forward. Comic artiste and AAP’s MP Bhagwant Mann is taking on the mighty Sukhbir Badal from Jalajabad, a seat he won with the highest margin in the last Assembly poll.

In Punjab, where elections are essentially personality driven, the AAP is hugely banking on Kejriwal’s popularity. That’s also because the party has little to show on the ground here. Singing paeans of its “good work” in Delhi may not be sufficient to impress the Punjab voter, essentially because of the peculiar nature of issues that the state, more importantly its rural gentry, grapples with. The AAP argues it knows the pulse of the people of Punjab, which is why it did well last time. Theoretically, that may be true. In hindsight, the AAP then had the “underdog advantage” and the twin benefit of a decade of anti-incumbency of the Congress rule at the Centre and eight years of anti-incumbency of the SAD-BJP regime in Punjab.

Impressive crowds

The AAP faces a major test. Its electoral success, in whatever little or more ways, in this high stakes elections will determine a lot - from Kejriwal’s popularity riding on anti-Modi rhetoric to arguably a thumbs down to Modi’s demonetisation decision and even more. The AAP rallies have been drawing impressive crowds. The party has slowly managed to consolidate its support base after bouts with high decibel dissent and controversies.

The Punjabi diaspora matters in the polls and the AAP’s support among the NRI’s seems noteworthy. Two planes fully packed with NRI supporters will land in Punjab next week to help the AAP realise its dreams, party leaders say. Kejriwal has played his cards well - from announcing that a Dalit would be the chief minister in a state with highest percentage of Dalit voters to pledging a wipe out of drugs within a month after coming to power to visiting religious sects and more.

But Kejriwal’s party grapples with serious disorder. The strategists are non-Punjabis, Kejriwal walks with an ‘outsider’ tag, half its MP’s team is deleted. The Delhi style of functioning has created a league of avengers. The party’s “failure” - some say it was by design - to bring Navjot Singh Sidhu on board and axe its state convener Sucha Singh Chottepur, who has fielded his own candidates under Apna Punjab Party banner, has hit its prospects. The AAP is yet to build a strong regional orientation that the mainstream Congress and Akali’s robustly rely upon.

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