It was a stormy night in the last week of January five years back. The huge bungalow that housed Aam Aadmi Party election office in Chandigarh was shattered and torn due to heavy rains and wind. War room tabernacle made of white canvas was fully blown out of its place. Around half-a-dozen workers were running helter-skelter busy on their mobile phones. All indications pointed to a hung legislative assembly in Punjab. Enjoying hot coffee on the terrace, the war room head Bipin Rai, an old friend who was recently appointed a Consultant with the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB), told us, “Look! There is no chance of any alliance with Congress. It would be suicidal for us. Let the assembly go hung and remain under President’s rule for six months. We will sweep in the next elections!”
His confidence was not unfounded. On January 27th, 2017 Arvind Kejriwal took to Patiala streets in an open jeep to campaign for his candidate Balbeer Singh. He was accompanied by Bhagwat Mann, now the CM face but not until then. Streets were buzzing with AAP supporters. An old women cried in euphoria, “Kranti aa gayi” (The revolution is here)! I was witness to the frenzy that accompanied Kejriwal’s campaign in Punjab in the last elections but was not very sure that he was going to form the government since Congress was the first choice in face of an incumbent Akali government. With these doubts, I sent a futuristic dispatch to a Capital’s daily that this Punjab election is a new chapter unfolding in the “Congressmukt Bharat” campaign of BJP.
प्रभात खबर, 29 जनवरी 2017 की क्लिपिंग। पंजाब के दौरे से चुनावी डिस्पैच। पंजाब का 'काँग्रेसमुक्त' ऑपरेशन तब शुरू हुआ था। कल पूरा हुआ। मैंने ऑपरेशन थिएटर में घुस कर देख लिया था और लिख दिया, पर उस समय लोगों ने नहीं माना क्योंकि कैप्टन जहाज को बचा ले गए थे। अबकी डुबा दिए। pic.twitter.com/z0EEMd8Aet
— Abhishek Srivastava (@abhishekgroo) March 11, 2022
It may be said that the royalty of Patiala, Captain Amarinder Singh, who was running the last lap of his political career also heard the footsteps of “This Revolution”. As expected, the verdict came clearly in favour of Congress and not hung, thanks to the highly aspirational Captain who risked his riches for every possible seat that could be won by Congress by hook or by crook. The old woman’s Kranti had to wait for a another five years.
AAP and Punjabiyat
Now in 2022 Punjab Assembly elections, AAP’s broom has swept the political ground. What was supposed to have happened five years back is now a reality. Amarinder Singh immediately tweeted on the verdict.
I accept the verdict of the people with all humility. Democracy has triumphed. Punjabis have shown true spirit of Punjabiyat by rising and voting above sectarian and caste lines.
Congratulations to @AAPPunjab and @BhagwantMann.
— Capt.Amarinder Singh (@capt_amarinder) March 10, 2022
Interesting to notice that a party that was termed as an outsider just five years back is now being welcomed as the harbinger of Punjabiyat by none other than Captain. Is this the general public perception?
Vijay Shankar, a Sikh bullion trader in Varanasi who has close links with the trading community in Punjab says, “The only major difference from 2017 is that they have declared Bhagwant Mann as prospective Chief Minister. Punjabis will never accept any non-turban person even if it is Kejriwal. This verdict is in favour of Mann, not Kejriwal”.
This is an insightful comment that has various political implications. ”Non-turban” essentially refers to Jatt Sikh identity in Punjab. Is that the reason why INC’s Dalit card did not work? Congress was hopeful that making Charanjeet Channi the Chief Minister in slog overs would prove productive. The verdict shows that a major chunk of Dalits voted AAP in the Malwa region. Channi himself lost his seat. To put things in perspective, we must look at a brief FB post by Bangalore resident writer Amandeep Sandhu, whose book “Punjab: Journeys through Fault Lines” is one of the most authentic works in recent times on Punjabi identity:
The man in the picture here is Sunil Jakhar, seniormost INC leader in Punjab. Sandhu regrets that Jakhar was not trusted in the role of CM after Captain Amarinder was ousted. This may be partly true going by the overlapping definitions of Punjabiyat, turbaned and Jatt Sikh which is essentially anti-Dalit too. This led to Channi’s loss .
Some Immediate questions
The overwhelming majority that Jatt Sikhs have provided to AAP may prove to be contradictory baggage in the coming times. There have been myriad pending issues between Delhi and Punjab, including stubble burning and riparian water distribution. Since Delhi and Punjab will be having the same party government it is still unclear how they will stick to their interests and resolve the issues amicably. We have not heard a single word from Kejriwal on these striking issues.
Sandhu raises a more fundamental question:
“…where is the money to fulfil these promises? In 2017, when Congress won Panjab quite decisively – AAP win this time is bigger – just after the oath-taking Panjab finance minister said: the treasury is empty. Lest AAP say that this time …”
Question of finances and policy-related decisions are a matter of long term but the ideological part is much more disturbing if we go by the opinion of popular poet Monika Kumar who also teaches at Punjab University. She apprehends that AAP may play on patriotic sentiments that are at the heart of the Punjabi electorate owing to a large number of people serving in forces.
Talking to Kumar on a panel on March 10th, the incident in context was the alleged security breach of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Punjab after which Kejriwal had slammed Channi led Punjab government and promised Narendra Modi of providing full-proof security if AAP forms government. Monika Kumar was of the view that there is not much difference between BJP and AAP when it comes to national security. She says, “there is a thin line between patriotism and nationalism… I am afraid that AAP may harness this sentiment to hide its ideological leanings and policy-related issues.”
A more striking factor in hindsight that helped AAP to rise to a majority is the alleged Khalistani affiliation which was made by its ex-leader Kumar Vishwas in mid-February. This allegation has helped AAP. Many informed people in Punjab think that this allegation was a designed plot to harness the secessionist perception in a section of Punjabi voters. In the last assembly elections too, Kejriwal was alleged to have stayed overnight in Moga with an ex-Khalistani. That ploy did not work then but it was much publicised in local and national newspapers.
AAP and Kejriwal have been consistently branded as post-ideological and non-ideological as far as their political philosophy matters. In Delhi too, their stand during February 2020 riots and Article 370 abrogation was contested by its left-liberal supporters. The Delhi Model that he has promised to Punjab rests solely on freebies and governance issues. Punjab on the other hand is a highly political electorate that has stood four seasons on Delhi borders against new farm laws. Harjot Banti, a young scholar and translator ask a pertinent question, “I am not sure as to why this highly conscious electorate has given a majority to an apolitical sort of party”. He says sweepingly that Punjabis have a tendency to buy something new.
Anil Chaudhary, an old-time political commentator and Chief Educator of PEACE in Delhi, has a different view. He says that the farmer’s movement has strengthened dejection among Punjabi voters towards traditional leaders and parties. This dejection has resulted in the acceptance of an alternative. The so-called alternative is AAP. He contends that this is not a question of real ‘alternative’ for the people as academics view it. AAP has the same neo-liberal economic template as BJP and Congress have, just differing in its correctional course concerning governance. He says, “people do not go into academic details. Alternative for them means anything but traditional. AAP represents that.”
In the past couple of days, there have been talks of Narendra Modi’s speech just after the verdict where he had indirectly commented on AAP by warning of separatism in a border state like Punjab. Going by the Kumar Vishwas episode, this warning may work either way for AAP. It is not sure whether BJP has contended with AAP’s full majority but one thing is sure AAP is a part of its larger gameplan of Congressmukt Bharat. This has been a trend of late that BJP has worked in tandem with AAP to replace Congress. We have been witness to the active support by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to the anti-corruption movement (IAC/Anna Movement) and there is evidence to prove that the opposition between both is just a game of optics.
A senior RSS functionary comments on the Punjab verdict, “We had never imagined this sort of victory for AAP neither wanted to. Anyways it is just a question of a few months stretching up to a year that AAP will succumb to peoples’ aspirations. Punjab is not Delhi. Bhagwant Mann’s government is going to be sabotaged, hopefully not by BJP but internally. Kejriwal’s long term plan is to personally hold the reigns of Punjab. This would soon get reflected.”