Since the boost to AAP in national politics initially came from winning 4 parliamentary seats from Punjab during the 2014 General Election while everywhere else in the country most AAP candidates had lost their deposits, it appeared very reasonable to assume that the AAP victory in Delhi Assembly Elections in February  will raise hopes of revitalised AAP again becoming a possible third player in Punjab politics by opposing both the Congress and Akali-BJP alliance. However, the widely shared public perception that Delhi’s AAP government did not do what it could to stop the violence against the Muslim minority in North East Delhi, has dented its image as an anti-BJP political force. It is even being perceived as a team B of BJP in the way it has been seen to be pursuing what has come to be known as soft Hindutva. This has done perhaps an irreparable damage to AAP in Punjab even though the Punjab unit of the AAP has tried to project a stronger anti-BJP stance by condemning the Delhi violence against the Muslim minority.

This recent setback to AAP in being able to carve out a stronger place in Punjab politics adds to the structural weakness of AAP in emerging as a third player in Punjab politics.

This structural weakness has two dimensions: one, the centralised control of AAP’s Punjab unitfrom Delhi exercised byArvind Kejriwal, the AAP chief,andhis close associates leads to factionalism and infighting in the Punjab unit and hinders the emergence of Punjab-based leadership, and two, the emerging need for a third alternative in Punjab developing from the internal experience of Punjab’s economic and political challenges and not from an externally imposed agenda led by a Delhi-centred party. Both these aspects have some degree of autonomy but are also closely related. A Delhi-centred party is structurally contradictory to the pursuit of regional political and economic aspirations. This unsuitability becomes further magnified if the Delhi-centred party is authoritarian in its mode of functioning. All Delhi-centred parties- Congress, BJP, CPI and CPM- are highly over-centralised, though in different degrees, and the AAP which had initially raised hopes of democratic and participative way of party functioning, has, in fact, turned out to have a special and additional dose of over-centralisation. This over-centralisation verging into authoritarianismcan be reasonably attributed to the personal political style of functioning ofKejriwal. The style of leadership in a party is not the sole determinant of its mode of functioning but it does play a critical role in shaping that mode of functioning.

The divisions in Punjab unit of AAP were primarily the result of authoritarian style of politics pursued by Kejriwal. That style does not allow space for dissent and independence of thought. One after the other, every leading figure in Punjab’s AAP unit, with Bhagwant Mann MP being the sole exception, was pulled down and sometimes even humiliated. Kejriwal’s authoritarian style of politics became nationally known when Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav were unceremoniously thrown out of the party for raising valid issues concerning some aspects of malfunctioning of the party machine.

This authoritarian leadership style does not arouse much enthusiasm for AAP’s revitalisation in Punjab despite initial hopes raised by the impressive electoral victory in Delhi.

It is worth emphasising that the difficult fit between the Delhi-centric AAP and the Punjab-rooted AAP goes beyond the mere negative consequences of authoritarian style of political control which has become characteristic of Kejriwal’s leadership. This negative fit is fundamentally due to the conflict between centralised politics and regionally oriented politics.

Both the Congress and BJP are the mostovercentralised parties. The Congress party with its political paradigm shaped during the anti-colonial struggle has been gradually since the 1960s but speedily since the last decade becoming historically redundant with the inevitable rise of regionalism in the post-colonial phase in India’s political evolution. The BJP is aiming at stemming this inevitable rise of regional identities and parties by using Hindu religion as a possible glue to keep up the façade of unified national identity. However, it faces the challenge of accomplishing this mission due to the party’s cultural and political base being rooted mainly in the so-called Hindi region and the Western region comprising Gujarat and Maharashtra.

AAP after achieving electoral success in Delhi harbours ambitions of supplanting both the dwindling Congress as well as the still powerful BJP and emerge as a new ‘national’ party. But in accomplishing that ambition, the challenge AAP faces is that it is entering that phase in India’s political evolution where the trend is towards regionalisation of politics in India. This historical phase can be considered as a natural outcome of political evolution in a country as diverse as India.

It is in this historical context that Punjab’s need for a regional party that articulates its regional economic, political and cultural realities, needs and aspirations conflicts with the ‘all India’ aspirations of AAP. For many decades, the Akali Dal as the sole regional party of Punjab had fulfilled this need though not fully adequately because of its main electoral base in only one religious community of Punjab. Now the main Akali Dal led by Badal having so narrowly tied itself to the centralist BJP has compromised its even that limited regional role and potential.For a limited period of time, it appeared that the Congress Party under the leadership of  Captain Amarinder Singh might fulfil that role of articulating regional aspirations of Punjab but the structural limitations of a state unit controlled by a Delhi-centric party have manifested themselves in aborting that potential.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that history is calling for the rise of a genuine regional party in Punjab which represents the aspirations of all Punjabis. Such a regional party must grapple with a troubled economy, uncertain political future, environmental devastation, social turmoil and cultural degradation that is the current reality of today’s Punjab.

A mega debate needs to take place in Punjab among the academics, journalists, established political  activists who are capable of rising above narrow political affinities and personal career ambitions, and especially among the younger generation still looking for future alternatives to bring into being a regional party fit for the historical task Punjab has before itself.In view of AAP’s past record of factional infighting in Punjab and its recent soft Hindutva projection, pinning hopes again on hitching Punjab’s economic, political and cultural future to a Delhi-centric party such as AAPis likely to result in either tragedy or farce.

Professor Pritam Singh, Visiting Scholar, Wolfson College, University of Oxford, UK, and the author of Federalism, Nationalism and Development.


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