punjab AAP Bhagwant Mann

Since its emergence from the Anna Hazare movement against corruption in Delhi in 2012 the Aam Aadmi Party (APP) has remained on the positive side of Hindutva. Now after defeating the ruling Congress in the assembly polls of Punjab AAP publically claimed that it has become the replacement of Congress in the state but would also do so at the national level. AAP intends to create a political space for itself by decimating Congress. Such politics of AAP fits well into the BJP’s strategy of having a “Congress-mukt Bharat” thereby meaning rendering India free from Congress. Broadly speaking, doing away with Congress’s politics of socialism and secularism poses a serious challenge to Hindutva.

Viewed against the above context, AAP would endeavor to change Punjab having strong regional sentiments to fit into the nationalistic framework of the cow-belt. It is too early to make any assessment now. But AAP’s massive victory —92 out of 117 seats— in the 20 February election to 16th state assembly has emboldened it to say it would be becoming a replacement of Congress and its political ideology. No doubt, AAP has earned a sweeping victory unmatchable by any other party since the demarcation of ‘Punjabi Suba’ in 1966. It is all the more surprising that a Delhi-based party with a non-existent organizational structure received such vehement response to its visceral appeal of badlaav (change) from a sizable section of Punjab’s 215 million-odd electorate. With low voting of 71 percent, around 5 percent less than the 2017 assembly polls, AAP stormed to power with a thumping vote-share of 42.1 percent.

A century-old Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) with a remarkable past was reduced to a political non-entity with only three seats. Infighting cost heavily to the incumbent Congress which ended up getting only 18 seats. The BJP shrunk to two seats and nearly all candidates of Left parties including that of a hurriedly floated farmers’ front lost their deposits.

The election saw near decimation of the elder generation of politicians in the assembly polls with five former chief ministers in the election fray licked the dust. Veteran political players and their style of politics seem to have lost relevance with the entry of 85 debutants, 82 from AAP, in the new assembly.

Having been legislator for 11 times and chief minister of Punjab for five times 94-year-old patriarch politician Prakash Singh Badal has suffered a drubbing in the just-concluded assembly polls. Badal with tacit support from New Delhi Establishment has enjoyed a tight grip on the politics of Punjab in the aftermath of Operation Blue Star in June 1984 who had earlier succeeded in blocking the entry of the younger generation in politics by managing Sikh youth formations to raise the separatist slogan of ‘Khalistan’ and later secretly prompting the Sikh militants to boycott of Punjab assembly elections in 1985 and 1992. Such tactics, of course, helped old guards of both SAD and Congress to keep their tight control on their respective parties and also facilitated their dynastic rule with the unopposed installation of their younger generation of family members into politics.

Largely, a silent wave blew in favor of AAP with the discernible explicit and vocal support of youth. The Punjab electorate rejected aggressively both mainstream parties–SAD and Congress which ruled Punjab alternatively during the past three decades. Traditional parties were not only discarded with a vengeance but their candidates were trounced by big margins. Of the AAP winners as many as 57 defeated their nearest opponents by a margin ranging between 20,000 to 75,000 votes when on average a constituency polled around 1,25,000 votes with about a dozen candidates in the contest. Ironically, during the election campaign APP did not define or qualify the badlaav it stood for. The party propagated only its “Delhi Model” claiming that it has made spectacular achievements in the health and educational sectors, restored financial health, and slashed down of bijli-paani supply charges in Delhi.

Some of AAP’s candidates are common men in the real sense. Dalit Labh Singh Ugoke runs a mobile repair shop in a village with ownership of only 2014 Hero Honda has defeated Congress Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi and, Narinder Kaur Bharaj with declared assets of Rs 24,000 only defeated crorepati candidates Singla from Congress and Arvind Khanna of BJP. Hitherto unknown Jeevan jot Kaur has beaten two powerful opponents Congress’s state unit president Navjot Singh Sidhu and SAD heavyweight leader Bikram Singh Majithia. Similarly, former deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal and his father Prakash Singh Badal got a drubbing from first-timer Jagdeep Kamboj and Gurmeet Singh Khudian respectively by sizable margins. Former chief minister Capt Amrinder Singh too was defeated by AAP in Patiala by a small-time politician.

In fact, Punjabis were deeply disenchanted with the elitist style of functioning of SAD and Congress leaders. They gave a massive mandate to AAP without bothering that the latter did not offer any solid political agenda to Punjab. The self-serving leaders of traditional parties, no doubt, have rendered the administration corrupted to the core, looted the state resources, and pushed the pauperized Punjab down to 19th position from the first one on the development ranking index of the states. On the top Congress and SAD parties colluded with each other in blocking the entry of third force in politics and sharing the loot. Leaders of both parties patronized the mafias controlling sand mining, liquor, and other business in the state. Instead of taking up genuine welfare measures for the people who voted them to power, the dominant leaders of both parties rarely shied away from shielding the wrong-doers, smugglers, and drug peddlers who spread narcotics to every nook and corner of the state.

Two politically powerful families– the Badals and scion of an erstwhile princely state of Patiala Capt Amrinder Singh—ruled the roost and reduced the democratic governance in Punjab to the old feudal style rule to be operated through nominated agents. Raging unemployment, colonial style of police operation coupled with an administrative apathy cumulatively sent among the people a feeling of helplessness and subjugation. And such a repulsive environment alienated the youth who lost the ‘sense of belonging’ with Punjab developed a propensity to migrate to the distant lands to earn and escape the apathetic governance.

Such a depressive scenario, no doubt, could be found in some other states too where the constitutional democracy has been reduced to a dynastic rule sustained and legitimized through electoral management. But in Punjab, the ruling families, enjoying the support of a large section of the Punjabi elite have developed their respective electoral machines to legitimize their usurping of power. Over time, they have been upgrading their electoral exercises and built their respective ‘vote-banks’ through unethical tactics including media management, enhanced use of money, muscle, and state power.

In their attempt to broaden their ‘vote-bank’ base the ruling Badals became instrumental in the occurrences of sacrilege of sacred Sikh scripture in 2015, popularly known as the Bargari beadbi cases. The SAD rulers followed by the Congress government of Capt Amrinder Singh played politics on that religiously sensitive issue instead of punishing the offenders despite larger public protests.

Earlier SAD, a regional party having a long-standing in favor of federalism struck a political alliance with the BJP and extended direct and indirect support to the latter’s centralized polity and Hindutva projects like the abolition of article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, anti-minority Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the establishing the Hindu Rashtra and enactment of pro-corporate Farm Acts. During his tenure as chief minister, Capt Amrinder Singh too became complicit with the BJP’s New Delhi rulers as he was, later, exposed of it by no other but his own previous party, Congress’s high command including Rahul Gandhi.

In fact, a majority of leaders both of Congress and SAD parties have become businessmen first and seem to be scrambling for political power only to promote their businesses. Using former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s phrase such politicians can be safely described as “crony capitalists”. So, such politicians are responsible for creating a fertile ground for the disenchantment of the common men which was cashed upon by AAP.

It is a known fact that the Sikh militancy got degenerated in its later stage in the 1990s. And their slogan of ‘Khalistan’ coupled with opportunistic politics of Badals blocked the growth of democratic polity among the Sikhs in the aftermath of the troubled period of the 1980s. Hence, Punjab witnessed a vacuum of new Sikh leadership much needed to replace the Badals’ type of polity. And, that vacuum is now filled up by an outsider Kesriwal’s party in the latest assembly polls by projecting a local politician Bhagwant Maan with a cleaner image and having a small farmer’s background as AAP’s chief ministerial candidate.

A majority of Punjabis have no doubt, been rejoicing the overthrowing of the entrenched establishment of old politicians, particularly the Badals. But Kejriwal’s one-man rule in Delhi which is akin to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s style of governance is disturbing many people in Punjab. Explicit criticism of AAP is now becoming audible with a mention to its election campaign which obliterated regional and federal issues which are much dearer to a sizable vocal section of the Sikhs. The Sikhs are susceptible enough to resort to frequent public protests on such issues which AAP may find difficult to handle.

Punjab is not Delhi which is overwhelmingly a mega-city of migrants. People of Punjab are historically and temperamentally different from the Hindi heartland’s inhabitants. Punjabis are not deep-seeped into the nationalistic lore which AAP supremo Kejriwal has been pushing forward in Delhi. The Sikhs still reminiscence Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s rule as their ‘genuine Punjabi regime’ and have not emerged fully out of the shock of the 1947 Partition which, they feel, have dwarfed them politically. In the past one and a half decades, the Sikhs spilled onto the roads nearly a dozen times protesting against the Sirsa Dera chief, opposing the hanging of Balwant Singh Rajoana involved in the killing of chief minister Beant Singh and held frequent protests in the Bargari beadbi cases. Of late, they marched to Delhi borders and held 380-days dharna against the pro-corporate farmer acts and secured their withdrawal.

Besides that, Punjabis are quite touchy on the issue of state autonomy and federalism which are not part of Kejriwal’s political discourse at all. Rather, he is aspiring and acting to project AAP as an alternative to the BJP at the national level. On the other hand, Kesriwal’s track record shows that he has always remained on the positive side of the Hindutva. He supported the BJP agenda of abolishing article 370, kept away from Shaheen Bagh protests against CAA, and manufactured communal riots of 2020 in Delhi. He created a replica of Ram Mandir in Delhi and publically readout Hanumaan Chalisa to outsmart the Hindutva brigades. Such a brand of politics could hardly go down the throat of Punjabis. Even eyebrows were raised when Bhagwant Maan touched the feet of Kejriwal on his selection as leader of AAP’s legislative party and that scene went viral on social media leaving a bitter taste among the viewers.

Kejriwal’s latest act of nominating five persons of his choice–two from outside Punjab, one cricketer celebrity and two businessmen—for Punjab quota in Rajya Sabha (Upper House in Indian Parliament) has caused an outcry in Punjab. Opposition leaders were quick to accuse Kejriwal of “selling” Punjab legislators for his personal political ambitions and pecuniary considerations. Thinkers are watching keenly how Kejriwal’s politics would unfold in Punjab; whether he tends to run  the state from Delhi. In such a scenario whether he could be able to ward off the disenchantment which Punjabis susceptible to falling in sooner than imagined.

Former UNI Special Correspondent Jaspal Singh Sidhu, now an independent journalist could be reached at Jaspal.sdh@gmail.com


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