A stunning victory in Punjab may spur one to think that the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) can be the real challenger to the BJP in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. It has become the first regional party to win an election in a second state and is poised to fill the space where the Congress may be diminished.
Even Mamata Banerjee, who won West Bengal for a record third time, could not steer the Trinamool Congress to capture power in Tripura earlier and now in Goa or Manipur, which have remained under the sway of the BJP.
By all accounts, the AAP’s victory in Punjab goes to show that Arvind Kejriwal’s welfare politics has caught the imagination of voters. He has struck a chord with Punjab voters with his promise of doles for women, better schools and colleges, freebies covering electricity and water and generating jobs though the AAP has not been able to move beyond the freebies in Delhi.
The voters in Punjab were fed up with the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and its family-dominated shenanigans. They were disgusted with the infighting and corruption of the kind seen under the Congress rule too. So they turned to the AAP — in the sheer hope of a qualitative better era of governance — just as the voters of Delhi did by handing a massive mandate to Kejriwal in 2015.
Winning elections next in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh where the Assembly polls are due by end of this year may be seen as the next best political strategy for Kejriwal who has so far remained an outlier when it comes to being one of the main faces of the combined opposition.
No doubt, the landslide mandate for the AAP in Punjab will now make opposition leaders like Mamata Banerjee, K. Chandrasekhar Rao, M.K. Stalin, Sharad Pawar and Uddhav Thackeray sit up and take Kejriwal more seriously than hitherto. They have already declared that they cannot count on the Congress to do anything to counter the BJP. So far, Kejriwal has been excluded from any serious conversation among these leaders for an alternative front to take on Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Next Frontiers for AAP
Apart from Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat, other key states where polls will take place in the next two years are Karnataka, Tripura, Meghalaya and Nagaland (early 2023) followed by Telangana, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan (late 2023). The AAP does not have a sizable presence in these states though there is a huge potential for such a party to grow and compete with the BJP.
With its Punjab success, the AAP has shown the ability to expand where the Congress has declined. But, in Himachal Pradesh, which is a neighbouring state of Punjab, the Congress showed signs of revival last November when it swept the byelections in the Mandi Lok Sabha constituency besides Arki, Fatehpur and Jubbal-Kotkhai Assembly segments by defeating the ruling BJP nominees. The victory also established that Pratibha Singh will carry forward the political legacy of Virbhadra Singh, a six-time Congress chief minister who passed away in July 2021. The bypoll results were seen as a big setback for BJP chief minister Jairam Thakur amid the buzz about serious infighting.
In Gujarat, which has remained the bastion of the BJP since 1995, the AAP made some gains in the civic elections in Surat last year. Of late, the Congress that had done well in the 2017 Assembly polls by increasing its share of votes and seats appears to be caught in a drift of sorts. The party’s internal crisis in Gujarat was felt more after the demise of senior leader Ahmed Patel who was a key aide of Sonia Gandhi as well as Rahul Gandhi.
We are told that Kejriwal and Punjab’s chief minister-designate Bhagwant Mann may travel to Gujarat soon to bolster the AAP’s campaign.
But, as Kejriwal knows well, Modi would not let the BJP lose in his home state though anti-incumbency and governance issues had forced the BJP to opt for a change of chief minister last year. Vijay Rupani, a confidant of Union Home Minister Amit Shah, was asked to handover the baton to a relatively green horn, Bhupendrabhai Patel.
In fact, in his first engagement after the stunning success of the BJP in Uttar Pradesh, Modi chose Gujarat where he decided to spend two days to re-vitalise the the BJP’s rank and file ahead of the Assembly polls. It is an open secret that Modi intends a “deep clean” of the party set-up by dropping nearly 50 per cent of sitting legislators and opting for fresh faces.
The Punjab Test
However, the real test for Kejriwal will be Punjab. His Delhi model has won him Punjab. By the time elections are held in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat, the AAP’s performance would be tested in governing Punjab that is already reeling under an estimated Rs 3 lakh crore public debt.
Besides implementing its promises of ensuring the freebies, the AAP will have to show steps towards tackling the issues of drugs and unemployment and strive for bettering the state of education, healthcare and industry.
It is said that public resource mobilisation in Punjab has remained a foremost challenge. Punjab’s own tax revenue share in total revenue receipts has only been 51 per cent compared with 63 per cent in neighbouring Haryana between 2015 and 2021.
Kejriwal hopes that his team in Punjab can check the leakage of resources in excise duty, goods and services tax (GST), stamp duty and registration, mining and transport to generate Rs 20,000 crore to Rs 25,000 crore — without imposing any additional tax burden on the public. Some experts have claimed that curbing theft in the power sector can save nearly Rs 1,500 crore annually. Similarly, curbing illegal mining and proper auctioning of the sand mines can generate an additional amount in the range of Rs 1,200 crore to Rs 1,500 crore.
Besides stemming corruption, Punjab has to tackle the crisis in agriculture which has grown by leaps and bounds —but has lagged in agro-based industry. The opposition to the three farm bills was such that political players avoided debate on ways to salvage the farmers of Punjab, beyond rooting for a law to enforce the minimum support price (MSP) for all crops.
Like other non-BJP chief ministers, the AAP chief minister of Punjab too may end up crying hoarse against the Modi government if he cannot improve the finances of the state.
Of course, Kejriwal has become more pragmatic since he stepped into politics. Understanding the ways of the BJP, Kejriwal would like to bide his time. Punjab is a good beginning — but there must be tangible results to showcase — just as Modi did with his Gujarat model.
Shekhar Iyer is former senior associate editor of Hindustan Times and political editor of Deccan Herald. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.
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