Peaking at the right time, and with a chief ministerial face, says Jarnail Singh, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in charge of Punjab when asked about the party’s roadmap for the 2022 Punjab elections.
The AAP Punjab office in Chandigarh’s Sector 39 is a flurry of activity though, with new joinings lined up and brain-storming sessions in the rooms of both Jarnail Singh, an AAP MLA from Delhi, and Harpal Singh Cheema, the leader of the opposition for the party in Punjab. The party had come second with 20 seats in the Punjab polls in 2017, pushing the Akali Dal to the third spot.
But both leaders admit that the party peaked too soon in Punjab ahead of the 2017 election. “That cost us the last time. The early momentum could not last till the end. We have learnt from it,” Cheema told News18. Hence, it is a slow and steady approach this time with a series of announcements spread over the coming months and regular Punjab visits by AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal.
Travelling through the Malwa region which has 69 seats and has been the base of AAP in Punjab so far, one can sense some slant towards the party in the villages with people considering giving them “a second chance”. Sangrur in Malwa is the stronghold of AAP with its Punjab chief Bhagwant Mann the two-time MP from here. AAP had won 18 out of its 20 seats in Malwa the last time.
Cheema says AAP this time is trying hard to spread its wings in Punjab’s two other regions, Majha and Doaba. Majha with 25 seats comprises the holy seat of the Sikhs — Amritsar — and has been an Akali Dal stronghold where AAP scored nil last time. “Majha region voted totally for the Congress in 2017. But this time the inaction of the Congress in the sacrilege and police firing cases of 2015 in Malwa, will work against them in Majha,” Cheema says.
With both Akalis and Congress facing anger on the sacrilege issue, AAP feels it can be the default choice in both Malwa and Majha. The party inducted the former chief of SIT in those cases, Kunwar Vijay Pratap, during the visit of Kejriwal to Amritsar last month. Pratap is based in Amritsar in Majha and could contest from there. AAP posters in villages have started to come up and one can spot autos sporting AAP posters plying both in Malwa and Majha.
At the AAP office in Sangrur, leaders close to Bhagwant Mann told News18 that the party is working on booth management across all three regions and by the time elections come, AAP will have a team of 21 people on each booth. “The focus is on the organization and door-to-door campaigning by the booth teams,” a leader said. Mann could not be reached despite repeated attempts over days.
CM Face & Farmer Issue
Both Jarnail Singh and Harpal Cheema told News18 that the party will declare its “Sikh Chief Ministerial Face from Punjab” before the elections but are tight-lipped on who it will be. “We have realized from last time that a face is important to fight the election in Punjab. We will declare one at the right time,” Singh said. He pointed out that even the Congress and the Akali Dal had so far not declared who their Chief Ministerial face would be.
There is speculation in Punjab over Navjot Singh Sidhu reaching out to AAP for being the CM face ultimately if he is not made so by the Congress. Another possibility that is being spoken about in Punjab is AAP bringing on board a senior farmer leader, like Bharat Kisan Union (Rajewal) leader Balbir Singh Rajewal, as its CM face. Bhagwant Mann’s camp sees him as a natural contender given he is the AAP chief in Punjab but not many say this is likely.
AAP leaders however do hope that the farmer agitation would work in its favour in some measure, though travelling across Malwa the sentiment among farmers seems for the Congress so far. “Akalis and BJP are being boycotted in villages by the farmers who consider Congress an equal culprit since the 2019 Lok Sabha manifesto of the Congress had the same promise on the farm laws brought by the BJP. We are highlighting this facet,” Cheema said.
Promises in Batches
As part of its slow and steady approach, various promises of the party are being staggered this time with a series of visits by Arvind Kejriwal planned to announce them over coming months. In his two visits separated by a week last month, Kejriwal announced promise of declaring a Sikh chief ministerial face and then a promise of free power of 300 units for all households and scrapping power purchase agreements with private companies. AAP pre-empted similar announcements planned by Congress.
“There are many other burning issues of Punjab which we will address over the coming months – like unemployment, drugs and the sacrilege cases. We will lay out our vision on handling all these issues,” Jarnail Singh said. It is expected that Kejriwal could soon announce an employment policy, a policy on tackling the drug menace, a policy on industry, education and assure quick action in sacrilege-police firing cases if AAP is voted to power in Punjab.
The idea is to project the “Delhi Model” of AAP in Punjab like free electricity, health facilities and quality school education. Jarnail Singh, when asked if this will work in Punjab since politics of two states are different, says people voted AAP to power three times in Delhi as they put out a complete report card of their government’s work. “Does any party in Punjab have the confidence to do that? People everywhere want a government that works,” Singh says.
Both Congress and Akali Dal however dismiss the AAP challenge, citing its collapse in Punjab in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and subsequent local polls. They say the fight is essentially between them. AAP is however out to prove them wrong this time in 2022.