The Congress and the Akali Dal-BJP combine do not want to acknowledge that the AAP is becoming a formidable opponent in Punjab, but it is becoming tough to ignore it.
With less than a year to go for the Punjab assembly elections, the political temperature is rising. The entry of a new player, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), has turned the hitherto direct contest between the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal)-BJP combine and the Congress into a three-cornered one. The meteoric rise of the AAP in Punjab has certainly got the others worried and nervous. Even though they cannot ignore the AAP, the parties do not want to acknowledge that it is a force to reckon with for fear this may direct the fence-sitters towards AAP, allowing it romp home as it did in Delhi in 2015.
Last week, during a visit to the state, Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi declared that “AAP is only creating hype about itself in Punjab by lavishly spending out of the 600-crore rupee publicity budget of the Delhi government”. He said it was the Akali Dal and not AAP who would the Congress’ key opponent in the polls.
This simplistic assessment must be viewed through three prisms. First, Rahul wants to downplay the AAP factor. His words ring surprisingly similar to how former Delhi cabinet minister Raj Kumar Chauhan had described the AAP a month before the December 2013 assembly elections in the capital. Unfortunately for the Congress, the AAP secured nearly a 29.5% vote share, with 28 of the 70 seats, a shade less than the BJP’s 31 seats and 33% vote share, while the Congress was relegated to a distant third with just eight seats and a 24.5% vote share.
The Congress leaders in Delhi later admitted in private that they had seen the AAP rising but did not want to acknowledge it for fear of losing their Dalit and Muslim vote bank. But that did not prevent a complete whitewash of the Congress in the February 2015 assembly polls, when its tally was reduced to zero and the vote share plummeted to just 9.8% and the AAP bagged 67 seats and a 54.3% vote share. As for the BJP, while it polled 32.2% votes, it could manage only three seats.
The Congress has much more to lose in Punjab as it is competing with the AAP for the secular and backward votes. But will adopting an ostrich-like approach and not taking the danger head on help? As the Delhi election illustrated, the voters cannot be fooled. They have their ears close to the ground.
It is probably for this reason that Captain Amarinder Singh, former Punjab chief minister and current state Congress president, had in January this year admitted that the AAP will be a bigger challenge for his party than the ruling Akali Dal-BJP combine.
Amarinder’s argument is that in Punjab’s previous assembly elections in 2012, Congress polled just 0.8% votes less than the ruling combine and would have likely defeated the latter easily had it been a direct fight. But with AAP chipping on the growing unrest among the unemployed youth and distressed farmers of the state, he cautioned that the Congress should not ignore this “new phenomenon”.
Rahul either did not know what Amarinder had said or simply wanted to belittle him, given that the scion of the Patiala dynasty has often opposed the young Gandhi for promoting Partap Singh Bajwa as the state unit head before him. Either way, it does not augur well for the party.
That the Congress does not like its generals speaking out of turn is well known. The party had even ticked off former union minister Jairam Ramesh in January 2014 for describing the AAP as a “dashavatar,” which could assume different shapes, as a warning that it should therefore now be taken lightly.
But will being in denial help the Congress?
A key indication of the rising popularity of the AAP was seen in the public’s response to the Hola Mohalla political rallies at Anandpur Sahib on March 5. While the AAP’s rally drew large crowds despite there being no national leader, that of the Akali Dal had only a thin attendance despite the presence of Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and his son and Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Badal.
Also, if recent opinion polls are to be believed, AAP is headed for a sweep in the Punjab elections next year. A recent survey has given the party 94-100 seats in the 117 member assembly.
However, Rahul can draw solace from the fact that there is another leader in the state who thinks like him Like Rahul, Sukhbir believes that the contest will be between Congress and the Akali Dal-BJP combine.
But the junior Badal’s psephology skills are not much to write home about. Ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections he had denied any voter wave for the AAP, yet the party polled nearly 24.4% votes and won four of the 13 seats from the state. The Akali Dal-BJP combine won six seats with a 35% vote share, while the Congress polled 33.85% votes and bagged three seats.
A veteran of many electoral battles, Parkash recently devoted a fair amount of his speech at a ceremony criticising the AAP and urging people to not fall prey to its “misleading propaganda”. He only spoke briefly about the Congress.
In his book The Art of War, Chinese general and military strategist Sun Tzu had written: “If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.” Clearly Rahul and Sukhbir need to learn from the senior Badal.