While Chasing Gujarat, AAP Leaders Believe They Lost Out on a Chance in Himachal Pradesh

Several AAP leaders in Himachal blame the party's performance on incorrect strategy, saying that it should not have lost focus.

Chandigarh: “Let’s accept it, we had a good chance here but we messed up,” I.D. Bhandari, former state DGP and vice president of the Aam Aadmi Party’s Himachal Pradesh unit told The Wire. The party was decimated in the 2022 state assembly polls, not winning even a single seat.

As per the latest poll results, the party got a little over 1% of the vote share. AAP candidates lost their security deposits in most of the state’s 68 constituencies.

Soon after AAP won the Punjab assembly elections in March this year, pollsters were confident that AAP would do well in neighbouring Himachal Pradesh too.

At the time, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party was looking shaky under incumbent chief minister Jai Ram Thakur. There was also a leadership vacuum in the Congress after Virbhadra Singh’s death.

This led many to think that AAP could emerge as an alternate political force and change the state’s two-party politics, like it did first in Delhi and then in Punjab.

As expected, AAP launched a membership drive to expand the party’s presence in the hill state. It saw an initial success, adding more than five lakh members in a small state within a span of one month after the Punjab results.

Both AAP national president Arvind Kejriwal and newly elected Punjab chief minister Bhagwant Mann held multiple road shows.

Bhandari told The Wire that the party’s campaign began on the right foot. It was expanding organisationally and doing reasonably well before it shifted gears to Gujarat in June and July, thinking that it had a better chance in the western state.

When asked whether it was an incorrect strategy on the party’s senior leadership’s part to desert Himachal Pradesh over Gujarat, Bhandari nodded, saying that AAP could have run an effective campaign in both states but chose to focus only on Gujarat, leaving Himachal in a state of utter confusion.

During the course of the campaign here, the party changed its state in-charge thrice – first it was Durgesh Pathak, then Sandeep Pathak and then Harjot Bains, a minister in the party’s Punjab government.

Senior AAP leaders including Kejriwal, Mann and Manish Sisodia all focused on the Gujarat campaign, while leaving the Himachal Pradesh arm to junior leaders and MLAs from Punjab.

The Wire spoke to several AAP leaders in Himachal who agreed with Bhandari and felt the party’s campaign had been neglected here.

Gaurav Sharma, former party spokesperson in Shimla, who is now in the BJP, alleged that the AAP leadership was not serious about Himachal. He said there was a lot of enthusiasm among the youth in the state when AAP began its engagement drive. But everything fizzled out when they saw how badly the party was being run ahead of the polls.

“Even merit was ignored in selecting candidates,” he added.

Only poll promises not enough to win

AAP’s lacklustre performance is an indication that just poll promises – or guarantees, as AAP likes to call them – are not enough to win elections.

Like in Gujarat, AAP had announced a series of promises including free electricity up to 300 units, a Rs 3,000 per month jobless allowance, Rs 1,000 per month to women and implementation of an old age pension scheme for government employees in Himachal Pradesh. But none of these could resonate with the public in the absence of credible leaders and an energetic campaign.

On why AAP lost the state elections, the party’s Himachal Pradesh president Surjeet Thakur said, “Our campaign definitely failed to resonate with the public, but the BJP’s dirty politics is also equally to blame.”

He said the party was doing well under its senior leader and Himachal election in-charge Satyender Kumar Jain, who helped the party gain momentum in the hill state after its Punjab victory. “But the BJP deliberately used central agencies to put him behind bars on a false case. This derailed our Himachal campaign at a later stage,” he added.

However, he told The Wire that despite the defeat, AAP should be given credit for setting the election narrative in these polls. “Earlier, the Himachal polls were hardly fought on people’s issues. It was because of our campaign that both the BJP and Congress were forced to focus on health, education and electricity,” he said.

Thakur did not seem to believe that the party had lost focus in Himachal. “We are a small party. The focus was more on Gujarat since it is a large state. But we did not leave Himachal behind and were aggressively running our campaign. We will definitely improve [our performance] in the future,” he said.