While the rout of the ruling Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party combine in the Punjab Assembly elections of 2017 was practically preordained, the Congress party's landslide victory shows that people in the state had more confidence in the Patiala royal Amarinder Singh than in the still-emerging Aam Admi Party (AAP). AAP failed to present a coherent political alternative to voters in the state and that proved to be its undoing.
Captain Amarinder Singh emerged as the 'face' of the Congress party in the 2014 Parliamentary elections when he defeated BJP stalwart Arun Jaitley in Amritsar. Not only did he stand his ground amidst the Modi wave that swept across India, he also managed to fend off the challenge from a buoyant AAP, which, despite being a new and untested political party, walked away with four of the 13 Lok Sabha seats. Amarinder had been the state chief minister in the 2002-07 period, and in 2014, his spectacular personal win notwithstanding, he made it clear that his interests lay in Punjab politics.
The Shiromani Akali Dal, in alliance with the BJP, had scripted a 'first' in Punjab's electoral history by retaining power in the 2012 Assembly elections. Party leader Sukhbir Singh Badal dreamt of ruling the state for the next 25 years. Ahead of the 2012 polls, his management skills and adroit social engineering had won him accolades. With his father, Parkash Singh Badal, at the helm, Sukhbir had launched a major drive to develop the state's physical infrastructure in the previous term and the ruling alliance went to the polls on a development agenda.
However, the next five years witnessed a downward spiral and people's resentment against arrogant Akali functionaries grew with every passing day. These partymen, also know as 'halka in-charge' (as they controlled everything in their the respective constituencies) continued to exercise unbridled power, and the Badal clan too became busy accumulating power. Between themselves, the chief minister's son, daughter-in-law, son-in-law and son's brother-in-law assumed all power. Ultimately, allegations of usurping businesses, rampant corruption and widespread drug trafficking spelled political ruin for the ruling alliance. The situation deteriorated to the point that the state's BJP leadership resigned itself to a defeat at the hustings as only that could deliver them from the burden of the alliance.
Though it appealed to a section of Punjabi voters, AAP not only lacked quality leadership, it also failed to provide an alternate political vision that could win the people's confidence. Arvind Kejriwal's emphasis on stricter law enforcement as the way to tackle corruption and the drug menace held limited appeal for voters. His pronouncements on sending leaders of the ruling alliance to jail smacked of vendetta politics. Punjab had already seen this kind of politics in 2002-07 and people had realised that political leaders could easily emerge from prison unscathed. In short, AAP, and especially Kejriwal, failed to provide an overarching vision and a substantive political alternative to the ruling alliance.
As in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, AAP's support base across different regions of Punjab and various population groups remained uneven. This is borne out by today's results. The seats won by AAP have remained restricted to certain pockets. Its main support base lies in the western region of Malwa, situated to the south of the Sutlej river.
Nor could the AAP leadership shake away the 'outsider' tag. They seemed to have little problem in associating with the more radical elements and that only alienated the average voter, or the aam aadmi. So, the voter decided to opt for a Maharaja, Amarinder Singh, who was a tried and tested local leader.