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Why The Akalis May Yet Be The 'Last Party Standing' In Punjab

21/09/2016 6:42 AM IST | Updated 24/09/2016 9:04 AM IST
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A few months ago I wrote a post on why I think Punjab is ready for AAP. My opinion at the time of writing that post was that the Akalis would struggle to regain power in Punjab on the back of a massive anti-incumbency sentiment prevailing against them. The Congress, I thought, had nothing to lose, so under Capt. Amarinder Singh's leadership they must go all out to woo the people of Punjab and not be held back by their tarnished "brand" at a more national level. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in my view then was the front-runner, and the dark horse, in the political race in Punjab – a grassroots-level alternative that the drug-plagued and economically beleaguered population of Punjab was desperate for.

If the Akalis win, it won't be courtesy any of their own merits or virtues, but simply because other political parties in Punjab are imploding...

Now, a few months out from the Punjab elections, the political lay of the land in the state seems to have altered completely, and there's even a very real outside chance that the Akalis may form government again in 2017. They will not do so courtesy any of their own merits or virtues (which they seem to sorely lack in my view), but simply because other political parties in Punjab are imploding, leaving no clear majority set-up to vote for other than the Akalis. Regrettably so.

The Aam Aadmi Party opened up its campaign in Punjab a few months ago with a bang. Standing up in a stage at Muktsar, Arvind Kejriwal lashed out against the incumbent government of Punjab and promised prosperity, and riddance to the people of Punjab of all their ailments -- political, social, and economic. The people Punjab looked up to him after that speech. A messiah had emerged, they thought. Move ahead six months, and the AAP is now facing a severe crisis of its own in Punjab. Its identity, its unity, its leadership and its intentions in Punjab are all under the scanner as it erodes and breaks up internally, bit by bit.

As I write these lines, the disenchanted former AAP convenor in Punjab, Sucha Singh Chhotepur, is about to announce a new political outfit of his own, and has been highly critical of Arvind Kejriwal's leadership of the AAP in recent times. Bhagwant Mann's misdemeanours in public, and in Parliament have taken the sheen off the AAP in Punjab. The party's failure to recruit Navjot Sidhu, who then publicly lambasted Arvind Kejriwal, has further tainted AAP's image in Punjab. Infighting within its ranks is rampant, and often public.

But the AAP's ordeals in Punjab do not just end there. Kejriwal and AAP are being widely criticized in the national media these days for their lacklustre governance in Delhi. AAP is not helping its cause in Punjab by projecting itself as a blame-shifting political entity that appears to shirk accountability. The party is being increasingly associated with political grandstanding and outbursts, without any rigour or strategy towards impacting a meaningful change for the citizens. This impression is bound to hurt its prospects in Punjab in the upcoming elections.

AAP's identity, its unity, its leadership and its intentions in Punjab are all under the scanner as it erodes and breaks up internally, bit by bit.

On the other hand, the Congress in Punjab is trying to play it safe in Punjab but I don't think this will cut much ice given that it is struggling for survival at the national level too. Their campaign so far has lacked the "bite" that was needed to dethrone the Akalis or overpower AAP's influence.

"Playing it safe" does not distinguish the Congress party markedly enough from the Akalis in the eyes of the public of Punjab. To them, the Congress might just be the same devil in a different guise. If the Congress is serious about getting into power in Punjab, its needs to step up its call to action and speak to Punjabis in a language that is straight, factual, and credible. It will have to shun the bells and whistles associated with the political hierarchies in its ranks and reach out to the people on the ground. It has a real opportunity to succeed in Punjab, and in doing so perhaps it may revive brand Congress at a national level too. But there are way too many demons from its past haunting its image, and it will take major introspection and change for the Punjab Congress to redefine itself and make itself relevant again.

Awaaz-e-Punjab and any other minor outfits that may emerge in Punjab carry significant potential to dent the chances of the AAP and the Congress to dethrone the Akalis.

Punjab, historically, has been a two-party political set-up, yo-yoing between the Akalis and the Congress. However, times have changed. Riding on a wave of anti-incumbency against the Akalis, will not be enough to leap-frog the Congress into a position of power. The AAP started off well but is fast running out of steam and credibility. It still remains the dark horse, though, in Punjab. However, Awaaz-e-Punjab and any other minor outfits that may emerge in Punjab carry significant potential to dent the chances of the AAP and the Congress to dethrone the Akalis.

In the 2002 winter Olympics, Australian speed skater Stephen Bradbury won a gold medal not because he was the fastest in the race, but because he was the last man standing as all other opponents had fallen prior to reaching the finish line.

And in all this political mayhem, the Akalis may enjoy the same fate in Punjab in 2017. They may well be the "last man standing".

Memento Mori by Pablo Bartholomew

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