31/01/2017 7:56 PM IST | Updated 31/01/2017 8:35 PM IST

AAP Is Creating A Buzz In Punjab, But The Missing Chief Ministerial Face Haunts Its Campaign

It's a bipolar contest in Punjab between AAP and a robust Congress; Akali-BJP combine is staring at a rout.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images

The anger against the Badal family, and consequently the ruling Akali Dal-BJP combine, explodes with frightening ferocity. "Ae te vapas nai andene (they aren't coming back)." The refrain is unanimous from Amritsar through Badal territory in the Malwa region all the way to Chandigarh. And it's said with a finality that brooks no debate.

In the weeks since the election dates were announced and the model code of conduct enforced, the mood in Punjab has galloped from subterranean dissatisfaction with the present regime to openly expressed revulsion and disgust at the manner in which one family controls all the levers of power and money. It is evident even in a whistle-stop three-day road trip through the state that the Akali-BJP alliance could face the kind of electoral rout that hit the Congress in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls after ten years of UPA rule.

Till the election process began, it was widely assumed that a triangular contest was brewing between the Akali-BJP, the Congress and Arvind Kejriwal's Aam Aadmi Party, throwing up predictions of a hung assembly. But as the February 4 polling date nears, the Akali-BJP combine seems to be falling off the election map. The Battle for Punjab 2017 has turned into a straight fight between the Congress and AAP.

AAP brings a breath of fresh air with a heady promise of change. And change is what people want.

Only the very brave, or a fool, would risk a prediction. Few elections in Punjab have been so keenly contested or so close to call. On the face of it, the Congress would seem to have the edge. The party's vote base remains largely intact and it's still formidable even though the Congress has been out of power for a decade. Despite losing the 2012 assembly election, it bagged 40.9% of the popular vote. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, its vote share fell but did not go below 33%. That's a big number and with the Congress in contention to form the next government, a chunk of the votes it lost two years ago are likely to come back.

The Congress in Punjab is very much alive and kicking, unlike in states like UP, Bihar and Tamil Nadu where it is almost invisible. The party's robust health means AAP has a lot of ground to cover to win. AAP got 24% of the votes in the Lok Sabha elections two years ago when it won 4 seats. Since then, the party has split multiple times and lost some of its well known and influential local leaders.

But as Kejriwal has proved in Delhi twice over, he should not be underestimated. He sprang a surprise in the 2013 Delhi assembly election when his fledgling party, contesting its first polls, came second and stopped the BJP from winning a majority. And then in the 2015 assembly poll, he wiped out both his opponents, to win 67 of Delhi assembly's 70 seats.

Today, there's a buzz about AAP in Punjab, a state weary of the feudal, corrupt politics of mainstream parties. The Akali Dal and the Congress, which have dominated the political landscape for decades, are seen as two sides of the same coin. AAP brings a breath of fresh air with a heady promise of change. And change is what people want. The challenge for AAP is to convert the buzz into votes and then into seats.

The fight between a party seen as the ancient regime and the new kid on the block has thrown up interesting battle lines that are almost unique in India where elections are often fought on the basis of caste and creed. Mandate 2017 in Punjab is a battle between the haves and the have nots. The demographics of the support base of the two main contenders show a clear class divide.

Congress strategists acknowledge that AAP is going strong in areas dominated by the Scheduled Castes.

The establishment, consisting of traders, shopkeepers, businessmen, middle classes and urban residents, is solidly with the Congress. These groups are worried that an AAP government could upset their applecart and shake things up. Stories from Delhi, especially reports of the constant bickering between the AAP government and the Centre, have served to deepen these fears. And the turmoil in the party in Punjab in the last few months, which led to the exit of a number of people including the convenor Sucha Singh Chhotepur, has strengthened charges by its opponents that AAP means anarchy, not governance.

None of these issues matter lower down the socio-economic ladder. The concerns of the establishment completely bypass vast swathes of the rural poor who in 2017 still have patchy access to metal roads, piped clean drinking water and proper sanitation. Civil society activist Manjinder Singh aka Pappi, based in Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal's assembly constituency of Lambi, laments that most villages in the area have to depend on tankers to bring them drinking water. "This is when Badal has been chief minister for the last ten years," he exclaims in disgust.

Congress strategists acknowledge that AAP is going strong in areas dominated by the Scheduled Castes. This is particularly evident in Malwa which has as many as 69 seats but even in Punjab's smallest region, Doaba, with just 23 seats, there is visible support for AAP among the SC groups. It's an important demographic for Kejriwal's party because Punjab has the highest SC population at 32 %.

AAP's chief weakness is that it does not have a chief ministerial face. Captain Amarinder Singh, who was finally declared the CM candidate of the Congress just a week before polling, remains a popular figure despite his royal ways and his feudal style of functioning. On the other side, there is only Kejriwal who announced that he will not leave Delhi to shift to Punjab. So who will be CM if AAP pulls off a victory? The question haunts its campaign.

Significantly, the Congress is banking heavily on Amarinder Singh's popularity. It is interesting that there are virtually no hoardings or posters bearing photographs of the party's holy trinity of Sonia Gandhi, Rahul and Manmohan Singh. The Captain's face dominates everywhere.

"The AAP concept has become a part of Punjab's imagination," says political science professor at Guru Nanak University Jagrup Singh Sekhon. But with a buoyant Congress on the other side, can Kejriwal pull it off? Few in Punjab were willing to answer the question.