Another state election, and another instance of the ‘Kejriwal Conundrum’. Addressing a group of supporters in Mohali in November 2021, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal encountered a political puzzle. Cheering the candidacy of Sangrur Lok Sabha Member of Parliament (MP) Bhagwant Mann for the upcoming Punjab Assembly elections as a potential chief minister, a section of the crowd interrupted Kejriwal, leaving him fuming on the stage.
On being rescued by Mann who requested the crowd to boil down the cheerleading, Kejriwal promised that the party’s chief ministerial candidate would be from the state, would be a Sikh, and yet, he remained non-committal on the name of his only Lok Sabha MP from Punjab. For Mann, those couple of minutes of confusion were enough to demonstrate his hold on the state unit, and what it could cost Kejriwal if he refused him the candidacy. In Delhi, Kejriwal may have control, but in Punjab, it was Mann calling the shots.
AAP’s political journey in Punjab has been a series of ups and downs so far. They started in 2014, winning four of the 13 seats to the Lok Sabha. The party debuted with a vote share of 24.40 per cent. From Patiala, Dharam Vira Gandhi won. From Sangrur, it was Bhagwant Mann. From Faridkot, it was Sadhu Singh, and from Fatehgarh Sahib, it was Harinder Singh Khalsa. However, a series of blunders followed this victory. First, two of the four MPs, Gandhi and Khalsa, were suspended for anti-party activities in early 2015.
The four seats won in the 2014 parliamentary elections covered 36 assembly seats. Adding the Ludhiana Lok Sabha constituency, where AAP had lost by only 1.76 per cent of the total votes polled in 2014, there were a total of 45 assembly seats (out of 117) where the AAP could have quickly capitalised on their popularity and the existing ground network. In fact, most opinion polls in 2017 gave them more than 40 seats, some even went to the extent of giving them a majority in the state assembly.
However, the AAP could only manage to win 20 seats, and yet, their count was more than that of the SAD-BJP put together (18), thus making them the largest party in the opposition in the state assembly. Even with a below-par result, an underlying current of AAP’s emergence was visible.
Of the 117 seats contested in the state, 31 seats had a victory margin between 0.5 and 5 per cent, and 22 between 5 and 10 per cent. Of those 31 seats, AAP had lost in 7. Of the 22 seats, AAP had lost in another 7. In some places, the party came second by losing as little as 0.43 per cent of the total votes polled. Thus, even with some misfortune, the party had successfully broken through the SAD-BJP dominance in the state, and these were some ominous signs for other parties in the state for the upcoming elections of 2019.
Yet, a debacle of epic proportions followed in the state, merely two years after a stellar state-level debut, and the party could win only one seat, that in Sangrur, of Bhagwant Mann. Compared to 2014, the party’s vote share went down by more than 17 per cent to around 7.38 per cent. Apart from Mann, all the remaining party contestants lost their deposits. In Ludhiana, where a million-odd votes were cast, AAP voters lead NOTA voters by merely 5,000-odd votes.
Come 2021, and a lot has changed on the ground. Congress, six-months ago were looking as favourites to win the election under chief minister Amarinder Singh before the leadership in 10 Janpath decided to spice up things, only to end up snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Today, Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi, facing flak for a number of issues, faces his biggest opposition in state party chief, Navjot Singh Sidhu, the other Congress aspirant for the job beyond 2022.
The farmers’ protest has dented the prospects of the BJP, and even with Captain Amarinder Singh on their side, the party would need the Akalis to come back to the NDA fold, and for the four major parties (BJP, PLC, SAD, BSP) to put together their muscle and ensure they reach the magic number 59 in the state legislative assembly. While BSP can be dismissed as the weak link in the larger scheme of things here, in an election as close as this one, and with so many contenders, even a couple of thousand votes here and there can swing things.
The undercurrent for AAP is quite visible, for the state is yearning for a change. They feel duped by the Akalis after the misgovernance across 10 years between 2007 and 2017 that ushered corruption and further dented development. Congress’ infighting and Captain’s departure has only added to the party’s woes, and with BJP not being a prominent choice amongst 60 per cent of the population in the state, it is AAP that is filling that void of desire for change. Ideally, it should have been the BJP, but the protests have changed that.
For any emerging party, this would have been good news, but for Kejriwal, the situation presents itself as an unwanted conundrum. If he does not announce Mann as the chief ministerial candidate, he will lose the state, and if he does, and if the party does end up reaching the magic number, he would be faced with an equal within the party, or perhaps, a bit more than an equal, for Mann, as the chief minister, would be able to exercise authority that Kejriwal, as the Delhi Chief Minister, constitutionally cannot.
The success would also be a validation for Mann’s political stature, further adding to the insecurities of Kejriwal, who in the nine-odd years of his party’s existence, has never tolerated an equal.
Already, the party is encountering enough troubles in the state over ticket distribution. In Jalandhar last week, rumours surfaced of a party leader being involved in a brawl over ticket distribution.
Earlier today (10 January), in a press conference, AAP leaders from Mohali alleged that the party leadership was choosing to give tickets to people they had poached from other parties, leaving the existing workers betrayed. Even though the party has announced candidates for almost all its seats, an imminent infighting threatens the party’s fortunes, combined with Kejriwal’s insecurities about Mann's rise.
So, what’s next?
For now, Kejriwal may have to count on Mann to contest the elections, and by some miracle, if the party does attain the magic number, the Delhi Chief Minister could be trusted to engineer a situation where he presents himself as the chief minister of Punjab.
For a politician who could market Mann’s quitting of alcohol as a significant political sacrifice, to cite the cause of the state and the party to make the eternal sacrifice of the Delhi Chief Minister’s post, is no difficult affair. Mann could be reduced to a deputy-Chief Minister, with Manish Sisodia running the affairs of Delhi, and employing all the melodrama and theatrics known to Kejriwal, a political adjustment would be ushered in.
Interestingly, in one of his interviews post-exit from the party, Kumar Vishwas stated how Kejriwal wanted to dump Delhi for Punjab in 2017 as well, using similar tactics. The question is can he do it again?
Tushar is a senior-sub-editor at Swarajya. He tweets at @Tushar15_
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