Elections 2019: No Bigger Loser Than Kejriwal’s AAP In Punjab And Across India

Tushar Gupta

May 22, 2019, 04:00 PM | Updated 03:58 PM IST

AAP convener Arvind Kejriwal campaigning in Punjab (Photo Credit: Sanjeev Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
AAP convener Arvind Kejriwal campaigning in Punjab (Photo Credit: Sanjeev Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
  • When the AAP managed to win four of the 21 seats in the three regions of Punjab, Chandigarh and New Delhi during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, it was thought that the party would pick up steam and get stronger as the days went by.
  • Instead, Arvind Kejriwal led the party into a self-destruct mode starting in 2018. How did the party go from hero to zero in a mere five years?
  • Before the first vote polled is counted in New Delhi, Punjab, and Chandigarh, the award for the biggest loser in this year’s political contest can be given to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) under the party president and current Delhi Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal.

    The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) combine and the Congress shall witness a decline in their vote share in certain areas in Punjab. However, it is the AAP that is staring at the figure of zero in the region that was to serve as a base for their political expansion.

    How did the party go from hero to zero in a mere five years?

    First Half: The Resurrections Between 2014 and 2017

    For most across India, the performance of AAP in the 2014 elections was a joke, and rightfully so. Having fielded 434 candidates in the 2014 general elections, the party saw 414 of them losing their deposits, that is, they were unable to secure even 1/6th of the vote in their respective constituencies.

    However, in Punjab, Delhi, and Chandigarh the joke was on the other parties, even though the AAP managed to win only four of the 21 seats in these three regions.

    In Chandigarh, where Gul Panag debuted with an impressive vote share of 24 per cent, the party lost to BJP’s Kirron Kher who was helped by the Modi wave. Pawan Kumar Bansal, the sitting MP from Chandigarh since 1999 saw his vote share down by 20.07 per cent. BJP won with the 42 per cent vote share, but it was AAP that had cut through the majority vote of the Congress.

    The story was similar across the seven seats in Delhi. While Congress’ vote share fell by over 42 per cent, AAP debuted with 32 per cent vote share, though they couldn’t manage to win a single seat.

    It was in Punjab that AAP got its great start. The SAD-BJP combine, in spite of the Modi wave, won only six of 13 seats. Even with the SAD-BJP running the state government, BJP managed only 8.70 per cent of the vote share while SAD managed only 26.30 per cent of the vote share. The fall in vote share for BJP and SAD was 1.36 and 7.55 per cent respectively. The Congress won only three seats with 33.10 per cent vote share, and even they saw a fall of 12.13 per cent in their vote share.

    AAP, on the other hand, won four seats, and debuted with a vote share of 24.40 per cent, second only to SAD. 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.

    HS Phoolka, a human rights activist instrumental in helping the victims of the 1984 Sikh-massacre in Delhi to get justice, almost won the fifth seat for the AAP from Ludhiana where his loss margin was 1.7 per cent of the total votes polled.

    In 2015, the Kejriwal-led AAP cruised through the assembly elections in Delhi, winning 67 out of 70 seats, the biggest in history. The mandate from the people of the region was clear; Modi for PM, but Kejriwal for CM. Kejriwal’s party had earned a political resurrection few could dream for after its foolish escape from Delhi in early 2014.

    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. This followed the exit of Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan, two other leaders, from the party. For the party unit in Punjab, this was a severe dent.

    Second, HS Phoolka, who was emerging as a credible face for the party leadership in the state was sidelined. As per some media reports back then, he was seen as a threat to Kejriwal’s authority within the party and Mann’s influence within the state. Instead, a relatively lesser-known figure, Sucha Singh, was elected as the party leader ahead of the 2017 state elections.

    Third, in the run-up to the Punjab state elections, when AAP gathered momentum in the early days of its campaign and was looking to get close to the halfway mark, they goofed up again.

    They compared their manifesto to the holy Sikh book, the Guru Granth Sahib. If that wasn’t enough, they imprinted the image of a broom over that of the Golden Temple on their manifesto cover. Making headlines for hurting religious sentiments, AAP was criticised across the state, and the cost of the mistake reflected in the final results as the following numbers show.

    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 was 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 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.

    Of the 14 seats where AAP’s loss margin was less than 10 per cent, 12 were won by the Congress, which had won a total of 77 seats. Even though many in Punjab were not convinced to give the AAP a majority, they saw it as a credible alternative, even after the blunders it had committed in the run-up to the state elections.

    This was the second political resurrection of Arvind Kejriwal in the region in less than three years since the 2013-14 Delhi assembly election, for they had now broken through the SAD-Congress domination in the state.

    Second Half: From Somewhere to Nowhere

    The results of the Punjab assembly election warranted an immediate reconciliation between the AAP leadership in Delhi and its estranged MPs and leaders in Punjab, as that would have served as an ideal start for the 2019 national elections campaign.

    The party should also have focussed on reviving the ground network established by Panag in her 2014 campaign in Chandigarh. While MP Kirron Kher was still struggling to get her political act together, a credible offering from AAP in 2017 itself could have helped their cause in 2019 in this Union Territory.

    Instead, Kejriwal led the party into a self-destruct mode starting in 2018. Citing Modi as the core reason for all his failures, he resorted to the same old cliches of 2013-14 to get attention. However, by now, his bag of tricks was exhausted, and so was the patience of the media and his voters. Finding his popularity erode, Kejriwal started looking for coalition partners, and by the end of 2018, it was clear that the party had no plan of action in Punjab or anywhere else.

    The dismal performance of their MPs has also been debated. In the recent India Today MP rankings, Mann from Sangrur ranked 364 amongst the 416 MPs evaluated. He was 8th out of the 9 MPs in his state. Sadhu Singh from Faridkot was ranked 412, and he was at the bottom of the state rankings. Khalsa, from Fatehgarh Sahib, was ranked 271 while Dharam Vira Gandhi, even with all his good intentions and humility, was ranked 281. Kher, even with the ground perception against her, managed an impressive ranking of 53.

    Today, Sadhu Singh is looking to retain his seat from Faridkot. However, there is no buzz around Singh or the AAP, and he is all set to lose. In Patiala, Gandhi is fighting from a different party but has a weak campaign. Interestingly, less than a week before the polls, many locals were unaware of his sacking from the AAP in 2015! Gandhi may put up a fight but is all set to lose to Preneet Kaur, wife of CM Amarinder Singh, and three-time MP from Patiala.

    Khalsa, from Fatehgarh Sahib, has deserted the AAP and has now joined the BJP. In Sangrur, Mann has some local support going for him and he could get second time lucky. However, he is up against stalwarts from the SAD and Congress so the victory might not be as easy as last time, assuming it happens.

    It is not only the MPs who have deserted AAP. In little over two years, the party has somehow managed to lose nine of its 20 MLAs in the state assembly. The disarray within the state unit is visible, and the party has been reduced to a shadow of itself. In the worst-case scenario---a plausible one---if the party loses Sangrur, it could see its remaining MLAs leave.

    Across the state of Punjab today, there is ample resentment against the ruling Congress government in the state and the SAD. However, even with all the anger, people will be voting their candidates to power in 2019. While SAD-BJP is expected to win 4-6 seats, the Congress will be eyeing a count of 7-9, for people no longer trust the AAP to further their local or state cause.

    AAP dropped the ball on being a credible alternative

    More than anywhere else, it is in Punjab, where the disappointment from the absence of any credible alternative to SAD and Congress is being felt. This is the space AAP was expected to fill back in 2014. Five years later, they have squandered that opportunity. This can be attributed to the following reasons.

    One, Kejriwal’s tendencies to micromanage the affairs from Delhi has hurt the state unit. The lack of decentralisation of power has not only alienated leaders in Delhi, but also Punjab. Between 2014 and 2019, the ground and volunteer network established during the national and assembly elections was lost due to infighting within the party.

    Two, the consistent sacking of MPs and MLAs for ‘anti-party activities’ has added to the trust deficit. Party leadership from Delhi has played one local leader against the other to ensure no power centre develops. This was evident last year when 8 MLAs defected from the AAP when the position of the leader of the opposition was changed.

    Three, Kejriwal’s recklessness is his greatest fall. For a party with 67 seats in the Delhi assembly, the mere idea of reaching out to the Congress for a coalition in the national elections was repulsive for its support base. Instead of carrying forward his agenda of clean governance, Kejriwal focussed on fighting the Modi wave. The move did not go down well with most in Punjab, for there are many who wish to see Singh as the CM and Modi as the PM.

    Four, for a state looking for industrial and economic growth, the AAP offers no vision. With most AAP leaders asking for votes in the name of saving democracy from the Modi-Shah duo, the party has become a laughing stock amongst the population. For many, the party is without ideas, intelligence, or identity.

    For any party with merely four seats in the Parliament, there is little to lose. Had the party corrected the mistakes it made before the 2017 elections in Punjab and concentrated their efforts on fighting 21 parliamentary seats in Punjab, Chandigarh, and New Delhi, they could have won at least 8-12 seats with ease. Following which, the party could have planned for the 2020 Delhi assembly elections, 2022 state elections in Punjab, and the national elections of 2024, while steadily expanding their network in states like Himachal Pradesh and Haryana.

    However, the party is now all set to go down from four to one, probably zero. Kejriwal, who claimed his party could win 400 seats in the 2014 national elections, shall now be hoping to win at least one seat, a downfall that makes Mayawati’s BSP look better.

    Turns out, there is no bigger loser than Kejriwal and the AAP in the elections of 2019, and a third political resurrection looks impossible.

    Tushar is a senior-sub-editor at Swarajya. He tweets at @Tushar15_

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