In 2002, India was up against England in the Natwest Series final, at the Lord’s in London. For England, Marcus Trescothick and Nasser Hussain scored a century each, and aided by a second fiddle in the form of Andrew Flintoff, the team stretched their total to 325. In reply, India had an unprecedented start with Virender Sehwag and Sourav Ganguly going all guns blazing, just as Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) did in 2014 in Punjab, winning four of the 13 Lok Sabha seats.
A stellar opening partnership was then followed by a collapse as Dinesh Mongia departed, and then Rahul Dravid, the equivalent of what happened to the party in the assembly elections of 2017. At 140-odd for four, India lost Sachin Tendulkar, its final hope, to an ordinary delivery from Ashley Giles, and all hope was lost, just as it was for AAP in 2019.
What followed was a story that would be recalled for generations to come. As Yuvraj Singh and Mohammad Kaif guided India home in the final over, spectators wondered if they could have ever seen a victory like this a couple of hours ago. Today, political observers are wondering if they could have anticipated a victory like this for AAP in Punjab, a couple of years ago, guided by Bhagwant Mann and Kejriwal.
AAP has not emerged as the single largest party with 40-odd seats, as many expected, nor have they managed a majority with low-margin victories in a four-way contest, but have decimated the Shiromani Akali Dal, Congress under Charanjit Singh Channi and Navjot Singh Sidhu, and Captain Amarinder Singh, a bet that did not pay off for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). At 90-odd seats, in a state assembly of 117 seats, Mann and Kejriwal have ushered a grand political reset many thought was impossible.
In politics, there are three Ps; personality, perception and policy. For long, Punjab’s politics were guided by personality, and thus, the Akalis and Congress under Captain Amarinder Singh had a dream run for almost two decades, even when they were out of power. However, after 10 years of misrule under the Akalis between 2007 and 2017, one that is remembered for industry exodus, uncontrollable corruption, and economic stagnation, and another four-odd year under the weak and saturated leadership of Captain Amarinder Singh, the demise of the personality cult only accelerated. The public humiliation of the Captain and a confused state unit torn between Sidhu and Channi only made matters worse for Congress.
As evident from the protests of the last two years, the policy is not even remotely an issue when it comes to the state of Punjab, no pun jab is intended. Thus, private sector participation, investments and technology were rejected to push the state towards an imminent ecological disaster, groundwater is being exhausted recklessly, and the soil fertility is going down faster than the state’s revenues. Direct cash transfers to the farmers for their crops procured at minimum support price (MSP) is protested, stubble burning that chokes the entire National Capital Region is claimed as a fundamental right, along with an endless supply of electricity, fertilisers. Economic drain in the form of migration to Canada, Australia, and Europe is hailed as an achievement of status. Therefore, when Kejriwal and Mann, riding on the freebie sleigh arrive, they are welcomed, even when the state debt is to the tunes of Rs 2.8 lakh crore.
And this leaves us with perception, where the AAP has scored big. Without an economic model, they have sold the imaginary Delhi model of governance, the success of which was visible during the first wave in June-July 2020, when Kejriwal vacated the responsibility of the city to the Home Minister, and then again in the Delta wave, when the Delhi CM had to be bailed out by the Centre on everything, from oxygen cylinders to hospital beds. However, what they had was an emotion to sell, similar to the one they sold in Delhi in 2015, and this emotion, gift-wrapped in freebies, created a perception that enabled the voters to believe that Kejriwal and Mann were the change they had been yearning for since 2017. Cut to 10 March 2022, and voila!
This is an AAP sweep in every way. What began as a four-way contest, with caste-dynamics in play, personalities looking to resurrect themselves from political oblivion, or eccentric leaders overplaying their hand ended as the biggest victory for the dark knight, for a party that lost all its deposits but one (Sangrur) in 2019. The Dalit Sikhs rejected Channi, the Jat Sikhs chose not to reward the Akalis for their melodramatic exit from the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the Hindus did not buy the Khalistan narrative, rendering the political stunt by Kejriwal’s former aide, Kumar Vishwas, futile. Parkash Singh Badal lost. Sukhbir Singh Badal lost. Navjot Singh Sidhu lost. Bikram Singh Majithia lost. Charanjit Singh Channi lost, from both the seats. Tonight, AAP can celebrate with the Patiala peg, Amritsari naan, Jalandhar’s famous chicken.
The BJP has lost, yes, but they were never in the game, to begin with. Perhaps, this is a good time to start afresh in the state, poach some fallen soldiers from the Akalis and the Congress, and play the long game, aiming for small gains in 2024, and the state itself in 2027. If the AAP can come back from losing its MLAs in 2017-18, deposits in 2019 to win 90-odd in 2022, why can’t the BJP. For Akalis, the defeat of Badal Senior will sting, but what will hurt more is the loss of its dedicated vote bank, and that too when they are without NDA. For Captain Amarinder Singh, ideally, it should be curtains. If the king can’t secure his fort, the kingship is lost. For Sidhu and Channi, a fresh start may appear plausible, but within the same party, is highly unlikely.
The question that remains is only of national security, for the presence of the AAP in a border state does leave many worrying, but that’s for another day. There will be questions of what economic model can the party employ in a state that is struggling, but that’s for another day. There will be the question of Mann being the first leader in the AAP with more constitutional power than Kejriwal, but the consequences of it are a subject for another day. There will be the question of Akalis and the BJP uniting again, but that’s for another election. Tonight, it’s all about the great political reset. Tonight, in Punjab, it’s all about AAP.
It’s not an outcome many would be happy about, factoring the best interests of the state, but the dance of democracy must go on.
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