Can AAP disrupt the Congress, Akali-BJP gameplan in 2017?

AAP Prepares for Punjab Polls

AAP Prepares for Punjab Polls

All eyes are on AAP as it continues to make inroads in Punjab in preparation of 2017 Assembly polls. The big question is can AAP really disrupt and take on the well-entrenched Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) – BJP combine on one side, and a resurgent Congress on the other?

Both Akali-BJP camp and the Congress have been too busy taking on each other over the years to notice a rank outsider like AAP sneak into the Punjab hinterland and start to connect with the rural folk in more ways than they have been credited for. Balwant Mann is a very good example. In 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the popular comedian was dismissed as a political joke, someone who could make the rural folk laugh, but not get them to vote for him.

Local Akali strongman from Sangrur Sukhdev Dhindsa and the sitting MP from Congress at the time, Vijay Inder Singla, learnt the hard way, when Bhagwant Maan came from behind to beat both in their own backyard. Out of 13 Lok Sabha seats, AAP won 4, SAD won 4, INC settled with 3 and BJP scored 2.

Although this was for the Lok Sabha, the results reflected the people’s mood against the traditional dispensation. And in 2017, anti-incumbency is going to be a major challenge for the SAD-BJP combine.

So what is the prevailing political situation in Punjab?

With two consecutive terms, the SAD-BJP faces anti-incumbency and people are unhappy with increasing drug-alcohol problem that is sweeping the state. The last ten years have seen more people getting addicted and blame the government for not doing enough to fight the problem. This, along with the general perception of increasing corruption, makes SAD-BJP’s chances tough in 2017.

INC stands convinced on their chances

Congress on the other hand has been patiently waiting for anti-incumbency to play out against the ruling coalition and has not missed a chance of accusing the ruling party of corruption and nepotism. So much so that Capt. Amrinder Singh is now even more confident of his party’s chances with Manpreet Singh Badal of People’s Party of Punjab (PPP), chief and nephew of the current CM Prakash Singh Badal of SAD, merging with INC.

Capt. Amrinder Singh is on record for having stated that had PPP joined hands with INC during the 2012 Assembly elections, INC would have come to power since it lost by just 0.8% votes, whereas, Manpreet Badal’s PPP garnered 5% of the total votes.

While, Capt. Amrinder Singh seems to be focusing on numbers against SAD-BJP combine and banking on rising anti-incumbency against the ruling coalition, it will be prudent for the party to factor in AAP, as the potential party spoiler.

AAP – the dark horse

The AAP party cadres have been working overtime at the grassroots level, especially in rural Punjab, and have been able to connect with people at all levels, presenting a serious alternate to both Congress and SAD-BJP.

AAP’s biggest strength is the age group between 18-25 years, where it has the largest support base. When this is added to vote banks like Hindu OBC and Hindu Upper Caste votes, it forms a formidable segment overall. This is also the segment that is most open to an alternate government in the state, as against the traditional Congress or Akali-BJP option.

Separating Arvind Kejriwal from AAP

The AAP’s biggest strength is also its biggest weakness in Punjab, Arvind Kejriwal. AAP grew out of an anti-establishment, anti-corruption movement and Arvind Kejriwal emerged as a refreshing alternate that presented hope to aspiring youths across India. Soon Arvind Kejriwal became the giant killer in electoral politics, slaying both the all-conquering BJP and a vacillating Congress, and this was most evident in Delhi, which surprised the nation and gave people a serious option to traditional political parties.

The problem is that Arvind Kejriwal has built his persona around the AAP in a way that today AAP is Kejriwal and Kejriwal is AAP. No other leader has been nurtured who can be presented as a serious CM contender in any state. And this is going to be AAP’s greatest challenge in Punjab.

Across the state, Kejriwal continues to be presented as the face of the party, with no other candidate positioned as a potential CM. Like Modi in Bihar, he, too, is going to lead his party’s efforts in Punjab, but the common man still doesn’t know who will be the party’s choice for CM. Both Capt. Amrinder Singh and Prakash Singh Badal, are well known, popular, and have their own political base. So who can AAP present to take on these two stalwarts?

AAP has just Balwant Maan and possibly Sucha Singh Chottepur, but as Bihar showed, the last Lok Sabha performance is no guarantee of success in the Assembly polls. Arvind Kejriwal’s foot soldiers in the state have been giving positive feedback on the party’s chances, and that may well be the case, but if AAP cannot put up a credible face as the CM candidate, the people may just go along with someone they are familiar with. Balwant Maan may be popular enough to win the Lok Sabha seat, riding on the back of his humour and people connect, but does he have the same clout across the state to take his party to victory, remains an open question.

Social media working for and against AAP in Punjab

The AAP has taken a leaf out of BJP’s 2014 poll strategy, in using social media to reach out to a targeted audience. For that matter, all parties have been trying to emulate BJP’s social media strategy which has had mixed results for different parties in different states.

In Punjab, AAP began using social media to get Kejriwal’s message across and with some success, but recently, SAD has been equally active in taking on various members of AAP, much to the amusement of the general public that has been watching both sides go at each other.

It is hurting, as can be seen by Balwant Maan and his colleague Himmat Singh Shergil protesting against the vicious campaign launched against them on social media, ostensibly by SAD supporters. The AAP is beginning to realize that social media is a double-edged sword and they will have to come up with more innovative ways to take on SAD-BJP or for that matter, the Congress, if it fancies a real chance to come to power in Punjab.

As 2017 elections come closer, expect the heat between the rival triad of SAD-BJP, INC and AAP, go up several notches.