How The AAP Won Punjab: Harjeshwar Pal Singh

 This is a guest post by HARJESHWAR PAL SINGH

Amidst the unprecedented Tsunami of Modi which swept away opposition in most of the country, one result stood out as truly exceptional. AAM AADMI PARTY’s (AAP) stunning debut in Punjab. The virtually unheard of party in Punjab even 5 months before won 4 Parliamentary seats out of 13 and secured 25% of the popular vote announcing itself to be an equal of the ruling SAD/BJP combine and the opposition Congress. Two of its candidates Bhagwant Maan (Sangrur) and Prof Sadhu Singh (Faidkot ) won with a stunning margin of over 2 lakhs and 1.7 lakhs respectively. This popular groundswell of support which was ignored by most political analysts, conventional media and political parties had begun to take visible form through buzz on the street, social media and in common discourse by the election day.

What explains this massive upsurge by a fledgling political outfit lacking money, muscle, men and a local organization to humble two of the most well equipped political machines -SAD/BJP and Congress?

Historically such spontaneous popular mass upsurges are not infrequent in Punjab. Banda Bahadur led mass insurrection in the period 1708-17, the rising of Punjab during the Rowlett Act and Jallianwala bagh episodes, followed by the Akali agitation for Gurudwara reform in the 1920s, the militancy inspired 1989 electoral insurgency which decimated conventional Akali’s and Congress are some of the examples of these popular rebellions. These upsurges are generally in reaction to extreme repression by arrogant rulers -despotic, colonial, and democratic during periods of intense crisis in the respective societies.

What was unmistakable in this “wave ” in favour of AAP was that it was a case of severe “anti-incumbency ” against the personalized rule of the Badal’s-Parkash Singh Badal(Chief minister), Sukhbir Singh Badal (deputy CM and son of Parkash Singh Badal) and Bikram Singh Majithia (brother in law of Sukhbir) particularly its Sukhbir model which relied on money, muscle and coercion to silence, buy and repress any dissent in the state .

Under the veneer of development and progress propagated through a pliant local media headed by the family owned PTC channel, rested an edifice of “jathedars” allegedly headed by Sukhbir and his brother in law Bikram Majithia who had unleashed terror at political opponents,forcibly usurped cable and transport networks and promoted goons and mafia which monopolised “reta ” – “bajri” (sand and concrete) and liquor Vends and sold these at exorbitant prices to the consumers. More insidiously smack and synthetic drugs were sold freely in the state which as a former DGP Mr Shashi Kant has disclosed included a galaxy of ruling and opposition congress politicians. Land Mafia’s ruled the roost in the state while ordinary corruption by police, revenue department, tax officers, govt offices proliferated and remained unchecked.

The populism of the Badal’s in the form of free electricity, atta -dal and “sangat darshans ” took a heavy toll on the states finances leading to stalled development works, potholed roads, and delayed salaries and pensions to the state employees. The state’s effort to replenish its coffers through the levying of the property tax, increasing VAT, high taxes on marriage palaces angered the public particularly with the Badal’s burning public money flying around in helicopters, buying expensive cars, deploying massive security and holding jamborees like the Kabaddi World Cup. All this led to severe disaffection and anger against the ruling party in most sections of Punjab’s society leading to a severe crisis of credibility for the ruling Badal’s.

Normally the main opposition party INC (Indian National Congress ) would have reaped the reward of such an anti-incumbency but the party itself was fighting incumbency against its own scam tainted, rudderless and incompetent central government. Moreover, the Punjab PCC, out of power for the last 7 years is hopelessly factionalised, demoralised and facing the regular ignominy of flight of its own leaders and cadres to SAD.

Though to its credit it did put its house in order on the eve of elections and pitted all its heavyweights against SAD/BJP particularly in Amritsar, Bathinda,Gurdaspur, Ferozepur, Patiala and Anandpur Sahib. This strategy particularly confined both SAD and Congress in the two prestigious constituencies of Amritsar where the BJP heavyweight Arun Jaitley was challenged by the charismatic former CM and Patiala royal Captain Amarinder Singh and Bathinda where the wife of Sukhbir Badal, Harsimrat kaur Badal was engaged in an epic family feud with Sukhbir’s estranged cousin Manpreet Singh Badal who fought on a Congress ticket.

The two main parties of Punjab SAD and INC through intense competition and social engineering in the last 15 years have become almost an exact replica of each other. The stress on winning ability and pragmatism has ensured that the INC under Captain Amarinder Singh courted many of the radical Sikhs and rural peasantry and brought them under his sway, one of those radicals Harminder Gill was the candidate of INC from Khadoor sahib in this election. At the same time, Sukhbir has been regularly promoting and courting Hindu and Dalit leaders into the party, many of whom like NK Sharma, Parkash Chand Garg and Pawan Kumar Tinu won during the last assembly elections. Also traditional “Panthic Element ” in SAD and “Taksali Congressmen” have been ignored and bypassed by turncoats, moneybags and family dynasts often under the rhetoric of “winning ability” causing deep distress and apathy among the traditional cadres of the two main parties.

This has resulted in virtually identical social bases for the two parties. Moreover structures of both remained centralized and personalized dominated by Dynasts, Moneybags and Musclemen both at State and Constituency levels. At all levels, intense factionalism prevails and leaders and cadres routinely switch sides and vote against their own parties with little fear of any penalization. The defectors are often rehabilitated before the next elections. All this has eroded the traditional stable vote banks of the parties, blurred ideological distinctions and made voters and ordinary cadres intensely disillusioned with both parties making them more susceptible to secede to an alternative.

Another distinctive feature of Punjab which helped in the AAP upsurge was that there was no discernible “Modi wave” in the state which halted AAP ‘s progress in other states. Despite the desperate SOS’s by SAD /BJP to Modi which resulted in 5 rallies of Narender Modi at the fag end of the Punjab campaign, it made little difference in the end except perhaps in the two hindu dominated constituencies which BJP won-Gurdaspur and Hoshiarpur. Most of Punjab’s Hindu’s are moderate and Hindutva politics have little appeal here plus Modi means little to the Sikh majority who see him with a bit of unease despite his promotion by the SAD. BJP leaders of Punjab have little following and are perceived to be as corrupt as the Akali’s.Whatever the enthusiasm among the Upper caste urban hindu’s for Modi was more than offset by the support of a substantial section of radical Sikhs to AAP.

Caste, an important factor in Indian elections too has mattered little in the state except in some pockets, party identification has been traditionally strong and parties like BSP which rely on caste have not made much headway in the state. Despite Punjab having more than 32% Dalit population, highest in India (BSP support base remain in 4-5% bracket,which seems to have further shrunk to 2% in this election).Similarly, Jatts remain divided between SAD and INC often shifting allegiance with shift of power. Two of the main impeding structures in Indian politics -religion and caste were therefore, not that formidable barrier for AAP to overcome and taste electoral success in Punjab. Thus, the political situation was ripe for AAP to strike a root in Punjab.

The stunning and spectacular success of AAP in Delhi in December 2013 elections without using money and muscle or appeals to caste, religion and region and the indomitable spirit and daring of its chief Arvind Kejriwal evoked interest all over India including Punjab.

Punjabi society and popular culture has special affiliation with heroic, selfless individuals sacrificing for a higher cause. Punjabi self-perception and consciousness is especially receptive to such people as the popular reverence for Guru Teg Bahadur, Guru Gobind Singh, Bhagat Singh, Udham Singh etc. testifies who by endless glorification and rememberence in folklore,literature and popular culture have become a permanent part of Punjab’s collective conscience.Routinely in villages and cities the author found people comparing Kejriwal with Bhagat singh and even Guru sahib .

This identification with Kejriwal and AAP was further strengthened by the 49 day AAP rule in Delhi and later when Kejriwal took some of the Sikh /Punjab specific issues mainly establishing a SIT to probe 1984 Delhi riots, taking up the case of punjabi Farmers settled in Gujarat, opposing death penalty to Devinder Pal Bhullar etc. Incidentally, the two groups most enthused by these issues the Youth And the radical sections of the Sikhs were the most overt, visible and vociferous supporters of AAP In the recent elections.

Moreover the promise of AAP, its partial success in Delhi and its messianic zeal and intention to curb corruption, reestablish probity and austerity in public life, insistence on transparent funding and more participatory form of politics struck a deep chord in almost all sections of Punjabi society especially it’s educated and urban class who could contrast it well with the heavy handed, ostentatious and corrupt ways of the SAD govt.

NRI ‘s (Non-resident Indians) from Punjab are a substantial section of its population, may be upto 10% of the population having links and influence in each and every village and locality of the province. Their influence in Punjab’s politics has only grown over the years with increase in numbers and communication technologies. From supporting sectarian outfits like the Khalistani’s in the 80s and 90s ,these NRI’s mostly settled in USA ,Canada ,UK ,Western Europe and of late in Australia ,Italy and Newzealand have of late given their support to mainly anti SAD political parties like the Amarinder led Punjab Congress and Manpreet Badal led PPP. Ever since the Delhi polls they have largely shifted their support to AAP especially the educated youth and radical Sikh part of the diaspora.

Another factor contributing to the success of AAP was its selection of candidates for the Lok Sabha elections in Punjab.The iconic crusader for justice to the victims of 1984, Mr H.S. Phoolka was selected from Ludhiana, the socially conscientious comedian Bhagwant Maan was made the candidate from Sangrur, two locally embedded doctors renowned for social service Dr. Dharamveer Gandhi and Dr. Daljit Singh were given tickets from Patiala and Amritsar respectively. Locally popular politician Sucha Singh Chottepur and academician Sadhu Singh were candidates from Gurdaspur and Faridkot respectively.Former IFS Harinder Singh Khalsa stood from Fatehgarh sahib while the internationally acclaimed exponent of Gurmat Sangeet Bhai Baldeep Singh was the candidate from Khadoor sahib. These candidates, most of them self-made, educated, having clean images and engaged with the public cause further established the trust of AAP with the Punjabi’s .

Incidentally, the candidates of the two other major parties included the usual family Dynasts like Parneet kaur, Captain Amrinder Singh, Harsimrat’s Kaur Badal, Ravneet Bittu, career politicians like Prem Singh chandumajra, Sadhu Singh Dharamsot, Ranjit Singh Brahmpoora, dodgy businessmen like Kulwant Singh and hugely unpopular incumbents like Paramjit Kaur Gulshan. Incidentally a survey by the Delhi based ADR(Association Of Democratic Rights) of 525 MP’s of the current Lok Sabha revealed that 6 of the worst 10 MP’s were from Punjab .

The astute use of symbol’s by AAP -“Jharoo” as a symbol of cleansing the system appealed to Dalits and housewives, caps with “AAM AADMI ” emblazoned on them were grabbed with enthusiasm and donned with alacrity by the children , youth and the elder.All party offices were running short of caps at most times,such was the demand for them. Energetic sloganeering like “Bête da na Baap da, Punjab hai aap da”(Punjab does not belong to son or father,but to AAP rather ) ,”Bhukki naan daaru nun,mohar launnii jharoo nun “(neither to poppy husk nor to alchohol,our vote goes to the broom) helped to attract notice and support for the new party.

As the campaign unfolded three main forces -message, medium and method acted in synergy. The message –strong and powerful about the uniqueness and novelty of AAP’s approach to politics and its contrast with the corrupt, nepotistic practices of the two main parties was propagated relentlessly over the social media and through door to door campaigns by volunteers both NRI and locals to the public in Punjab.

One unique aspect of AAP, first seen in Delhi and repeated in Punjab was that its impact is hard to measure by conventional tools to gauge the popular political mood. AAP was conspicuous by its absence on hoardinga and billboards. It did not get much space in newspapers and electronic media who largely shunned the party and instead focused disproportionately on the Amrinder-Jaitley slugfest at Amritsar,ultimately won comfortably by the Patiala royal by over 1 Lakh votes. There were no giant rallies favoured by the likes of Narender Modi and Rahul Gandhi. The party was even absent from most of the polling booths in the state. Additionally in Punjab, the organization and volunteer base of the party was too small and under resourced to take on the enormous task at its hand. Inadequate time and fear of reprisal by the ruling party ensured that much of its support remained covert.

What it lacked in ground support it made up more than that with its dominance of the air space particularly internet and social media .The exponential growth in sale of internet enabled cheap smartphones in the last 2-3 years has ensured that most youngsters and middle class in urban and some even in rural areas have access to these new media.Facebook is reported to have almost 40 lakh users of Punjab mostly young,educated and NRI.Whatsapp is equally popular and has penetrated even among sections of the rural dalit population.

Volunteers both India and abroad used Facebook, Youtube and Whatsapp to the maximum extent, relentlessly bombarding them with AAP propaganda .Social media saw full expression of the energy and creativity of AAP volunteers and supporters as photo shopped images,personalised appeals ,catchy songs and Bhagwant maan speeches brought to the people the message of AAP highlighting its programme,vision and achievements while mercilessly vilifying the Badal’s often to the extent of slander.The carefully cultivated image of the ruling party leaders Parkash Singh Badal ,as the elder statesman,Sukhbir,the visionary messiah of development ,Majithia as the energetic youth force “majhe da jarnail” (general of majha area) were deconstructed on social media with telling effect.Senior Badal was shown as a hapless Dhiratrashtra like figure,Sukhbir as a drug addict and congenital liar and Majithia was portrayed as an arrogant villain behind all shady deals These were shared, played and discussed fervently even in the remotest villages where enthusiastic youngsters played them up for the elders in the village “Saths” (Chaupal)

Bhagwant maan, the comedian turned politician who stood on an AAP ticket from Sangrur emerged as the real hero of this elections. His emotion laden, earthy wit laced with irony and pathos managed to strike an instant rapport with his audience and shared over the social media helped in swaying the youngsters to AAP’s side all over the state. The fervent enthusiasm and support of the young was there for all to see who anecdotal evidence suggested had rebelled large scale against their families’ traditional preference for SAD/BJP or Congress and even campaigned, cajoled and coerced them to vote for AAP.

NRI’s provided the final blast to the campaign. In the last 15 days of the campaign they relentlessly called their families, relatives and friends in Punjab to vote for AAP and the party which initially seemed to be restricted in urban areas and some selected seats like Sangrur, Patiala ,Ludhiana etc suddenly spread like a wave even in rural and semi-urban parts of the state. They also donated liberally to the party candidates and volunteers.

The volunteers though less in number on the ground compared to Delhi put in Herculean effort through door to door campaigns, pamphlet distribution, content creation, coordinating effort ,fund raising etc. Computer Engineers and College lecturers, University students and unemployed youth, retired and old, Hindu and Sikh, peasants and shopkeepers galvanized support for the party often with a messianic zeal. In the final days, lack of volunteers was more than compensated by word of mouth publicity and ordinary voters campaigning and spreading the word on behalf of AAP.

In contrast to the common population the deafening silence, lukewarm response and even hostility of the intellectuals and literary class of Punjab towards AAP was jarring .Some of the popular Punjabi singers like Diljeet,Gippy Grewal ,Harbhajan Maan ,Miss Pooja,Jazzy Bains etc who sang paeans to the achievements of the “Badal Sarkar” were mercilessly dealt on social media particularly by NRI’s and youth, their core fan following.Most of them had to make abject apologies to their infuriated fan base.

Road shows were the favoured method of campaign by the candidates and national leaders like Arvind kejriwal and Yogender Yadav in Punjab unlike the huge rallies staged by conventional parties backed up by their formidable organizational and financial muscle .Cost effective, interactive and covering more ground in less time these proved no less effective than the traditional rallies.

In contrast to AAP, campaign of both INC and SAD/BJP appeared to be lackluster and their cadre lacked vitality and enthusiasm outside the two gladiatorial contests at Amritsar and Bathinda further leaving the field open for AAP and its campaign in Punjab. The success of AAP is much more remarkable in a way in Punjab compared to Delhi because here it was a complete outsider with no social base or organization prior to the elections.Moreover it lacked charismatic local leadership except Bhagwant Maan. It also depended upon largely a symbolic organization and was devoid of the army of volunteers as well as visible street power of Delhi .Also, it lacked time and resources to cover the much more scattered rural population than a compact urban city like Delhi to which AAP’s voluntary door to door style is more suited.

The Punjab success demonstrates that the AAP phenomenon is here to stay and can be tweaked according to local circumstances .This surely is a sign for succour for the beleagured new party who everyone is writing off at the moment.

[Harjeshwar Pal Singh is an Assistant Professor in History at Sri Guru Gobind Singh College, Chandigarh. He is a student of politics and history and writes in a popular facebook group Siyasat on issues of politics,history and contemporary society.]

8 thoughts on “How The AAP Won Punjab: Harjeshwar Pal Singh

  1. Nirmalangshu

    The election of 4 AAP candidates is perhaps the most amusing incident of this election. AAP got badly defeated in Delhi, lost the prestige fight in Varanasi by a huge margin, was pathetic in Haryana and rest of the country with high-profile figures like Medha Patkar, Sazia Ilmi, Soni Sori, Dayamani Barla, Meera Sanyal, Balkrishnan, Kumar Vishwas, all losing deposits. It’s been a disaster EXCEPT that 4 guys suddenly emerged from Punjab: a comedian, a doctor, a poet and a ‘professor’. It appears that they’ve had nothing to do with Lokpal movement, history of AAP, etc. No one in AAP apparently knew about them even a few months ago. When AAP opened its door to all and sundry in order to go ‘national’, these characters grabbed the opportunity to use massive double anti-incumbency, and romped home. It is most interesting that AAP will be represented in the Parliament only by these people (insofar as they continue to stay in AAP that is). No Kejriwal, Yogendra Yadav, Rajmohan Gandhi, Medha Patkar, Meera Sanyal, Gul Panang, and the like.

  2. Parag

    I have no truck for internal politics in Punjab, so I read this article objectively. My concern is that AAP support base is constituted of “panthic elements and Taksali congressmen” who are described by the author as the most unhappy with the social engineering of mainstream parties.

    I am old enough to know that Panthic Elements and Damdani Taksal also constituted the core element of the militants. Today these people are sidelined, but for those who remember the late 80d and early 90s, they had introduced a Taliban like rule in Punjab, with dress code and other restrictions.

    AAP is in any case a party that does not have great regard for Indian territorial integrity, as evidenced by their support for Kashmiri separatists, is it possible they are also becoming a front for the Khalistani element in Punjab politics?

    1. I’m all in favor of incisive and critical analysis, but what do you mean by ‘Taliban like rule’? That seems like a gross overstatement, and it is ultimately harmful to make glib comparisons across the board between different fundamentalist groups. From what I can recall, Khalistani elements did not try to impose a dress code. They did try and restrict alcohol vendors, sex-selective abortionists, large wedding parties, and excessive dowry demands. As far as the dress code is concerned, I believe they tried to impose a homogenous school uniform for students, but that is not the same as a general dress code for all adults (or even just for women). In the late 1980s and early 1990s, jeans and western clothing were not in wide use among women in Punjab, and almost all women wore salwar kameez of their own volition. From what I remember and read, it was very different from the kind of social engineering efforts made by Islamic fundamentalists.

      1. Som

        Then you are wrong. I remember we were told not to wear skirts and hold your breath……..make 2 braids. I remember one particular day when all day scholars in a girls’ college had to come and borrow salwar-kameezes to wear home because there were hundreds of men gathered outside the college.

        “Almost all women wore salwar-kameez of their own volition”

        Nope. Almost all young women wore jeans and skirts, and had salwar-kameezes for special occasions or for when they started college.

  3. Vivek

    Thank you for a very nice analysis. Indeed, the AAP result in Punjab is hard to believe considering how much bigger Punjab is compared to Delhi. The 4 AAP elected candidates now need to show results for the people in order to consolidate these gains.

  4. proforma

    I think one point is missed in the analysis of AAP in Punjab – -it was a conservative victory. It fought against drugs. Globally, the war on drugs is a conservative theme, while liberals want to legalize marijuana and loosen penalties for all other drugs, because it conflicts with their “individual rights” ideology.
    AAP won where it stood for anti-corruption and anti-drug policies – both of which are broadly conservative ideas (which is why, for instance, the RSS backed Anna’s movement wholeheartedly).
    AAP lost where it played up leftwing ideas like anti-corporatism or anti-communalism.
    There’s a lesson to be learnt there.

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