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Identity Politics in Punjab: A Challenge For Aam Aadmi Party | Rajvinder Singh

Friday 28 January 2022

by Rajvinder Singh *

Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has been the newest addition in the Indian political system. AAP with its advent promised a new kind of politics. Party made a strong effort to introduce a new issue “corruption” into the arena of party competition. Party was giving the issue of corruption a new salience in electoral politics and using that as the basis for political mobilisation. The AAP does not appeal to a homogenous social group and so does not gain from a structural cleavage that could be based on caste or religion. Instead, party attempted to develop a political or non-structural cleavage based on the issue of corruption. AAP argues convincingly against identity politics, which are reflected in the cleavages championed by some rival parties, asserting that parties should debate government performance rather than appealing to the social backgrounds of the electorate. The AAP sought to present itself as a credible alternative to older mainstream parties and their politics.

After its formation in November 2012, its first electoral test was in the 2013 Delhi Assembly election, in which it unexpectedly emerged as the second-largest party, winning 28 of the 70 seats, leaving behind the incumbent Congress. With no party obtaining an overall majority, the AAP formed a minority government with conditional support from the Congress. The party remained in power for only 49 days. 2014 Lok Sabha election was the second election contested by the party. Contesting on 434 seats it obtained two per cent (11 million votes) of votes polled in the election and 414 of the party candidates lost their security deposits by failing to secure one-sixth of the votes in their constituencies. The AAP won only 4 seats which all came from Punjab. As a result of its performance in these elections, the AAP became a recognised state party in Punjab. Since then party has marked its electoral presence in Punjab. After its stunning victory in the 2015 Delhi Assembly elections, AAP decided it was time to expand the party base beyond the National Capital Region. Punjab was a natural choice for the party because in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, it was the only state that gave its candidates victories, sending four AAP leaders to Parliament. The decision to contest the 2017 Punjab election was well planned. The party hoped that a win in Punjab would pave the way for its quick expansion in other states. The AAP leadership promised to uproot the old ‘decadent’ political parties and change the entrenched system for the better in Punjab. The AAP sought to present itself as a credible alternative to older mainstream parties and their politics.. The party’s clean politics was to be based on agenda-based politics, vote for transparency, and accountability in public life.

Punjab has had a long-standing two-plus party system beginning 1997 assembly elections. Over the decades the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) has weakened organizationally as well ideologically under the leadership of Badal senior and his family. Its long-term ally BJP has never been successful in broadening its social support base and also its state level leadership despite having alliance with the SAD and being part of the coalition government formed in 1997 and also in 2007, 2012 and 2017. Congress also has not succeeded in tackling the economic decline and institutionalized corruption that has afflicted the state for the last two decades. Under the scenario, AAP had a good chance of presenting a credible alternative to the hapless Punjab electorates. But In the 2017 assembly election in Punjab, the party finished a distant second to the Congress, with 20 seats and 23.7 % vote share; lower than party’s expectations but more than a hundred-year old regional party i.e. Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and its long-term ally BJP, the combine winning only 18 seats.

So what went wrong with the AAP? What were the factors that destroyed the so-called AAP-wave? Answer these questions are hidden in identity politics. Punjab as a state of India has been going through different phases. Like other Indian states, Punjab has also been influenced by different social movements like the demand of Punjabi suba on the basis of language and after that Punjab has watched the Maoist Naxalite movement of the late 1960s and the Akalimorcha (agitation) of the early 1980s and Khalistani movement.

The political discourse during every elections includes the issue of the protection of Punjab’s river water (sharing of river waters with Haryana by SYL canal), making Chandigarh the capital of Punjab, merging the Punjabi-speaking areas given to Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, Operation Blue Star (army action at the Golden Temple in 1984), and the anti-Sikh violence of 1984 in Delhi and other parts of India. These issues played an imperative role in shaping the electoral politics of Modern Punjab. As Professor Ashutosh Kumar argues that “social distinctions based on caste, kinship, region, language, script and religion have remained important, sometimes latent factors, shaping the complex dynamics of party competition and electoral behaviour in Punjab Politics.

All the above factors shape the identity politics in Punjab and in 2017 all these factors are used by Congress and SAD leadership against the AAP in last month of the campaign. The perceptions were created that by AAP’s Delhi-based leadership was a shocking lack of sensitivity to Punjab’s culture and history. The party top leadership frittered the chance by imposing the Delhi-based leader on the state unit. Durgesh Pathak and Sanjay Singh, sent from Delhi, were seen as too arrogant and were detested by the Punjabi leadership. The ticket distribution also caused much heartburn. In a state which was reorganized as a result of Punjabi Suba movement that demanded a territorial homeland for the Sikhs after partition and where language and script along with religion matter much more than caste-like in the case of Tamil Nadu, it was a blunder on the part of the Delhi based leadership to project Kejriwal, a Haryanvi, as the face of the party during the electoral campaign.

Another main reason why AAP could not come across as a stable option was its inability to project a CM-face. This gave the opposing parties a chance to spread numerous conspiracy theories such as AAP’s intention to import a CM from outside the state. For a state known to always elect a Sikh CM, this uncertainty was too much to digest for the electorate. Congress and Akalis told the electorate again and again about people from UP deciding AAP’s candidates and thus their future. Given the strong sub-nationalistic feelings in Punjab, the tag of being an outsider began to hurt the AAP campaign. AAP suddenly started to seem to appear as the ‘outsider’ party to the electorate. However, the AAP did not have a strong chief ministerial candidate to counter such accusations. People did not like the dictatorial attitude of non-Punjabi leaders on the local leaders in the state. Captain Amrinder Singh started blaming AAP for using Khalistani money in its campaign and for its alleged tie-up to anti-national secessionist forces. This rhetoric went down very well with the Hindu electorate, because they had suffered in the hands of Sikh extremists. Add to the fears, just 40 days before the polls, a right-wing Hindu leader was shot dead in Ludhiana by unidentified gunmen and just 4 days before the polls, a blast ripped through a Congress political rally at Maur near Bathinda. The car blast killed five persons. And both parties blew out of proportion over Kejriwal’s meeting with hardliner Sikhs and his night’s stay at a house in Moga which was once inhibited by a former Sikh militant who had migrated abroad 20 years ago. All this came handy to the media in building up a strong narrative few days before the polling that AAP’s victory might facilitate the return of old ‘black days of Sikh militancy in Punjab. The reports of AAP’s links with hardliners also surfaced just a few days before the election, hitting the party very badly

In this election campaign, the same strategies are followed by Punjab Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi on terming AAP president and Delhi CM, Arvind Kejriwal as a ‘black Englishman’. The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) said that AAP was insulting Punjabis by asserting that they were not fit to govern themselves and wanted to foster outsiders on them, which would never be tolerated. So this time to all opinion polls shows that AAP is ahead of their revel parties and ground reports shows that “es baar hawa aap waliaa di hai” (AAP’s favourite) but the same identity politics is real challenge for AAP again. AAP’s campaigning this time around the issues of corruption-free Punjab, employment for youth, finish the drug menace and mafia, justice in sacrilege cases, better health and education facilities, free power supply up to 300 unites, 1000 per month allowance for women above 18 year of age and improvement in agriculture, industry and trade.

(Author: Rajvinder Singh is associated with Peoples Pulse, Research Organisation on Electoral Politics. Email: peoplespulse.hyd[at]gmail.com)

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