New Delhi,by, Monobina Gupta, 07 February 2017:-Much is at stake for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the just-concluded Punjab polls. An electoral victory in Punjab could provide the AAP with an expedient political armour and facilitate its entry onto a larger stage nationally. At the same time, such an eventuality will most likely sharpen the political contradictions that already beset relations between AAP and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Any change in Punjab’s political equations is going to further heighten the tensions between these two adversaries.
Though a junior coalition partner in the present Akali Dal-BJP government in Punjab, the BJP, having identified Arvind Kejriwal as one of its key challengers, will be loath to lose to the AAP. The BJP is acutely aware of the political potential the AAP has; a potential that, despite many internal and external challenges confronting the party in recent years, is still very much in evidence.
At a time when, led by Narendra Modi, the BJP was basking in the afterglow of its Lok Sabha triumph, it was Kejriwal, a political greenhorn, who defeated the party in Delhi’s assembly elections. Since then, relations between the two have rapidly plummeted. Through its many covert and overt actions (many of them stoked by a desire for political vendetta), the BJP has made its antipathy towards AAP – and particularly the party’s Delhi Chief Minister – amply evident.
At a general level, a victory in Punjab – as with any ambitious political party – would expand the AAP’s political footprint. Its electoral destiny would no longer rest on the political mood in a single state; that too, a ‘half state’ like Delhi. What has primarily come to define the AAP’s Delhi experience is its fractious relationship with the central government, ruled by an adversarial party which has tried to obstruct the AAP at every turn. Whenever it could, the BJP has used its powers (as well as Delhi’s ambiguous Constitutional status) to create obstacles for the AAP government’s policy-making and administrative functions.
AAP needs to move beyond Delhi. It needs to win another state in order to showcase its different and novel approach to governance. Delhi has proven to be a difficult test case. Despite winning Delhi with a landslide, AAP has been hamstrung by its peculiar status, which attributes enormous powers to the Lieutenant-Governor — an extent that he can legally override an elected government’s desires.
Adding to such constraints, the Union Home Ministry has complete jurisdiction over law and order in Delhi. As the commentariat has observed, the Home Ministry has blatantly and frequently used the Delhi Police under the Home Ministry to target the AAP government and its leaders. Not so long ago, legislators by the dozen, all from just one party, were being packed off to jail. At one point last year, 12 out of the 67 elected AAP legislators in Delhi found themselves behind bars.
If the AAP manages to win Punjab, it will achieve two important things: First, it will politically and electorally square up with BJP, signalling the party is not going to disappear any time soon. Second, it will have an opportunity to run its government and decide policies freely, as all full-fledged state governments are empowered to do. The friction between Centre and state may then be pared down to the usual tension marking relations between political rivals.
To advance in national politics, Kejriwal needs his party to win Punjab. Breaking out of Delhi is important for him. The question is: how much resonance does the party, claiming to be the voice of change, still have among voters? The AAP’s image is no longer as unsullied as it was three years ago.
Still, as evident in recent campaigns, the party does continue to have the potential to galvanise professionals as well as ‘outsiders.’ People seem willing to rally behind the untested, or relatively new political entrants to the system. Describing the AAP campaign office in Punjab, a report in The Indian Express, for instance, says: “From cooks and auto drivers who rustle up and ferry two meals a day, to IIT graduates and multinational professionals who micro-plan booth management and campaigns, the motley group at this two-storey bungalow chase ‘change’.”
The Punjab poll outcome also has important implications for the future of a federal front. No doubt, Bengal’s Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee – who has ranged herself alongside Kejriwal against the BJP – is keenly awaiting the results. A possible AAP victory in Punjab will be a shot in the arm for non-BJP, non-Congress forces in the country, all of whom want to play the role of a third force in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.