A FEW DAYS BEFORE THE PUNJAB ASSEMBLY election results were announced on March 10, the incumbent Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi was seen milking a goat in Bhadaur, one of the two constituencies he contested from. The goat’s milk yield is usually far lower than that of cattle. An indication of the shape of things to come was provided through the agency of the goat. Channi became the first Dalit Chief Minister of the State when he was chosen for the post on September 19, 2021. He fought the February 20 election on the basis of the achievements of his 111-day-long government and sought a full five-year term from the electorate. It turned out that Punjab’s voters were not in a mood to oblige. The Bhadaur seat was supposed to be Channi’s insurance against a possible bad day in Chamkaur Sahib, the other constituency from where he contested. But Channi lost in Bhadaur by over 37,000 votes and he came second in Chamkaur Sahib, losing by a little under 8,000 votes to Charanjit Singh of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).
Channi can find solace from the fact that his party colleague and sometime foe-sometime friend, Navjot Singh Sidhu, also met the same fate. Navjot Sidhu was defeated in Amritsar East. Interestingly, the media, assuming a straight contest in the constituency between two prominent rivals, focussed its energies on covering the battle between Navjot Sidhu and Bikram Singh Majithia of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). More so because Navjot Sidhu had taken Majithia, who is the brother-in-law of SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal, to court over his alleged involvement in the drug trade. But the AAP’s dark horse, Jeevan Jyot Kaur, stole their thunder. Further, Channi’s predecessor Captain Amarinder Singh was roundly defeated in his traditional stronghold of Patiala. Like Channi, Amarinder Singh, too, had some consolation. He was not the only former Chief Minister to fail the litmus test. Sukhbir Singh Badal lost in Jalalabad to Jagdeep Kambhoj of the AAP by around 30,000 votes while his father and reigning patriarch, Parkash Singh Badal, now well into his 90s, lost to Gurmeet Singh Khudian of the AAP by 10,000 votes. Sukhbir Singh Badal’s cousin, Manpreet Singh Badal, contesting on the Congress ticket, was defeated in Bathinda Urban, providing the first instance in 30 years when the Badal family will not have a representative in the Punjab Assembly.
The slayer of all these formidable names was the AAP with unheralded leaders such as Labh Singh Ugoke and Jeevan Jyot Kaur, who is known as “Pad-Woman” for providing sanitary napkins to jailed women.
‘Common man’ defeats veterans
The AAP won a three-fourths majority winning 92 seats in the 117-member Assembly. Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi Chief Minister and party supremo, underscored the humble origins of his party’s winners. He said: “The common man feels what can I do? Do you know who defeated Charanjit Singh Channi today? Labh Singh Ugoke from Bhadaur. Who is Ugoke? He works in a mobile repair shop. His mother works as a safai karmachari in a government school. His father is a farm labourer. A man like this has defeated Channi. The aam aadmi [common man] has defeated Channi, Navjot Sidhu, Amarinder Singh, Bikram Majithia…. Don’t upset the common man, or even the most powerful will be shown the door.”
During the run-up to the elections, Kejriwal had been at the receiving end. A couple of days before the election date, Kumar Vishwas, Kejriwal’s former party colleague and a noted poet, had alluded to his alleged proximity to some Khalistani terrorists. The AAP’s massive victory gave Kejriwal the opportunity he was yearning for. When the results indicated a landslide win for the AAP, he said: “I am not a terrorist. Kejriwal is not a terrorist. He is a son of the country, a true patriot. It is time for change, time for inquilaab [revolution]. I urge all of you to join AAP. It is not just a party; it is a revolution. First there was a revolution in Delhi, then one in Punjab, now it will spread to the rest of the country.”
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In fact, Kejriwal and the AAP have for long been keen to assume power in a full-fledged State. The party, which made its electoral debut in the Delhi Assembly elections in 2012, has been ruling in Delhi since 2015, but has been hampered by a lack of complete control over Delhi with the Central government controlling the police and the bureaucracy. Punjab provides Kejriwal the opportunity he has been looking for to prove the AAP’s capability. His success in Punjab can possibly pave the way for the rise of the AAP as a national party. Party leader Manish Sisodia said as much: “We contested from Uttarkhand, Goa and Uttar Pradesh, too, but the focus was on Punjab. Now, we will focus on Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat.”
‘No time to lose’, says Mann
Chief Minister-designate Bhagwant Mann said within hours of the AAP’s victory, “We want to start working from now. There is no time to lose. To begin with, the oath-taking ceremony will not be held at Raj Bhawan but at Khatkar Kalan in Nawanshahr district, the ancestral village of freedom fighter Bhagat Singh. The government offices will not have portraits of the Chief Minster but those of Dr B.R. Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh.” Bhagwant Mann was elected from the Dhuri seat. He secured 65,858 votes and defeated his Congress rival Prakash Chand Garg by more than 45,000 votes.
In 2017, pollsters had predicted that the AAP would form the government but the party won only 20 seats in that election. The AAP now has an opportunity to guide the State and replicate its much-touted Delhi Model of governance, but it will face a big challenge. Punjab’s coffers are empty, the State is reeling under debt. Punjab farmers’ prolonged agitation impacted inter-State trade and in view of the COVID-19 pandemic thousands of migrant farm workers employed in Punjab returned to their home States of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
Further, the victory comes under the shadow of divisive politics, leaving many uneasy at what the future might behold. It may be recalled that Sunil Jakhar, the former Punjab Pradesh Congress chief, had expressed his anguish at not being considered for the Chief Minister’s post when Amarinder Singh stepped down as he was a Hindu although he enjoyed the support of party legislators. Capitalising on this statement, Raghav Chadha, the AAP legislator from Delhi and co-convener of Punjab, tweeted, “Sunil Jakhar saab is being treated as a second class citizen by Congress. Excluding him from list of CM probables merely because he is a Hindu reveals deep-rooted communal politics of Congress. His competence and experience is sacrificed at the altar of religious politics.”
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Interestingly, even before Chadha spoke out against the perceived discrimination against Hindus in Punjab, Kejriwal had declared in June last year that if his party came to power it would appoint only a Sikh as the Chief Minister. “Our CM face will be from the Sikh community. It is their right and it will remain with them,” he had said. Together, the words of Chadha and Kejriwal reminded old-timers of the cocktail once attempted by the BJP with limited success in Punjab.
Congress infighting helps the AAP’s rise
The rise of the AAP was helped by the incessant fighting among leaders of the ruling Congress. In the run-up to the election, the Congress made it a habit to wash dirty linen in public. And a lot of linen it was, very public too. Navjot Sidhu took potshots at Amarinder Singh. Instead of a rap on the knuckles, the party high command turned a deaf ear to his daily fulminations. Emboldened, Navjot Sidhu launched a vociferous diatribe against Amarinder Singh, taking the likes of Pargat Singh and Channi along with him. His verbal attacks managed to unseat Amarinder Singh in September last year, but Navjot Sidhu failed in the game of thrones, with Channi being chosen by the party leadership to helm the State.
Shift of Dalit support
Unlike Navjot Sidhu, who was said to be loud and divisive, Channi came across as a patient man with an ear to the ground. The choice of Channi, a Dalit, to succeed Amarinder Singh was considered a masterstroke. It pre-empted the SAD’s promise to give the Deputy Chief Minister post to a Dalit if voted to power. It, however, proved to be little more than a cosmetic change. Navjot Sidhu continued with his verbal attacks right until two weeks before the day of polling, reluctantly agreeing to accept Channi as the party’s chief ministerial candidate. The voters had seen and heard too much by then to dismiss it as a passing shower. Without the Congress realising it, the Dalit population in general, particularly in the electorally significant Malwa region, had moved into the open arms of the AAP. First it was Navjot Sidhu and Amarinder Singh and then it was Navjot Sidhu and Channi, fighting like crows over a loaf of bread. The AAP played the perfect fox, running away with the bread.
Dalits, particularly Hindus, had for years backed the Congress. Sikh Dalits had supported the SAD. There was an air of predictability about them. The AAP offered a fresh perspective with its welfare politics. It repeated its promises of better schools, cheaper electricity and improved health care. Both the SAD and the Congress tried to offer freebies such as Scooty for girls and monthly doles for students clearing the class 12 examination; but the sops seemed like an afterthought. The electorate had thought through its preferences by then.
The AAP was a clear head-starter, ultimately, making the election a no-contest with the Congress reduced to 18 seats, the SAD three and the BJP two. The Punjab Lok Congress (PLC), the party floated by Amarinder Singh in November 2021 after he quit the Congress, failed to open its account.
Also read: Dalit wind in Congress sails in Punjab
The BJP, on its part, faced its biggest challenge in the State. For the past couple of decades, it had slipped in under the radar as the junior partner of the SAD. This time, after the SAD quit the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance in September 2020 over the contentious farm laws, the BJP had to chart out its own course in the State where its preferred concoction of Hindutva with election-time freebies found few takers. The BJP had an alliance with Amarinder Singh’s hurriedly formed PLC and the SAD Dhindsa faction. It amounted to little. The BJP failed to retain Sujanpur and Abohar. In 2017, the party had won the Sujanpur, Abohar and Phagwara seats. In this election, the BJP's Ashwani Kumar Sharma and Jangi Lal Mahajan were elected from Pathankot and Mukerian respectively. The Dhindsa faction was a no-show.
The fate of the SAD was no different. Having been in power until 2017, the party was hoping to make a comeback, capitalising on the dissension in the Congress. But Sukhbir Singh Badal failed to offer anything new with the shadow of the sacrilege issue and drug mafia accompanying the party everywhere. The SAD’s electoral tie-up with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) did not translate into votes from Dalits, supposedly the main vote bank of the BSP.
It left the field clear for the AAP to exploit to its advantage. Kejriwal used this opportunity to make promises of a “revolution” in the State. Whether Punjab gets to experience Delhi-style improvement in education or ends up with deeper holes in the coffer owing to Kejriwal’s freebies-driven politics, remains to be seen. What is certain is that the State has moved away from decades of two-party system. The AAP is here for good, having upstaged the SAD and the Congress. Meanwhile, how the Bhagwant Mann-led government fares could well be a harbinger of things to come for Kejriwal’s national ambitions. The stakes just got higher.