As the AAP completes a year in power, it should realise that it cannot transplant ideas from Delhi.
The Aam Admi Party (AAP) just completed a year in power in Punjab, after it won a conclusive mandate delivered on March 10, 2022. It was a sweep as AAP registered victory in 92 of the 117 seats in the Punjab Assembly, with 42 per cent of the vote, way ahead of the traditional political forces of the State, the Congress (23 per cent) and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) (18 per cent). In the history of the AAP, founded in November 2012, this was a milestone win after their repeated triumphs in the city-State of Delhi. In terms of numbers, Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann is comfortably poised.
Yet, there are ill winds blowing across Punjab, a State with a complex history that includes secessionism. The backdrop to all the problems in these parts has been the decline in the profitability of agriculture, even as industrial growth had never taken off in the State. Serious environmental issues have also emerged due to the excessive use of fertilizers even as many farmers, depending on their caste, remain landless. Of the population, 58 per cent are Sikhs and they dominate the rural economy, while 42 per cent are Hindus. Dalits, among both Sikhs and Hindus, are 32 per cent, the highest in any State in the country.
Contrary to the stereotype of a wealthy peasantry and an egalitarian faith such as Sikhism, Punjab is actually racked with problems, ranging from farmer suicides, poisoned water and land, high rates of cancer, stunted industrial growth, and caste exclusion among both Sikhs and Hindus. The emergence of a crippling drug problem cannot be delinked from a certain sense of hopelessness in the youth demographic, whose greatest aspiration is migrating out of India.
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Into this scenario came the AAP, with 82 of its MLAs being first-timers and, therefore, raw and inexperienced. On the positive side, they have not been entrenched in power long enough to develop corrosive vested interests; one of AAP’s campaign planks was to weed out the corruption that has corroded every aspect of the State and administrative structure in the State. The AAP government has acted on the anti-corruption plank and made some arrests among the political class and the bureaucracy. But these are cosmetic steps in the face of the many problems facing Punjab.
Reasons for AAP’s win
The AAP won in Punjab because of the overall disgust with the traditional political parties. They also won at a time when the farmers’ agitation, that drew its numbers from every village in Punjab, had just succeeded in getting the Modi government’s farm laws repealed after a year of protest between 2020 and 2021. Simultaneously, the ruling Congress in Punjab was self-destructing through factional fights even as the Akali Dal was still discredited in public memory because of an association with drugs and corruption. The AAP filled a vacuum, but the question is whether it can create something permanent in that space?
If we go by the AAP’s Delhi experience, the challenge would be to create a permanent voter base that would remain loyal to the party due to the perception of receiving benefits from the State government. The AAP has extended free electricity (as it did in Delhi) up to 300 units a month to all domestic consumers in Punjab. The Punjab AAP is also trying to follow the Delhi template on education and health, although there are big differences with a city state. But, eventually, the AAP will have to cut its own path in Punjab and not merely transplant ideas from Delhi on to a very different landscape.
Founded in November 2012, the AAP has indeed been truly birthed under the leadership of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and the party continues to be driven by his ambitions to explore new territories. There are, however, complaints in Punjab of the national leadership micro-managing the governance from Delhi. This creates a narrative that only helps the AAP’s opponents in Punjab. Even within the party, this has led to some resentment, particularly among some newly elected MLAs who had raised funds to fight the election and find themselves powerless to influence even routine local postings. With the first anniversary in power just over, greater autonomy has now been given to the new MLAs, so the AAP appears to be learning from trial and error.
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Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann is a popular figure in Punjab and is at Kejriwal’s side during the AAP’s frequent campaign outings in other parts of India. Even as he chooses to be part of a national outreach, Mann will have to balance this while also asserting his autonomy. The narrative of Delhi running Punjab does not go down well with the population of the fiercely independent State.
Moreover, the politics of Punjab is full of strange twists and does not follow a straight narrative. One of the big setbacks for Mann just over three months after the Assembly sweep was APP’s defeat in the byelection to the Sangrur Lok Sabha seat, a seat that he won in 2014 and 2019 and vacated after becoming Chief Minister. One of the charges against him during the campaign was that he operated under the command and control of the AAP national leadership.
The seat was narrowly won by Simranjit Singh Mann, a well-known figure in the State and associated with what is called hardline Panthic politics. He is a proponent of Khalistan, a separate Sikh homeland, and dedicated his Sangrur win to slain separatist leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. He is a former IPS officer who resigned after Operation Blue Star and spent five years in jail on the charge of being part of the conspiracy to assassinate Indira Gandhi (not convicted). His victory in a Lok Sabha seat that Mann held and whose nine Assembly segments the AAP won is not a good portent for the young ruling party.
There has always been a small but potent group of Sikh radicals in Punjab. In the post-militancy era, parties such as the SAD had enough influence within Sikh religious structures to co-opt such elements into the system. The AAP is out of its depth in this sphere and its strategy, again devised since its reign in Delhi, is to duck polarising issues of religious identity. The party won a second term in Delhi in 2020, for instance, by entirely evading the issue of the anti-CAA protests that were then raging in the national capital. Subsequently, however, as it has sought to expand in other parts of India in a BJP-dominant age, the AAP has highlighted its ‘Hindu” identity. But this cannot work in Sikh-dominated Punjab.
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On February 23, an armed mob led by radical preacher Amritpal Singh laid siege to a police station in Ajnala, located near the international border with Pakistan. The mob demanded the cancellation of an FIR against Lovepreet Singh (known as Toofan) who had been arrested on the complaint of another preacher who said that Amritpal Singh’s supporters kidnapped and thrashed him for speaking against their leader. As the fierce group walked across police barriers and displayed swords and guns, the police succumbed, Toofan was released, and the siege was lifted. But news of what happened in Ajnala spread across the State where the overwhelming majority has no desire to return to the blood-soaked days of the insurgency.
Emergence of Amritpal Singh
Yet, Amritpal Singh, 30, is drawing supporters. He is now the head of a group named Waris Punjab De, founded by actor-activist Deep Sidhu who came to public attention during the farmers’ agitation but died in a road accident last year. Amritpal returned home from Dubai after Deep Sidhu’s death and has styled himself on Bhindranwale. He speaks English and gives interviews saying he is a separatist because he is a Punjabi and a Sikh, and if there can be a Hindu Rashtra why not a Khalistan?
The Amritpal Singh phenomenon has also been played up by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-friendly broadcast media. Although the BJP does not have its own bases in Punjab except in some urban pockets, narratives about a threat to the nation could suit the national party as it prepares for the general election next year.
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However, on March 19, following a meeting between Home Minister Amit Shah and the Punjab Chief Minister, suddenly the tack was changed and a police hunt began for Amritpal Singh and his followers. This exercise also involved shutting down Internet across the State. It was an operation undertaken by the same Punjab police that had looked helpless in Ajnala.
Meanwhile, some of the most significant figures of the Punjab Congress such as former Chief Minister Amarinder Singh and Sunil Jakhar, the party’s prominent Hindu face, are now in the BJP. In January, Manpreet Badal, the former Finance Minister, also joined the BJP. In all, seven members of Amarinder Singh’s team are now in the BJP. The national ruling party also has a history of working with the SAD with which it was in an alliance that broke over the farm laws. The scenario, therefore, is that the Congress has partly morphed into the BJP while the Akalis (SAD), led by the Badal family, still have their structure intact, even as militant Sikh voices are again being heard in Punjab.
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How will the AAP cope in this scenario? Its strategy is not to walk into the storm but to duck and evade the issue. When a storm comes at you, their leaders say, you seek shelter and do not walk into it. In a perfect world, the State should be working with the Centre and intelligence agencies to nip any growing militancy in the bud. But relations between the AAP and the BJP are terrible and it is not clear what the political designs of a BJP-controlled Centre are. The AAP would also be hoping that Sikh radicalism may have its own inbuilt limitation as people are overwhelmingly averse to it.
Role of farmer unions
What the AAP could do, meanwhile, is give space to the concerns of another powerful pillar of Punjab society that also made its presence felt during the farmers’ agitation. Indeed, given the success of the agitation, it can be said that organised farmers are another pole of Punjab society. The most formidable of the farmers’ unions is led by Joginder Singh Ugrahan, a former Army man and communist leader who founded the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ekta Ugrahan), which brought the largest contingent of farmers and thousands of women to the year-long protest on the Tikri border of Delhi. There are other well-organised farmer unions in Punjab and it can be said that if there are Sikh radicals there are also kisan radicals. The unions chose to stay out of the 2021 electoral battle, but many of them most likely voted AAP as it symbolised change.
In the face of visible Sikh radicalism that is an aspect of identity politics, the farmer unions provide a counter by foregrounding economic issues. They have a clear list of objectives in the agriculture sector and seek radical changes. The AAP regime does have open channels with farmer representatives, and it remains to be seen if it can deliver on this vital front. So far, the AAP says it has increased the allocation for agriculture and allied sectors by 20 per cent in the Budget and begun working on policies to tackle the serious issue of environmental degradation.
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The AAP currently has big national ambitions despite mounting troubles and the arrests of leaders in Delhi. It means to keep working towards getting a foot into new territories even as it foresees an apocalyptic future for some traditional opposition parties. For now, though, the AAP has an even greater challenge in Punjab. Ideally, it should focus on governance over attempted conquests (some of which would be futile), but that is unlikely to happen. Still, the party did show staying power and struck roots in Delhi and it is early days yet in Punjab.
Saba Naqvi is a journalist and author. Her books include Capital Conquest (2015), on AAP’s extraordinary Delhi win.
- The Aam Admi Party (AAP) completes a year in power in Punjab, after it won a conclusive mandate delivered on March 10, 2022.
- There are problems, against the backdrop of a decline in the profitability of agriculture in the State.
- AAP entered the scene when Punjab was racked with problems, ranging from farmer suicides, poisoned water and land, high rates of cancer, stunted industrial growth, and caste exclusion among both Sikhs and Hindus.
- Now, Amritpal Singh and his Waris Punjab De are drawing supporters. In this scenario, what the AAP could do is give space to the concerns of another powerful pillar of Punjab society, that of the farmers.