Win and Lose

The Aam Aadmi Party’s duplicitous rise in Punjab

Arvind Kejriwal, the Aam Aadmi Party’s national convenor and the chief minister of Delhi, (centre) campaigns with the party’s assembly-election candidates Daljit Bhola and Madan Lal Bagga during a roadshow in Ludhiana in February 2022. GURPREET SINGH / HINDUSTAN TIMES / GETTY IMAGES
09 March, 2022

ONE EVENING IN 2014, shortly before the Lok Sabha election, the Aam Aadmi Party took out a campaign procession for its candidate Harinder Singh Khalsa, in Punjab’s Ludhiana district. People from all walks of life participated in the procession. “Kadi haan karke, kadi hun karke, vote jhaadu nu pa de lambi baanh karke”—Say yes sometimes, no sometimes, but come on, extend your hand to vote in favour of the broom—went the slogan, referring to the AAP’s election symbol. It continued: “The nation must change, so must Punjab, and also this deceitful raj.”  

Dozens of young people were a part of the procession, joyfully raising slogans and singing songs. Jaswinder Singh, a young man who was part of the crowd, told me that he had begun campaigning for the AAP with friends in his village. “Initially, village leaders belonging to traditional parties tried to stop us, but when we did not stop, other people of the village also started joining us,” he said. “Brother, I don’t even know Harinder Singh Khalsaji very well, but we saw AAP and Kejriwal in Delhi for 49 days.”   

Jaswinder was speaking of the AAP’s whirlwind rise to power in the national capital the previous year. Campaigning on an anti-corruption platform in the wake of nationwide protests on the issue, the fledgling party, led by Arvind Kejriwal, had become the largest party in the Delhi legislative assembly. “We also want to see this miracle in Punjab,” Jaswinder said. “We are ordinary people. There is no great leader with us. Leaders will be chosen from these common people only, and they will beautify Punjab and this country.” His enthusiasm was palpable. “The people of Punjab are upset with both the Akalis and the Congress—they have ruined our state. In this situation, there are only two ways for a young man like me: to either leave the country and go abroad, or take up arms. But the AAP has shown us another way. Those who looted Punjab can be taught a lesson by votes.”   

Though the AAP did reasonably well that year, it did not come to power in Punjab’s next assembly election, in 2017, which the Congress won comfortably. The Congress’s recent term saw significant infighting and the exit of its biggest name, the former chief minister Amarinder Singh, amid historic protests by the state’s farmers. The resulting chaos allowed the AAP to sweep the 2022 election, nine years after its first victory in Delhi. Left in the wake of its meteoric rise, however, are the hopes of volunteers like Jaswinder. Contrary to its claims of being the party of the aam aadmi—the common man—the AAP’s story in Punjab is equally the story of how the hopes of these volunteers, many of whom donated time and money to the party, believing in its stated agenda of self-governance, transparency and democracy, were sacrificed at the altar of politics.