At close to 3.30 pm, vote tallies on most news channels put the Indian National Congress as having won 63 seats in the Punjab assembly—four ahead of the 59-seat majority required to form the government in the state. The Aam Aadmi Party, which had hoped to break ground as a national-level party with a win in Punjab, has reportedly won less than 25 seats. The Congress was last in power in the state between 2002 and 2007, following which the Shiromani Akali Dal, led by the Badal family, ruled Punjab for 10 years. In his January 2017 cover story, “Under a Cloud,” Hartosh Singh Bal reported on the issues facing the state and why Punjab was searching for an alternative to the Badals. In the following excerpt from the story, he discusses the issues with the AAP’s organisation in the state and where it was faltering.
IN THE 2014 LOK SABHA ELECTIONS, Punjab, ground down under the Badals, often forced to side with the Congress for lack of an alternative, suddenly saw new hope in the Aam Aadmi Party. Though the AAP registered a disappointing performance nationally, winning no seats at all in any other states, it won four of Punjab’s 13 Lok Sabha seats.
The turbulence within the AAP at the national level, most notably the removal of the party’s senior members Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav, has also affected the organisation in Punjab. In the months after the Lok Sabha election, three of its MPs—Patiala’s Dharamvir Gandhi, a well-respected and admired figure, Fatehgarh’s Harinder Singh Khalsa and Faridkot’s Sadhu Singh, all of whom had close ties to Bhushan and Yadav—drifted away from the central organisation. (Ahead of the assembly election, Gandhi floated a new group that announced candidates of its own.) The fact that three of its four MPs in the state ceased to be closely aligned with the party should have served as a warning for the AAP, but it papered over the problem after registering a massive victory in the 2015 Delhi assembly election.
The euphoria of the Delhi victory, and the party’s persistent promise to fight corruption, drove the growth of the AAP in Punjab. But in the months that followed, the organisation eventually took on contours that are common to almost every regional party in India, coming to centre on a personality cult around one charismatic figure—that of Arvind Kejriwal. The problem with such an arrangement, as most regional parties have learnt, is that it damages a party’s ability to expand across states.
This became apparent in the AAP’s selection of its Punjab leader. There were some obvious claimants to the position. Among them was HS Phoolka, an indefatigable lawyer who has almost single-handedly kept alive the quest for justice for the victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh massacres, and who had come close to winning the Ludhiana Lok Sabha seat in 2014. Another strong contender was the comedian Bhagwant Mann, who is presently the MP from Sangrur. Mann would have been an obvious choice on the basis of his popularity, but the persistent, if so-far unsubstantiated, allegations that he has repeatedly appeared drunk in public scuttled his chances. Phoolka, then, who commands respect across the board, should have been an easy choice, but his ascent seems to have been thwarted by internal opposition from men such as Mann, and Kejriwal’s by-now evident wariness of anyone who is not completely subservient to him.