Bhagwant Mann: How AAP routed the Congress in Punjab

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Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) national convener Arvind Kejriwal with Punjab chief minister-designate Bhagwant Mann during a road show to thank voters for the partys victory in Punjab assembly election on March 13, 2022 in Amritsar, India.Image source, Getty Images
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AAP's Bhagwant Mann (left) will be Punjab's new chief minister

How did the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) - a relatively young political outfit led in Punjab by a former satirist - fell so many giants in state elections last week?

The party, led nationally by Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, has governed the capital since 2013 but this is its first win outside the city.

The landslide victory in Punjab - it won 92 out of 117 assembly seats - has left several big names in the dust - incumbent chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi (who lost both seats that he contested), five-time chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, two-time chief minister Amarinder Singh, former deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal and state Congress party chief Navjot Singh Sidhu.

To understand how the AAP pulled off this stunning upset, it's essential to understand why ordinary voters in Punjab felt so disenchanted with the state's established parties, the Congress and the regional Shiromani Akali Dal - a feeling that became stronger during 18-months of protests against three controversial farm reforms introduced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's federal government.

Disappointment and discontent

Farmers' unions in the state began mobilising for a long-haul protest from June 2020 - when the federal government introduced legislation that loosened rules around the sale, pricing and storage of crops. The government claimed the reforms would make farming more profitable for small farmers, but unions argued it would leave them vulnerable to corporate companies and destroy their livelihoods.

In areas such as Malwa, many villages put up banners that prohibited entry for politicians associated with Mr Modi's government or those who supported the farm laws.

The Shiromani Akali Dal - which was then in coalition with Mr Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) - committed a major misstep by supporting the reforms when they were first introduced as an ordinance, and even trying to convince farmers of their benefit. It later opposed the bills in parliament and quit the federal cabinet, but that didn't recover voters' trust.

As opposition built up in Punjab, tens of thousands of protesters - many of them women - camped on the borders of Delhi through blistering heat and biting cold, refusing to back down until the laws had been repealed. The farmers were joined by teachers, students, labourers, unemployed young men and retired government employees - heart-warming stories emerged of protesters looking out for each other during difficult times. The bonds of Punjabi civil society were strengthened by the solidarity generated through months of communal living, where people cooked and ate together.

The protests were also reflective of widespread discontent with established political parties - they were not allowed to participate in the strike and could only watch in trepidation as they were painted as the "common enemy".

AAP's Labh Singh Ugoke, a mobile repair mechanic who defeated Congress' incumbent chief minister Mr Channi in Bhadaur, alluded to this in an interview with BBC Punjabi after his victory.

Image source, Getty Images
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Thousands of ordinary Punjabis participated in the farmers' protests

"My father worked as a farm labourer while my mother continues to work as a sweeper in the village school. After finishing Class 12, I didn't have the resources to study more, though I wanted to. Whenever we visited Amritsar, I would look wistfully at the Khalsa College building and grounds but could never dream of studying there," he said.

He and his father were active in the farmers' protests. When he began campaigning for AAP, he says he was cautioned by elders in his village but decided to go ahead.

"The driving force behind my decision was that the Punjab where we live should at least be worth living in," he said.

A vote against the status quo

The Congress openly supported the farmers' protests, so why did its tally come down from 77 seats in 2017 to just 18 in 2022?

Until a year before the election, the party thought it had a good chance of a second straight term even though there was mounting resentment on the ground against Amarinder Singh's government.

When the top leadership finally woke up to anti-incumbency, party leader Navjot Singh Sidhu immediately sensed a chance and launched a caustic campaign against Mr Singh. He was rewarded with the post of state Congress president - Mr Singh quit the party and was replaced by Mr Channi, a low-profile Dalit leader.

Mr Channi tried to repair the damage by announcing several welfare measures but Mr Sidhu continued criticising the party leadership - the damaging campaign encouraged several other Congress leaders to make allegations against their colleagues, exposing a deeply divided house.

The Congress - headed by national party president Sonia Gandhi, her son Rahul and daughter Priyanka, often referred to as the High Command - didn't act strongly enough against the offenders.

Image source, Getty Images
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Incumbent CM Charanjit Singh Channi (left) and state Congress chief Navjot Singh Sidhu both lost

"Undermining the decisions of your own government day in and day out, without hindrance from the Congress High Command, has cost us dear. Those indulging in these activities should have been thrown out of the party. Congress needs to do some serious introspection,'' Sukhjinder Randhawa, a senior Congress leader, told BBC Punjabi.

Congress, Akali Dal and the BJP's choice of candidates reflected how disconnected they were from voters. The Congress fielded its entire discredited cabinet, the Akali Dal again chose its best-known faces who didn't inspire much confidence, and the BJP hoped that fielding Sikh candidates and tying up with Mr Singh would make up for its lack of a base in the state.

The AAP, on the other hand, campaigned on its track record in Delhi, where it has been lauded for improving public health and education. And its chief ministerial candidate Bhagwant Mann - a former stand-up comic who is not a political veteran - won the trust of voters.

The party, which has never governed Punjab, was helped by that lack of baggage. And its choice of unconventional candidates, although risky, paid off - apart from working-class representatives such as Mr Ugoke, it fielded several socially active women as candidates.

Now comes the tough task of delivering on its promises - a job crisis, which is forcing young people to look for opportunities abroad, is one of the biggest challenges the party faces. It will also be governing the only state where the Sikhs, a national minority, are in a majority, during polarising times. Separatism and a bloody repression by Delhi led to years of violence in Punjab in the 1980s - and the AAP, which has been accused by rivals of being soft on separatist sentiments - a charge it vehemently denies - will have to tread carefully.

Punjab has clearly voted against the establishment - now, the AAP must take care to set itself apart from it.

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