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As Punjab campaign enters final lap, AAP holds big advantage in Malwa

Rajeev Khanna | Updated on: 11 February 2017, 5:45 IST

As the race for Punjab enters the last lap of campaigning, it is advantage Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) over the two traditional power houses - the Congress and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) combine.

At this stage, AAP has a distinct edge over the other parties, as it is witnessing an upsurge of public support, particularly in the Malwa region of the state, which is home to more than 50% of the seats.

While the Akali-BJP combine continues to battle heavy anti-incumbency, the Congress has once again been caught on the wrong foot, with the decades old Congress high command culture taking its toll.

Big advantage in Malwa

The biggest advantage that AAP has is that in Malwa, it is firmly entrenched. The region encapsulates 69 seats across the districts of Faridkot, Muktsar, Moga, Faridkot, Bathinda, Ludhiana, Barnala, Mansa, Sangrur, Fatehgarh Sahib, Patiala, Ropar and Mohali.

In the last Assembly elections, it was a neck-and-neck race between SAD-BJP and the Congress. But the advent of AAP just before the last Lok Sabha polls has changed the equations.

Observers feel that the upsurge in public support in this region is so strong that one can easily predict at least 40 seats for AAP at this point of time. And this is a major cause of worry for the Akalis as well as the Congress.

Reports from the ground say that SAD president Sukhbir Badal is facing an uphill task to retain his own seat of Jalalabad, where AAP's Sangrur MP Bhagwant Mann is threatening to storm his bastion.

Even on the Lambi seat, held by Chief Minister and Akali patriarch Parkash Singh Badal, AAP MLA from Delhi's Rajouri Garden, Jarnail Singh, is giving a stiff fight, although observers say that state Congress president Captain Amarinder Singh's decision to fight from the seat has provided a lot of relief to Badal, since opposition votes will now split.

Factors behind AAP's rise in Malwa

Individual seats apart, there are some concrete factors behind the massive support to AAP in Malwa.

First, the public is looking for an alternative to both the Congress and the SAD-BJP, and the AAP, which took root ahead of the 2014 general elections, has only got stronger. The general sentiment among the masses is that if they have seen the Akalis and the Congress failing to deliver, why not give a chance to a new force?

There is also a will among the people in the countryside to erect a stumbling block in the path of the two traditional forces, and to experiment with an alternative. A visit to the rural areas reveals just who is in the lead: it is the "jhaadu aali party" or "topi aali party" (the party with the broom or the cap).

Unlike their rivals, AAP candidates are new faces who do not carry the baggage of having failed to deliver earlier, or having let down the people. They are freshers with a new set of promises.

The party has built its entire road map on highly localised campaigns, on issues related to farmer distress, farmer suicides and the drug menace that has plagued the youth.

Instead of going in for big rallies, AAP's strategy over the last two years has been to hold protests and demonstrations at the local level, while getting the people involved. Now the party is topping it all with rallies by AAP's national convenor and Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal, and his deputy Manish Sisodia.

"The team of AAP workers that has come from outside has carried out the campaign in a very effective way, reaching out to each and every household. In addition to this, the symbol of the broom has caught the fancy of the working class, the landless peasantry and Dalits. Left sympathisers have also moved towards the party," said a senior mediaperson based in the region.

The situation in Doaba

AAP, however, faces a major problem in Doaba region. This region has 23 seats and covers the districts of Jalandhar, Nawanshahr, Kapurthala and Hoshiarpur.

Doaba been the basketful of troubles for the party. It is in this region that the party has witnessed maximum rebellion, which is still continuing in the form of local level leaders and volunteers switching over to the Congress or Akali-BJP camps. The party leadership has been accused of giving tickets to those with money bags, while ignoring the volunteers who helped the party gain a foothold.

The other allegations against AAP that have surfaced from the region include the party leadership selling tickets for a hefty price, and not coming clean on its funding, particularly from the supporters abroad.

Doaba is a region with a considerable Dalit base. It is also the NRI hub of Punjab, from where a large number of Punjabis have migrated to all parts of the world. The issues related to Dalits here are quite different from those of the Dalits in Malwa. The Dalits in Doaba are relatively better off economically.

AAP's former national executive member Yamini Gaumer, while quitting the party to join the Congress recently, said: "AAP leaders, especially those who hail from Delhi, are the biggest manipulators and know how to make a fool of Punjabis. Kejriwal showed the dream of a corruption-free regime not only in Punjab but in the entire country, but AAP is working like traditional parties and selling tickets for lakhs of rupees. People have sold their lands to get AAP tickets, and spent lakhs on party observers sent from Delhi."

It remains to be seen whether the visits to different Deras and promises made to Dalits of having a deputy CM from the community yields the desired results for AAP in Doaba.

The situation in Majha

Similarly, the party needs to get its act together in the Majha region. This area has 25 seats, falling under the districts of Amritsar, Pathankot, Tarn Taran and Gurdaspur.

Among the positives for the party is the fact that its Punjab convenor Gurpreet Singh Waraich aka Ghuggi is contesting from Batala in Gurdaspur district, while Himmat Singh Shergil is making it a tough fight for Akali heavyweight Bikram Singh Majithia in the Majitha constituency. But AAP is still relatively on a sticky wicket.

The region has been a stronghold of the Akalis and the Congress, where Panthic politics has held sway for decades. In addition to this, the Succha Singh Chhotepur factor is proving to be a dampener for the party. Ever since AAP sacked Chhotepur as its state convenor, there has been a persistent campaign against it, with rivals projecting it as a party of 'Bhaiyyas' (name for migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar).

Chhotepur has gone on to float Aapna Punjab Party (APP), whose prime aim is to prevent AAP from winning the polls.

Akalis not even being talked about

The Akali-BJP combine continues to battle heavy anti-incumbency across the three regions. Things have come to pass that even in Akali strongholds, particularly in Malwa, people are not even talking about the ruling party.

Observers say that Akali heavyweights will be able to retain their seats, given their decades-old reputations and their having nurtured their constituencies well.

The BJP is confined to urban constituencies, as per its seat adjustment with the Akalis. Having started initially to play up the demonetisation carried out by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the party is slowly bringing its tone down on the issue, fearing that it might prove counter-productive not only in the rural areas, but in urban areas as well. There are reports of there being few takers for the demonetisation pitch raised by finance minister Arun Jaitley during his Punjab visit.

There have also been reports of Anil Joshi, a BJP minister in outgoing government, who is contesting from the Amritsar (North) seat, telling his voters that he had no role in demonetisation, and they should not punish him.

Congress pays the price

The Congress is paying a heavy price for its delay in announcing candidates. With its top leadership camping in Delhi for almost two months lobbying for tickets, the party squandered the slight advantage that it had gained through some aggressive campaigning by Amarinder.

To add to its woes, there are a large number of Congress rebels in the fray. The problems are further compounded by Amarinder's detractors helping rival candidates through the back door.

With 10 days still to go, can the Congress and the Akalis overtake AAP in the final lap, using their experience and foxy skills?

This is the question that the voters will answer on 4 February when they go to exercise their franchise.

Edited by Shreyas Sharma

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First published: 23 January 2017, 7:29 IST