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AAP’s Punjabi tadka!

The clock had barely struck 9 pm, but the bus stand had taken a deserted look. Roadways buses were parked in long rows and confectionery shops alongside the stand were partially shut. I had begun adjusting my luggage in anticipation of spending a lonely night at the bus stand of a city which seemed to have gone to rest after the hustle and bustle of the election season was over when I was approached by a young man. Just like me, he too was there to catch the last bus from Patiala to Chandigarh.

Gourav Dhiman (24), an electrical engineer, works with a private company at Banur (45 km far from Patiala). He earns Rs 10,000 per month. Gourav’s work involves travelling roughly 100 km daily. He voted for Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) this Lok Sabha election. The young engineer voted for the new party despite the fact that his father is employed with the Congress’ former three-time member of Parliament (MP) Preneet Kaur (wife of Captain Amarinder Singh). He also chose not to vote for Badals-led Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) as he believes ‘the incumbent state government has not given youth anything except access to liquor and drugs in abundance’.

Four of his close friends are in grip of drugs ‘easily available in the town’. Patiala witnessed a historic turnaround in the political arena this Lok Sabha election with the unbelievable defeat of the ‘Maharani’ Preneet Kaur and unprecedented triumph of cardiologist-turned-politician Dr. Dharam Vira Gandhi.

Lakhs of angry youngsters like Gourav joined the bandwagon which resulted in the change. Punjab witnessed a unique change in the voting trend springing a surprise with AAP candidates winning the Faridkot, Fatehgarh Sahib, Patiala and Sangrur Lok Sabha seats, defeating some heavyweights in the process. Party’s Bhagwant Mann trounced Shiromani Akali Dal’s Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa by a margin of 2,11,721 votes in Sangrur. In Faridkot, AAP candidate Sadhu Singh trounced Paramjit Kaur Gulshan, a Shiromani Akali Dal candidate, by a margin of 1,72,516 votes. Harinder Singh Khalsa was the successful AAP candidate from Fatehgarh Sahib who defeated Congress’ Sadhu Singh Dharamsot by over 54,144 votes. Surprisingly, the AAP managed to get 24.4 per cent votes (3,373,062) in the state.

Punjab pushed to look for an alternative

What is special in the state of Punjab that supported the new party, especially when AAP was hitting headlines in the national media for all wrong reasons and entire country was under the spell of the Modi wave? ‘Punjab has always been pro-change. Look at the history — struggle for independence, Green Revolution, Naxal movement — all started somewhere else but spread like wildfire in the state. So ushering drastic changes is in Punjab’s nature. When Anna-Arvind movement started in the capital, people observed it and when they found it connecting with national pride, they supported it whole-heartedly,’ said Prof Ashutosh Kumar from Panjab University, Chandigarh. Supporting the idea, Dr. Dharam Vira Gandhi added, ‘It’s true that our party invested more energy in the state of Haryana considering our two prominent leaders Arvind Kejriwal and Yogendra Yadav hail from the state. Had it been invested in Punjab, results would have been different.

 Punjab has always been pro-change; Haryana is still trapped in caste and class politics.’ But was a pro-change attitude the only reason for AAP’s emergence in the state? Gobind Thukral, veteran journalist and writer went on to say, ‘Modi wave was so strong that for the first time the BJP managed seven seats in northern states (all four in Himachal Pradesh, two seats in J&K and for the first time Ladakh seat), and they could have won all 13 seats in Punjab too. But the way Sukhbir Badal (deputy CM and son of CM Parkash Singh Badal) is leading the state, the kind of governance they have unleashed and the way in which drug, sand and education mafias have deepened their roots, people are really fed up with the system. It gave AAP a chance to enter in the state.’

Another prominent political analyst, Kanwar Sandhu, who has been consistently exposing nepotism of the SAD government, says, ‘People have seen enough of corruption and bad governance during seven years of SAD-BJP rule in the state. More than 27 government departments are being held either by Badals or their extended family. This is the height of nepotism and voters recognised this by looking for an alternative and AAP succeeded with the clean image of their candidates.’

Drugs take the driver’s seat

Though the drug menace in the state is not new, it’s for the first time that it has become a political issue. The slogan ‘Na bhukki ko, na daaru ko, vote denge jhaddu ko.’ (Bhukki is the local word for opium husk.), caught people’s imagination. ‘We raised the issue as no other political party has ever made it an issue despite a whole generation vanishing due to this curse. AAP has become the beacon of hope because people know it isn’t in the interest of the existing political class to stem the supply of narcotics,’ said Bhagwant Mann whose winning margin is the highest in the state.

Election Commission’s record show that 1.39 lakh kg of drugs were seized in Punjab during Lok Sabha elections. ‘You just name a drug which is not available in the state. The Badal government keeps passing the buck blaming the Centre’s inefficiency in stopping cross-border smuggling. But that’s not the true picture. Drug-addicts can’t afford original heroin or opium as these are very expensive. It is confined to a very small number of people in the state. Market for synthetic drugs has a multi-billion business and all this has been mushrooming under state government’s patronage. Reports keep showing that ruling party’s ministers and workers are engaged in the vicious act, says Thukral. Several media reports, analysing AAP’s emergence, revealed that the party got such a huge support from the women along with youngsters. The reason was AAP’s call for drugs-free Punjab.

Prof Ashutosh says that the Congress could not capitalise on the anti-SAD-BJP sentiment because the former turned out to be a passive opposition. ‘There was also a strong wave against Congress in the country. AAP thus became the obvious choice for people seeking 
change,’ he added. Women are worse affected by the drug menace as head of their families is under drugs grip. ‘Huge support poured in our favour when lot of Punjabi NRIs threatened the villagers that they would stop sending money if they would not vote for AAP. Even NRIs supported AAP’s campaign against drugs, said known sociologist and AAP’s Punjab convener professor Manjit Singh.

Akalis still sticking to 
aata-daal politics

Though the rural voter is still sticking with the Akalis, thanks to the goodwill which CM Parkash Singh Badal enjoys among the 50-plus population, but the younger generation is not interested in Parkash’s lip-services. The general perception is that Badal goes for Sangat Darshan (public meetings), announces grants but nothing on the ground changes. ‘He’s been doing it since ages now. You can’t run a modern state this way,’ adds Prof Ashutosh.

Professor Sadhu Singh, winner from Faridkot seat, says, ‘Education sector is in a great mess. Except private-owned educational institutions nothing is working in Punjab. Students are not getting scholarships, institutions are being denied grants. All central government schemes which proved to be successful in neighbouring Himachal and Haryana are a big flop in Punjab. The reason is that the state government could not contribute its financial share to the scheme because of bankruptcy. Working of every department has become scandalous.’
Pointing to deep-rooted corruption, Kanwar Sandhu says, ‘Akalis have made a provision of Halka in-charge (area in-charge) in every constituency whether their MLA is elected from there or not. They control the local police, local administration, local revenues, all departments are controlled by them and they make huge money. From getting a power connection to getting children enrolled in schools, a common man will have to approach this Akali agent and he will demand money for everything. The ruling party will have to do course correction lest it leads to their extinction.’

Uphill task for AAP

‘Despite all the success, AAP will have to keep in mind that both SAD and Congress will do their best to stage a comeback and they have enough time till  next assembly elections. First and foremost, AAP will have to get its act together by becoming a well-organised party in the state. A proper set-up, cadre, hierarchy, funds and future roadmap must be in place to sustain and become a mainstream party,’ said Thukral. Recognising the valid concern, Mann says, ‘In the next two months, our focus will remain on establishing the party more firmly. Now we are a registered party in the state with more than 24 per cent of vote share and we will be allotted a party office in the capital Chandigarh. Besides, we have a roadmap for expanding our party offices and cadre.’ 

Despite the shortcomings there are enough possibilities to grow and give people a political alternative in the state. Many still fear that AAP should not get complacent with the victory and commit mistakes like their leader Arvind Kejriwal stepping down as Delhi’s chief minister. ‘You can’t commit mistakes like Delhi. Party needs to go to the public, raise their issues; politics of individuals ((Kejriwal’s no to signing bail bond)) can never win public support in the long run.  

Besides, the top leadership will have to show maturity in their decisions,’ said a senior party worker on condition of anonymity.

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