AAP leaders Arvind Kejriwal and Manish Sisodia in New Delhi on March 10, 2022 (Photo: AP)
The Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) emphatic victory has upset all political equations in Punjab that was until now a classic two-party state. The massive score chalked up by AAP across the state, but especially in the Malwa region, clearly indicates the electorate’s disenchantment with Congress and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). These parties were not just reduced but decimated in what was a one-sided contest.
In the whirlwind sweeping Punjab, a number of giants have been felled. Parkash Singh Badal—10-time winner from his home turf Lambi—lost. In Jalalabad, his son and top Akali leader, Sukhbir Singh Badal was trounced. Congress, too, had its share of fallen giants. In Bhadaur and his home seat Chamkaur Sahib, Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi was defeated. In Amritsar East, Pradesh Congress Committee chief Navjot Singh Sidhu was defeated. In Patiala—his pocket borough—former Chief Minister Amarinder Singh was defeated. These are not ordinary results: the state’s existing leadership cutting across party lines has been, to use an indelicate expression, politically beheaded.
At the heart of AAP’s stupendous victory lay its ‘Malwa Strategy’: the party’s sustained focus on this seat-rich part of Punjab clicked finally. If one looks at the total seats the party won, Malwa alone accounts for a bulk of them. Unlike 2017 when the party won precious few seats outside Malwa, this time AAP’s footprint is pan-Punjab and includes major wins in Doaba and Majha. These regions are now integral to its political calculations. Back in 2017, the party won a significant 18 seats in the Malwa region that had long been considered an SAD fortress. While that number was nowhere near the mark needed to reach the secretariat in Chandigarh, it was nothing short of a tectonic shift in Punjab’s politics.
Come 2022, the same strategy has paid off dramatically. AAP has vacuum-cleaned the state, winning an overwhelming majority of the 69 seats in Malwa. Congress, which had won 40 of the 69 seats, has been trounced. And in what marks a historic political shift, SAD has been decimated in what was once considered its home turf. It is worth noting that since the time SAD emerged as a political formation in Punjab, it has never performed as poorly as it has now. The once dominant political force in the state has been reduced to a single-digit existence.
What explains AAP’s sweep? Malwa is the agrarian heart of Punjab, accounting for the bulk of crop output. It is also the centre of populist expectations from any government. Over the past two decades, every government in Punjab has indulged in economic populism but its impact has been disproportionate in Malwa. Free electricity, ever-rising Minimum Support Prices (MSPs), and more have created a surge of populist expectations from voters in the region. In its 2022 campaign, AAP promised a slew of sops and freebies to the electorate overall in Punjab but the message homed in successfully in Malwa.
At the heart of AAP’s victory lay its ‘Malwa strategy’: the party’s sustained focus on this seat-rich part of Punjab clicked finally. Unlike 2017 when it won precious few seats outside Malwa, this time AAP’s footprint is pan-Punjab
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The farmers’ agitation—that was centred in Malwa—led to these demands being pitched even higher. By the end of the agitation, it was not just maintaining the current system of food procurement but even amendments to the Electricity Act and ‘legalising’ MSP that became the core of farmers’ demands. These demands were not conceded but the populist pitch created fed into the political momentum ultimately harvested by AAP.
AAP’s gains in Malwa are almost a mirror image of Congress’ losses in this region. In 2017, Congress won 40 seats but this time it has been practically wiped out. The exit from Congress has fed directly into AAP’s kitty.
What made matters worse for Congress was its inability to set its house in order well in time before the elections. In the last two years, the anti-incumbent sentiment had been building steadily against the Amarinder Singh government. The party’s high command acted against Singh only after there was an open rebellion against his leadership. Even then, the party took small steps to craft a new leadership. Worse, the infighting between the top leaders—Channi and Sidhu—did not abate right up to the point when Channi was announced as the chief ministerial candidate, barely a fortnight before polling. By then, the damage had been done.
Channi as the chief ministerial face was supposed to work wonders for Congress. An experienced leader who is a Dalit was expected to wipe clean the slate of the electorate’s past disappointments. Channi chose not to press hard on the issue of sacrilege that had led to anger against the Amarinder Singh government. At the same time, a Dalit as chief minister was expected to help the party shore up support in Doaba, a region where the Dalit vote is concentrated. That did not help Congress make the gains it had expected in the region which accounts for 23 of the 117 Assembly seats. This step did very little to lift the party’s fortunes in Malwa. If anything, it is a matter of debate whether his projection as the chief ministerial face actually damaged Congress’ prospects in the politically dominant region.
The earlier assessments of multi-cornered contests across the state leading to narrow victory margins have proven wrong. The Sanyukt Samaj Morcha (SSN)—the party forged by agitating farmers and their leaders—was expected to hold some sway even if the formation was not expected to win many seats. It did neither.
The election results have also put a question mark against SAD whose vote share has gone down: from 33.2 per cent it has fallen by almost half in 2022. Its seats tally has consequently been reduced drastically: from 18 seats to just three. SAD’s rout on its home turf, Malwa, where its core constituency of Jat farmers is concentrated, shows the party has lost traction badly. This is not something that has happened overnight, but steadily since 2012. SAD has performed badly across all regions. It was, traditionally, not a dominant party in Doaba but had a degree of support in Majha where the religious or ‘panthic’ vote was a mainstay of its support. This time, even that has gone. There is now a big question about SAD’s future prospects in a two-party system whose poles are AAP and Congress. SAD has been edged out.
Punjab has experienced a tectonic political shift. Its two mainstream parties, Congress and SAD have been edged out by an ‘outside’ political formation, an event rarely seen in any Indian state. But the road to this stage was prepared by Congress and SAD. At one time, these parties sought to outbid each other on the basis of wooing the ‘panthic’ or religious vote. In the three decades since the end of terrorism in Punjab, these parties reinvented the political wheel and sought influence by taking Punjab ever deeper into economic populism. The ‘outside’ force finally walked in with a more attractive variant of populism.