Call it voter fatigue or disenchantment with the deeply entrenched ‘netas’ – be it the Akali Dal, the BJP or the Congress – the ‘Jhadu’ has mopped up a historic win in Punjab, riding on the promise of ‘honest politics’ and holding the hope of overhaul of a rickety political system.
It was the compelling desire for change, stemming from the political angst, which gave Aam Aadmi Party an overwhelming victory in Punjab. Successive elections thus far had been won either by the Congress or the Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP combine.
This time the verdict was loud and emphatic: the voters did not want a hackneyed ‘neta’ with his clichéd approach anywhere near the state secretariat. Instead, they trusted an untested party and its maverick leader, Bhagwant Mann, who was derided as a “joker”.
For the record, AAP has won 92 of the 117 seats and its political inexperienced candidates trounced all the aspirants for the chief minister’s post – Amarinder Singh, Navjot Singh Sidhu, the Badals and the incumbent CM Charanjit Singh Channi. The most ignominious defeat was that of Channi who lost both his seats. In Bhadaur, he lost to Labh Singh Ugoke of the AAP, who runs a small mobile repair shop and campaigned on his motorcycle.
What makes the verdict exceptional is that the AAP was able to cobble together a formidable social coalition by reaching out to disparate groups - Sikh Jat, Dalit, urban, rural, trader, the service class – stretching across the three regions of Malwa, Doaba and Majha.
The AAP will now have the distinction of sharing with the Congress the laurels in two states -- Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh in the case of the Congress and Delhi and Punjab in the case of the AAP.
The Congress thought that by replacing Captain Amarinder Singh with Channi, who belongs to the Scheduled Caste, at the eleventh hour, the party would be able to consolidate its vote bank. But by contesting from two constituencies, Channi almost confessed to the whole world that he was not confident about his own victory.
For once, he was right, as Channi’s rout underscores. Nobody believed that his bete noire in the party, Navjot Singh Sidhu, would give him any breathing space, even if the party had won. In the end, the people decided to prick the bloated Sidhu balloon by voting against him in Amritsar.
If most Congressmen consider Sidhu as a one-man army that demolished the party from within the ranks, they cannot be faulted. It was he who revolted against Captain Amarinder Singh and explored all absurd political permutations and combinations before, finally, staying put in his plum post.
Amarinder Singh, who prefers to be called Maharaja, despite his votes coming from hoi polloi, should have realised that his innings was over and gracefully quit the post in favour of another Congressman; but he preferred to try his luck by floating his own outfit.
History will record that the BJP did a blunder by forming an alliance with the Captain’s party when he could not win his own pocket-borough in Patiala. The voters have discarded his politics of privilege with the contempt it deserves.
The less said about the SAD, the better. The party became a caricature of its former self, when it fielded its paterfamilias and five-time former chief minister Parkash Singh Badal in his “traditional” seat. He created a record when he contested at the ripe old age of 94!
Only a party, which had utter contempt for democratic values, would have allowed a nonagenarian, being chaperoned by a loyalist, to walk to the office of the returning officer to file his nomination. The picture raised eyebrows all over.
It showed Badal’s unwillingness to remain out of power and the party’s bankruptcy of leadership. In the process, his own son and SAD chief Sukhbir Badal continued to languish in his shadow and was finally show the exit.
Worse, Sukhbir Badal’s son-in-law Adesh Partap Singh Kairon and his brother-in-law Bikram Majithia were also trounced. Cousin Manpreet Badal, who contested on the Congress ticket, also tasted defeat. This, hopefully, marks the end of family politics in Punjab.
Significantly enough, all the veterans of Punjab politics were defeated by virtual greenhorns, many of whom were not even known outside their mohalla. Of course, they benefited from the voters' desire to have a new set of rulers with no baggage they are ashamed of carrying.
AAP leader Aravind Kejriwal’s experiment of letting the people themselves choose their chief ministerial candidate in advance seems to have had a huge impact on the voters who felt that they had a say even in the selection of the chief minister.
It had an electrifying effect, unlike Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s last-minute announcement that Channi would remain chief minister. It is not that the AAP is a new entity in Punjab. There were exit polls even in 2017, which had said that the AAP would emerge the single largest party.
In the outgoing Assembly, it was the AAP, not the SAD and the BJP, which formed the largest Opposition group. For the Congress, the only satisfaction is that it will be able to lead the Opposition under, perhaps, a new leader.
The CM-designate’s announcements that there would be no pictures of him in government offices and the swearing-in ceremony would be held at Khatkarkalan in Nawanshahr, associated with Bhagat Singh, not at Raj Bhavan, all have their symbolic value. But politics is often about messaging rather than optics.
More importantly, he has brought back into use the slogan “Inquilab Zindabad” (Long live the revolution), uttered by Bhagat Singh as he was hanged to death by the British. Hopefully, a good beginning makes a good ending!