Delhi’s AAP looks set for historic win in Punjab
Modi’s BJP in line to win a rare second term in Uttar Pradesh
By: John Elliott
Two politically important results emerged on March 7 in exit polls for five India state assembly elections held over the last four weeks. One is a likely historic win in Punjab for the Delhi-based Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which would introduce a new player into national politics. The other is a significant win for Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the key state of Uttar Pradesh.
The polls were released when polling ended yesterday evening, and votes were to be counted on March 10. An average of six exit polls forecast that the AAP will win a workable majority with around 65 seats in Punjab’s 117-seat assembly, compared with just 28 for the Congress Party, which is currently in power, and around 19 seats for the Shiromani Akali Dal (Alkalis), the main Sikh party.
The BJP is forecast for maybe four seats. This is of course only based on exit polls and the final figures could vary widely.
This would be the AAP’s first win outside Delhi, where it has run the government under the leadership of Arvind Kejriwal (pictured), the party’s founder and the capital city’s chief minister, since 2013 (apart from a one-year gap in 2014). The party’s roots are in a large-scale anti-corruption campaign a decade ago where Kejriwal, a former bureaucrat, played a prominent role. It also has candidates in the current Goa state election.
The likely Punjab result would be a blow for Modi, who has relentlessly tried to undermine the Kejriwal government since becoming prime minister in 2014. Delhi doesn’t have the constitutional status of a full state, which means that the chief minister shares power with an appointed lieutenant governor who exerts authority on behalf of the national government’s home ministry. In the Punjab, the AAP will therefore be in full charge of its government for the first time.
Stung by a massive defeat for the BJP in the capital’s 2015 assembly election, Modi defied the electoral choice of Delhi voters and set out to make Kejriwal’s administration as non-functional as possible by ordering the lieutenant governor to block legislative and administrative initiatives and appointments. That was reversed in July 2018 by the Supreme Court, which ruled that the national government should not interfere with, or attempt to undermine, Kejriwal’s administration. That however has not quelled the interference.
Denigrated by many as an upstart that performs no better than long-established parties, the nine-year-old AAP has made significant improvements in Delhi’s government schools and mohalla primary health clinics, and also on subsidized water and electricity.
The Punjab result would also be a disaster for the Congress and would reveal once again the Gandhi dynasty’s failings as leaders, though the party might be doing well this week in two other small states, Uttarakhand and Goa.
The Congress was led to a substantial victory in the last Punjab assembly elections in 2017 by Captain Amarinder Singh, a veteran politician who became chief minister for a second time. It won 77 seats against 20 for the AAP that was putting up candidates for in the state the first time. An alliance between the Akalis and the BJP won 15.
Age 80 on March 11, and a military historian as well as a politician, Singh was accused of being a remote and ineffectual chief minister who rarely emerged from his palatial residence and allowed rampant corruption and expansion of illicit drug trade.
A rival emerged when Navjot Singh Sidhu, former international cricket star, became active in politics and tried to unseat him, harnessing the support of Rajiv Gandhi, the ineffectual Congress leader, and his sister, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra.
The Gandhis seemed to encourage Singh Sidhu to undermine the proud chief minister’s authority and image. Knowing he had lost their support, Amarinder resigned last September and linked up with the BJP while Singh Sidhu, who became rebellious and over-assertive, was sidelined to head the state’s party organization.
Another Sikh politician, Charanjit Singh Channi, became chief minister and has led the Congress campaign. Channi is a Dalit, formerly known as “untouchables” at the bottom of the caste system. His appointment was seen partly as a bid to win this important part of the Punjab electorate votes.
Unsurprisingly, Gandhi’s mishandling of the Amarinder succession reduced Congress’s standing in the state and enabled the AAP to emerge as a party that advocated strong governance and development without any religious or dynastic overtones.
In contrast to the Congress’s Gandhi manipulations, it chose its chief ministerial candidate after a poll of members that backed Bhagwant Mann, a former stand-up comedian.
In an attempt to undermine the AAP in Punjab, there have been allegations – strongly denied – that it has links with leaders of the Khalistan movement that campaigned militantly for Punjab’s independence from India in the 1980s. The movement still has support abroad, particularly in Canada and the UK.
A letter allegedly issued by a banned pro-Khalistan group, Sikhs For Justice (SGJ), expressing support for the AAP spread across social media last month but was disowned both by the AAP and the group in a fact check run by India Today magazine.
The BJP supported the reports with Anurag Thakur, the information and broadcasting minister in the Modi government, repeating an allegation made by a former AAP member that Kejriwal had said he wanted to become the prime minister of “Khalistan”.
That is surely an unthinkable statement for a chief minister of Delhi who has national political ambitions.
Meanwhile, an average of six Uttar Pradesh exit polls gives about 240 seats to the BJP with its main rival, the state-based Samajwadi Party having about 150 and the Congress just four to six.
This would be the first time a party in power has won a second term in the state since 1985. It will be seen as a vote both for the controversial Hindutva-based chief minister Yogi Adityanath, and also for Modi who stamped his image on the election with extensive campaigning.
That sets Modi with a strong platform to move ahead to the 2024 general election, as well as projecting Adityanath as a major BJP figure.
John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s South Asia correspondent. He blogs at Riding the Elephant.