The thought of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) winning Punjab, India and becoming a Congress-replacing national force does not evoke much excitement because we’ve seen this movie before.
The Kejriwal-led party was formed in 2012 and has been threatening to become a national alternative to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress since then. But Godot never arrives.
The lack of enthusiasm is also because AAP has betrayed the promise of bringing radical change in Indian politics. They’ve become just another sinister party and are more opportunist than others.
Nonetheless, there is a very high chance the AAP is going to win Punjab in March 2022, becoming the only non-Congress, non-BJP party to have 2 chief ministers. They could also win significant seats and votes in Uttarakhand and Goa, which are also going to the polls in Feb-March 2022.
Snatching defeat from jaws of victory
They had just the same opportunity 5 years ago and they blew it. Surrounded with sycophantic novices for advisers, Kejriwal made mistake after mistake in Punjab, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. The Congress party won the election, getting a much-needed boost to its sagging morale.
Five years later, the Congress government in Punjab, led by Captain Amarinder Singh, is fairly unpopular. To make matters worse, the Congress has made Navjot Singh Sidhu, the Captain’s bête noire, the president of the Punjab Congress.
Sidhu and Captain are openly undermining each other. Even if the AAP makes mistakes it did last time, it should have an easy time winning an election the Congress is desperate to lose.
Making some mark in Uttarakhand and Goa as well, the AAP will set its sights on Gujarat. In urban areas of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state, AAP has an opportunity to fill the political vacuum.
The shift in national politics will be immediate and too big to ignore. It will be like the thud of a rock falling from the sky. The Congress party will begin to lose its position as the sole national opposition party. Leaders from Congress will begin to gravitate towards AAP. A speedy cannibalisation of the Congress party cannot be ruled out.
This can only be a dream scenario for prime minister Narendra Modi and his BJP. An already fragmented opposition will appear to be even more scattered. There is nothing the Congress fears more than losing its position as the main national opposition party.
An expansionist BJP
Since 2014, regional parties have largely been busy saving their turfs from an expansionist BJP, leaving national politics to a listless Congress. As AAP begins to project itself as a national alternative, an insecure Congress party will likely see itself attacking AAP on a daily basis, only making them bigger.
The Congress party is at peace losing elections. What they’re not OK is losing their monopoly over the main opposition status. When voters are done with BJP, they will turn to Congress for want of options, goes the Congress argument. An AAP victory in Punjab will silence this line of argument.
This could well be the beginning of the end of the Indian National Congress, unless the AAP goofs up again and decides to lose a winning election. There’s a small chance that competition may finally jolt the Congress out of the blue, but we doubt it.
Unless the Gandhi family acquires a killer instinct to win at all costs, not even a Prashant Kishor can save them from becoming history.
The Aam Aadmi Party’s recent tilt towards Hindu nationalism is part of a (poorly thought out) strategy to woo the BJP voter. This means the AAP won’t get much Muslim vote. As AAP weakens Congress, the Congress’ loyal Muslim vote will find yet more reasons to vote for alternatives such as the Asaduddin Owaisi-led AIMIM.
This fragmentation of opposition votes and forces should be seen as a ‘manthan’, a great churning. Out of this churning a new kind of opposition politics may emerge. What may look chaotic in 2024 general elections could produce a new national paradigm by 2029.
In the short run too, something positive may emerge out of the likely rise of AAP. By bringing down the arrogance of the Congress party, the AAP may end up making the conversation over opposition unity an equal one.
We have seen in recent past how the Congress takes more seats in pre-poll coalitions than it can chew. Such arrogance of the Congress could become a thing of the past by March 2022.