Arvind Kejriwal
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal Image Credit: ANI

Five years ago, in 2017, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) made a number of mistakes that led it to lose the Punjab assembly election. Many of these mistakes came out of Arvind Kejriwal’s barely secret ambition to become the Chief Minister of Punjab himself.

The very thought was outrageous. In a state with an unwritten consensus that only a turbaned Jatt Sikh could be chief minister, here was a Hindu Baniya from Haryana via Delhi wanting to be Punjab CM.

Five years later, quite a few voters don’t mind the thought. Surveys show that at least a fifth of Punjab’s voters don’t mind if Kejriwal himself becomes CM.

Selling Kejriwal as a symbol of trust

The main reason for this unlikely acceptability is that Kejriwal and his party have successfully sold the so-called “Delhi model” of governance that focuses on good quality education and health care.

Much of this “Delhi model”, in this writer’s assessment, is hot air. Alas, the problem with propaganda is that it works. The AAP has sold to quite a few voters in Punjab that Arvind Kejriwal has some new magic potion for magical good governance, and many are buying it. The AAP argument is that Kejriwal has “done it” in Delhi and should thus be trusted in Punjab.

For those who may still be sceptical, the party has the persuasive argument, “Ik mauka Kejriwal nu” (One chance for Kejriwal). Note that it doesn’t say one chance for AAP but for Kejriwal.

The party’s campaign for Punjab is all about Kejriwal, as if he was the CM candidate. Kejriwal’s promises, Kejriwal’s guarantees, Kejriwal this, Kejriwal that. Except, he has himself been saying his party will announce a CM candidate and he will be from Punjab.

The incidental CM

The announcement could come any day now and most people believe it will be Bhagwant Mann. They tried hard looking for a good name who doesn’t threaten Kejriwal, but could not.

Whether it is Mann or someone else, why is the campaign all about Kejriwal? The whole point of a CM candidate is to win in his name, to use his face for trust. The CM of a state is all-powerful, except of course the half-state of Delhi.

Kejriwal is thus offering a unique model: there will be a Punjabi CM candidate but please vote not in his name but Kejriwal’s, OK?

To the extent that this is actually working with voters, they don’t even need to announce a CM candidate anymore. Yes, Congress CM Charanjit Singh Channi has become a bit of a star but his saboteur colleague Navjot Singh Sidhu should take care of him.

But Kejriwal will announce a CM candidate out of abundant precaution, since the lack of one was partly responsible for AAP’s defeat last time. Yet the candidate is being announced less than a month before polling day.

Delhi will be the new capital of Punjab

All these months, Kejriwal has waged a Kejriwal campaign to make it clear who the boss will be. He has asked voters in Punjab to trust him. He may not even speak Punjabi but at least he is the architect of the great new paradigm of development called Free Electricity.

In other words, Kejriwal is transparently making it clear he’s proposing to be Super CM, responsible for delivering the many impossible promises he’s handing out. The CM sitting in Chandigarh will be an executor of Kejriwal’s will, for the will of the people of Punjab will be Kejriwal.

There is speculation in AAP circles that a Kejriwal aide could be made deputy CM of Punjab to keep a check on the CM. This deputy CM may be a bit like the Lt. Governor of Delhi — more powerful than the CM.

Winning the national argument

Kejriwal is making the CM candidate, and the CM, incidental. Winning Punjab in his own name is far too important for Arvind Kejriwal. It’s not so much that he wants to govern a state where he has at least the police force to himself. Kejriwal’s ambition is the larger canvas of national politics.

If Kejriwal can win Punjab with a Kejriwal campaign, he can claim with some justification that he is now a national leader spanning geographies. He can claim India is willing and able to give him a chance.

Charanjit Singh Channi’s attacks on Kejriwal as an outsider are not finding resonance among voters in the way that the ‘outsider’ badge worked against AAP in 2017. Perhaps a significant chunk of voters don’t mind Super CM Kejriwal.

But if AAP actually wins and forms a government, it is not hard to see how this formula with two power centres will create a mess, as will AAP’s impossible promises. If Punjab buys one more dream, it will be in for one more disappointment.