Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal with Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) Chief Ministerial candidate for Punjab Assembly elections Bhagwant Mann. Image Credit: ANI

The 2019 general elections in India marked the beginning of the post-Congress era in Indian politics. The party has not won a single state election since then.

While the usual excuse we hear is that it can’t compete with Hindu nationalism due to its commitment to secularism, the party has failed to win even states with high percentages of religious minorities: Assam, Kerala, Goa and Punjab.

There is little doubt we are already in the post-Congress era. The question remains: who will replace the Congress? Since the dominant BJP wins around 40% votes, who do the rest vote for?

Nature abhors a vacuum. A gust of wind will come and fill it. That gust of wind has just made its presence felt in Punjab. The Aam Aadmi Party, founded in 2012, has made history by winning Punjab. With 92 of 117 seats, the AAP defeated many stalwarts of traditional Punjab politics.

The Aam Aadmi Party and the Congress party are now equal in one metric: they both have two chief ministers each. The AAP becomes only the third party in India to have more than one chief minister among 31.

This is a turning point in Indian politics no doubt. This is a validation that the Aam Aadmi Party has been seeking for a while. The Punjab victory helps AAP disprove its critics who said it could at best be a Delhi party, it doesn’t know rural politics or can’t navigate through the matrix of caste and community in elections more complex than Delhi.

After winning Punjab, the AAP has already declared it sees Arvind Kejriwal as a future prime minister. The Congress party itself doesn’t have the guts to say this about Rahul Gandhi. The AAP’s audacity will take it far. But can they really become a serious challenger to the BJP in national politics? Can it win more seats than the Congress in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections?

Your columnist has his doubts. Here’s why.

AAP thinks the centre is won through states

Having won Puniab, the AAP wants to try its luck in neighbouring Himachal Pradesh and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state, Gujarat. Like Rahul Gandhi, Arvind Kejriwal is wrong in thinking the centre can be won through states. It works the other way round. It is when you rise in national politics that the states follow.

The Indian National Congress came out of a pan-India freedom movement. The BJP began to taste electoral success only after a national movement for the Ram temple in Ayodhya. The Aam Aadmi Party itself was born out of a national movement, for an anticorruption movement.

The AAP took two election cycles to win Punjab, a state that was dying to have AAP. They will probably spend similar time trying to win Himachal. Gujarat will help them create a national impression that they are taking on the BJP but if they lose these two states in December this year, it will create the perception that AAP’s national rise has been stalled just as it was in 2017.

Like the Congress, the AAP sets itself for failure by making states the steps to a journey to the centre. One step missed, and many years are lost.

They could mess up Puniab

Arvind Kejriwal’s insecurity makes him authoritarian in nature — nothing that other party leaders are not. But this means that Kejriwal and his aides are very likely to make a mess in Punjab.

There’s a very high chance they could waste their mandate in Puniab by continuously undermining chief minister Bhagwant Mann with the fear that he could emerge bigger than Kejriwal since he has a full state to run.

The Punjab unit of the AAP may have to learn to live with Kejriwal versus Bhagwant factions, this factionalism taking the party down in the manner of the Congress. AAP can’t afford to let Bhagwant Mann succeed because it could diminish Kejriwal’s stature in the party.

AAP could make many mistakes out of overconfidence

The Aam Aadmi Party has already declared it sees Arvind Kejriwal as a future prime minister. The stupendous victory in Puniab will most certainly go to their heads. It was out of similar lack of humility that they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in Punjab in 2017.

An assertive AAP will see the BJP make a strong effort to undermine AAP and damage their public perception. The BJP will lay traps for AAP to fall into, especially in Delhi. And the AAP will likely fall into these traps.

We make our greatest mistakes when we are on a high, like the AAP is right now.