It is not just a loss. The Aam Aadmi Party’s defeat in the Sangrur byelection in the Indian state of Punjab has enough ramifications to send different stakeholders in the state scrambling. In just 3 months after a landslide victory, AAP has lost its stronghold — Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann won from Sangrur twice, by over 2 lakh votes in 2014 and over 1 lakh in 2019 and vacated his borough after becoming an MLA to take over the reins of the state. Such though has been AAP’s dominance in the Sangrur parliamentary constituency that in the assembly elections earlier this year the party had swept all nine assembly seats winning an average of 40% votes.
AAP’s setback also has national implications. Kejriwal’s party no longer has any representation in the Lok Sabha.
But it is the winner of the five-way battle at Sangrur who is causing unease, flitting into the restless space that AAP hasn’t been able to calm since coming into power. Kept in political wilderness for the last two decades by both the Congress (despite being related to Amarinder Singh) and the Shiromani Akali Dal, Simranjit Singh Mann until now was considered an insignificant leftover of Punjab’s terrorism era. (Mann’s Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar) has no links with the larger Shiromani Akali Dal.)
Political rehabilitation of Mann
He had even lost the recent assembly elections but it took AAP just 100 days to enable his political rehabilitation, 77- year- old Mann returns to Parliament by defeating the AAP candidate by less than 6,000 votes. Was it a win for a candidate or his radical ideology, in Simranjit Singh Mann’s case it is hard to separate one from the other. In 1990, he was stopped from entering Parliament with a kirpan — a curved dagger that is a Sikh article of faith.
Predictably after the victory, Mann invoked the teachings of Bhindrawale, a religious preacher who in the 80s led a heinous wave of terror in the state from which Punjab even today has never fully found its feet again. It should worry, is there a slight shift in the winds? How has a man who promotes extremism, who was successfully kept at bay for 20 years found support? Congress spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala’s tweet raised the red flag, “Punjab can’t be pushed back in the blind alley of violence and terrorism.”
AAP in Punjab never really had a honeymoon period, but Mann’s win is an abrupt end to any leeway given for a fresh start. Public anger against the killing of Sidhu Moosewala in May has still not abated, his followers blame the government for removing the singer’s security a day before he was shot dead. Moosewala’s song released posthumously may have been taken down by YouTube in India for content promoting extremism but his popularity shows how the party has a lot of ground to cover to take the state’s youth away from the summer of discontent.
Sikh voters have more faith in Mann taking up their cause, state watchers say the farm protests have also re-ignited buried radical discourse.
AAP had enough prior warnings on how Punjab is no Delhi and that its law and order is complex, whether due to its history or being a border state. The opposition is only waiting for an opportunity to highlight the party’s political inexperience and derail its inroads into Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat.
Amarinder Singh as the Congress chief minister was shadowed by allegations that he was inaccessible. For now it seems AAP has not learnt that lesson. Local leaders are accused of not being reachable but the biggest grouse remains that Punjab and its governance is being remote controlled by Delhi with the state unit struggling to work independently of the national high command. What hasn’t helped were images of Arvind Kejriwal holding centre stage during the roadshows in Sangrur with Bhagwant Mann hanging literally by the side.
Sangrur further complicates matters for the Shiromani Akali Dal that was wiped out in the elections and is now completely marginalised. Instead of rebuilding, it now faces calls for the resignation of its top leadership by the SGPC — the religious apex body of the Sikhs — that it ironically controls. Sukhbir Badal during his tenures was accused of diluting traditional Pathic values especially since the sacrilege of the Guru Granth Sahib in Bargari town 2015 and the police firing after, considered a turning point in Akali politics.
It was to gain back some traction the party followed Simranjit Singh Mann by making Kamaldeep Kaur, sister of Balwant Singh Rajoana who has been convicted for the killing of ex-chief Minister Beant Singh, as their candidate. While Mann won, in the multi-cornered contest, Kaur lost her deposit and finished last.
The implications for the SAD are stark, Sikh voters have more faith in Mann taking up their cause, state watchers say the farm protests have also re-ignited buried radical discourse. A 13-member committee set up by the party leadership has already asked for Sukhbir’s resignation from the party president’s post as the first step in its revival.
Like the Congress, AAP too had promised justice in the sacrilege case. Like the Congress, it hasn’t done anything either. It may be early days but Kejriwal had promised action within 24 hours and if the voters turnaround in the byelection have shown one thing, in Punjab you either walk the talk or face consequences.