For Kejriwal, will it be paanch saal Punjab?

Arvind Kejriwal’s short political career has been full of dramatic plunges, shifts and changes. He could now be poised to make another big move: the groundswell of demand and findings of pre-election surveys, one done by C-voter and others by the AAP itself suggest that he could soon be compelled to make the announcement that he is the chief ministerial candidate for the Punjab elections due in February next year.
There is a view that this should happen sooner rather than later as the ambiguity on the issue is hard to sustain. First, Delhi would have to be prepared for the “shock” that instead of “Paanch Saal Kejriwal” its potentially turning out to be “Paanch Saal Punjab”. The reasons for the AAP leader making the move are stacking up in the surveys. Since December 2015, when the AAP used its volunteer force to do the first survey, the potential support in Punjab surprised the party. What was clear even then was that Kejriwal’s popularity outstripped that of his party.
The AAP does not make public its surveys. But those done by C-Voter-Huffington Post in the course of 2016 show a curious disconnect in the fact that it indicates that AAP seems likely to win nearly 100 seats of the 117. But without Kejriwal’s name in the fray Captain Amarinder Singh of the Congress is the most popular choice for chief minister (he was the Chief Minister from 2002 to 2007). Moreover, the Captain’s popularity has risen from 26 per cent in 2015 to 37 per cent in 2016.
Over the same period, the popularity of the AAP’s Bhagwat Mann has gone down from 26 per cent to 11 per cent, while Navjot Singh Sidhu’s has not crossed 16 per cent. The approval ratings for Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal and his son Sukhbir Badal are also low, suggesting strong anti-incumbency.
But when Kejriwal’s name is put into the choices, 59 per cent say he should be the Chief Minister and 51 per cent say they would choose him over Amarinder Singh. That is proving to be the clincher and should Kejriwal take the plunge he would no doubt fight against a high profile candidate. The options could be Prakash Singh Badal or Amarinder Singh. But the Congress leader is the Member Parliament from Amritsar and not currently a member of the Assembly and it’s not clear which seat he would fight from, if at all. But it’s worth recalling that the Captain had some months ago challenged Kejriwal to contest against him in any seat of the latter’s choice. Should it materialise, the Captain vs Kejriwal would be a riveting contest. Since the separation of Haryana in 1966, Punjab has had only Sikh Chief ministers (the community makes of 66 per cent of the population) and most with the exception of Giani Zail Singh have been Jat Sikhs. It’s already been asked by Captain, how can a “Haryanvi” rule Punjab? Besides, the Akalis have been trying to entrap the AAP in the tricky terrain of religion. All of that would no doubt come into play should Kejriwal be the declared Chief Ministerial candidate.
If this scenario does unfold it would be worth remembering that it is in breaking the “dominant caste” theory of politics that Kejriwal has something in common with the man he attacks the most, the Prime Minister. When Narendra Modi went to Gujarat in 2001, he replaced the BJP Chief Minister from the dominant Patedar community, Keshubhai Patel (and Modi himself came from a Backward community without significant numerical strength). In spite of the old BJP Patel leadership constantly trying to fan rebellion against him, Modi stayed the course and went from strength to strength in Gujarat, winning three elections in the state with the support of the Patedars.
Modi’s last win in Gujarat was recorded in the winter of 2012 and he would leave mid-term to become the Prime Minister (should Kejriwal leave Delhi he could also cite the Modi precedent). But it also cannot be ignored that since Modi’s departure, the BJP leadership that replaced him in Gujarat has hardly impressed and there is currently a breakdown of the social order in the state.
The consequences in Delhi are therefore what Kejriwal should worry about. A month after the Punjab elections, the polls to the municipal corporation of Delhi (MCD) take place. These civic body polls are significant for the AAP as their governance attempts in Delhi have been frustrated at multiple levels: by the Lt Governor, a hostile Centre and the fact that the party does not have the MCD under its control.
What the AAP would be banking on is the fact that its vote share was a staggering 66 per cent in the 2015 elections to the Delhi assembly. Even if a chunk has gone, they consider themselves now entrenched with a section of the urban poor in Delhi. They would arguably say that the AAP model is there to stay in Delhi, with Manish Sisodia the Deputy Chief Minister becoming Chief Minister. Knowing Kejriwal, he could also rationalise a move by saying that the chief ministership of a full state would strengthen his party’s hand in Delhi where they are being suffocated at various levels.