India: Delhi’s ‘Common Man’ party gets election boost in Punjab

Upstart Aam Aadmi Party sweeps Punjab state polls, bolstering its hopes of becoming the main challenger to Modi’s BJP.

Delhi Chief Minister and leader of AAP Arvind Kejriwal
Delhi Chief Minister and AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal after the party's return to power in Delhi in 2020 [File: Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters]

A new political party that rules India’s capital has swept an election in Punjab state, bolstering its hopes of becoming the main challenger to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The vote count shows the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), led by Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, leading in 91 of 117 seats and looking set to beat the incumbent Congress party, the BJP, and a regional party by a wide margin, according to Election Commission data on Thursday.

The party – its name means “common man” in Hindi – emerged in 2012 out of an anti-corruption movement and soon went on to win power in the capital, home to 20 million people.

“Now there will be a national alternative to the BJP and Congress,” party spokesman Saurabh Bharadwaj, told Reuters news agency.

AAP’s appeal stems from Kejriwal’s reputation as an incorruptible leader with a track record of delivering public services, analysts say.

“He’s got a super clean image and he is seen as having done a very good job in Delhi,” Neelanjan Sircar, a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research think-tank, said of the 53-year-old former bureaucrat.

‘National force’

Modi and his BJP look strong in the run-up to India’s next general election, due by 2024 – the party has deep pockets, formidable electoral machinery and its Hindu nationalist agenda is a proven vote-winner. And no major challenger seems to exist on the national level.

The opposition has failed to coalesce around the Congress party, which ruled India for decades but has been unable to stem a slide in its popularity over recent years.

Once a party with a nationwide footprint, Congress is in turmoil after a 2019 national elections debacle, and some of its key young leaders have switched over to the BJP.

After losing in Punjab, Congress will have a hard time reviving its fortunes as regional parties like the AAP take up space and challenge BJP domination.

That raises the possibility that the AAP could grow and breathe new life into an anti-Modi bloc, said Sircar.

“Over time, it’s hard not to see Kejriwal and Aam Aadmi Party emerge as a serious opposition,” he said.

AAP supporters celebrate in Punjab
AAP supporters celebrate after learning of the initial poll results in Amritsar, Punjab [Reuters]

AAP leaders also say they are ready to take Modi on nationally.

“I see AAP becoming a national force. AAP is going to be the national and natural replacement of the Congress,” party spokesman Raghav Chadha told NDTV news channel.

AAP’s ‘Delhi model’

Aman Arora, a Punjab legislator who was inspired by Kejriwal to join the party in 2016, says voters in the breadbasket state of more than 27 million people were won over by the AAP’s performance in Delhi and the party had to build on that.

“Our biggest strength and driving force is the governance model of the last five years in Delhi,” said Arora, pointing to improvements in education and health that the AAP has showcased as the “Delhi model”.

The AAP will focus on building support in the northern states of Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, and Gujarat, Modi’s western home state, to show voters BJP is not the only choice, spokesman Bharadwaj said.

“In national politics, the BJP survives on the fact that there is no national alternative – the only alternative suggested is Congress, which is a weak alternative,” he said.

He acknowledged that taking on the BJP was a big challenge but said his party could use Punjab to show the rest of India just what it could do.

“We cannot compete with the BJP in terms of resources,” he said.

“But when we start performing in Punjab, there will be many reasons for people to vote for the Aam Aadmi Party.”

Source: News Agencies