Punjab: How Navjot Sidhu's Elevation in Congress May Make AAP Rework Strategy
There's a desire for change in Punjab, and both AAP and Navjot Sidhu are trying to tap into this sentiment.
The appointment of Navjot Singh Sidhu as the president of the Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee has altered political equations in Punjab, not just for the Congress but also for its opponents.
The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), that has been witnessing an increase in support in the past few months, may be recalibrating its strategy following Sidhu's appointment.
This article will look at the following five questions:
What is changing in AAP's strategy?
What was AAP's calculation regarding Sidhu?
What's AAP's present standing in Punjab?
Why is Sidhu a threat to it?
What could lie ahead?
CHANGE IN AAP'S STRATEGY
Till recently, the AAP had desisted from attacking Sidhu and had instead been focusing its attacks on the Congress government Captain Amarinder Singh government and the previous SAD-BJP government in the state.
As of last month, AAP convenor Arvind Kejriwal had said that Sidhu was "welcome to join AAP".
This began changing when it became clear that Sidhu may get accommodated within the Congress. The AAP accused Sidhu of having overdue electricity bills.
Last week, the AAP's Punjab unit president Bhagwant Mann dared Sidhu to speak against the power purchase agreements in Punjab. "Thoko tweet" Mann said, taking a dig at Sidhu using the latter's catchphrase "thoko taali".
The recent attacks ended months of the AAP's soft approach towards Sidhu, which stemmed from its own political calculations.
WHAT WAS AAP'S CALCULATION REGARDING SIDHU?
Though the AAP openly said that Sidhu was "welcome to join", the party didn't make him an offer that would have ensured that he crosses over.
The AAP leadership was quite clear that it won't make Sidhu its CM face in Punjab. This may have been due to fears that the maverick leader may be too "independent" or it could be due to the AAP's existing leadership in Punjab.
The AAP basically wanted Sidhu to leave the Congress and form his own party, hoping that it would diminish the Congress' base and winning chances. It wasn't particular that he joins the AAP.
As a result, Sidhu chose to seek out a better deal within the Congress rather than switching sides.
WHAT'S AAP'S PRESENT SITUATION IN PUNJAB?
There is no doubt a desire for 'change' in Punjab and a great deal of dissatisfaction with the entire political class. Though the AAP is not immune from this dissatisfaction, the anger is much more directed towards the SAD and the Congress, that have dominated Punjab's politics since the past five decades.
The BJP's condition is even worse due to the anger against farm laws – its leaders are finding it difficult even to hold small public meetings.
"We've tried all these parties, let's give AAP a chance" is a common refrain among many voters in Punjab, though there are regional variations in this.
The AAP is emerging as a major beneficiary of the dissatisfaction in Punjab. The party's hope was that this surge could help it overcome both the decline it had faced since the last Assembly elections as well as its structural weakness in the Majha and Doaba regions.
WHY IS SIDHU A THREAT?
However, Sidhu's elevation could complicate matters for the AAP. Sidhu has been a perpetual rebel despite being in mainstream parties – the BJP from 2004 to 2016 and Congress from 2017 till date. He has been a steadfast critic of the Badals and later of Captain as well – both figures who have become increasingly unpopular in Punjab.
Unlike the Badals and Captain, who are seen as representing entrenched political interests, Sidhu isn't seen as a career politician as he made his name first as a sportsperson and then a TV personality.
Like the AAP, Sidhu, too, has been promising 'change' in Punjab's politics. Therefore, both are competing for the same section of votes.
Will the voters seeking change pick a new kind of party like the AAP or a new kind of leader like Sidhu? This question may decide what lies ahead in Punjab.
WHAT LIES AHEAD
A lot would depend on how the Congress handles its two power centres – Captain as the CM and Sidhu as PCC chief.
With Sidhu heading the state unit, it is possible that he will get a major say in ticket selection. But his initial step of getting a majority of sitting MLAs on his side, does indicate that he may retain many of them.
This could harm Sidhu's case as many of the MLAs are facing a great deal of anti-incumbency.
Then the Congress would also have to take a call who it is projecting as the CM – Sidhu or Captain.
If the party chooses to project both, then again Sidhu's pitch as an agent of 'change' would get diluted.
Coming to the AAP, it would now have to work extra hard to overcome its structural weaknesses in the Majha and Doaba regions as well as among Hindus across the state.
Sidhu is from Majha and his appointment could boost the Congress' prospects in the region.
The AAP doesn't have a face in either Doaba or Majha and it would have to address this.
The party also doesn't have a credible Hindu face in the state. As of now, the party is trying to project former cop Kunwar Vijay Pratap Singh as an important Hindu face and he is likely to contest from an urban seat in the Majha region.
But he isn't seen as a Hindu leader and may not be able to challenge the Congress' hold over the community's votes. The only hope in such a scenario would be a tactical shift of BJP voters.
The Congress on its part would also have to rework its strategy of retaining its Hindu vote bank. Captain Amarinder Singh had a certain credibility among Hindu voters but it is not clear if Sidhu will also be able to command the same kind of support.
In case the AAP realises in the next few weeks that its recent surge in Punjab is slowing down, it may also be compelled to form an alliance with the rebel SAD leaders like Sukhdev Dhindsa and Ranjit Singh Brahmpura.
The party has been in negotiations with them and apparently the deal breaker has been its insistence that they contest on AAP tickets.
It's clear that an interesting churn is underway in Punjab politics, with the AAP and a Sidhu-led Congress both promising change. In such a scenario, it is also important not to underestimate the Badals and Captain, both of whom are far more entrenched in Punjab's political landscape. More on that later.
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