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AAP in Punjab: Is It 'Chardi Kala' Moment for Both the Party and the State?

With the Punjab win, AAP has the brilliant opportunity to emerge as the definitive alternative in national politics.

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Punjab’s fertile lands of five rivers (‘Punj’ or five, and ‘aab’ or water) are naturally given to simple, hardy and proud folks of agrarian communities. Its geographical anchorage against centuries of ravages by marauding invaders explains its decidedly martial tradition. And its civilisational-cultural-religious diversity and earthy wisdom are the reason for its unflinching optimism in the face of extreme darkness, with a colloquial expression, ‘Chardi Kala’, or eternal optimism.

Culturally, there is no place for pettiness, and the larger-than-life Punjabiyat is predicated on hope and faith.

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What is Punjab's Chardi Kala?

This infectious spirit of ‘Chardi Kala’ has been birthed and nurtured in the most wounded, attacked, and recurrently divided land, much before Alexander the Great met his end here, and much after the painful partition of 1947.

The success of Punjabis in the Terai region, in the streets of Mumbai or in Gorakhpur, or globally across the seas (now even in quaint countries like Georgia), is legendary. Therefore, like most other places in the country, Punjab feels immensely let down by its politicians, who the Punjabis hold squarely responsible for the inability to replicate the magical success of their community across the globe.

But, historically, Punjab has defied odds, conventions and the shameful attempts to ‘divide’. The separatist insurgency of the '80s is today a distant memory, and no state can claim to have given more blood for the nation, before or after the violent '80s.

Punjab has tread its own path, irrespective of what others have prophesied about it. The 17th-century Punjabi Sufi saint, Bulle Shah, noted with haunting resonance about its noble beliefs and inclusivity :

Na main rehnda mast kharaban

Na main shaadi na ghamnaki

Na main vich paleeti paaki

Na main aabi na main khaki

Na main aatish na main paun

Bullah ki jaana main kaun

(Nor am I in the company of the corrupt

Nor am I in joy, or grief

Nor am I pure, amongst the impure

Nor water, nor earth

Nor fire, nor air

What will Bullah know, who I am?)

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AAP: Punjab Riding a 'Weak Horse' 

But the proud Punjabis take sleights and innuendoes very personally. Unfortunately, they received the same in plenty with the recently concluded farmers' protest. Unlike some parts of the country where nationalism, sacrifice and nationhood are newly minted emotions, the Punjabis have lived the same for aeons, beyond the nationalism filled with preachy and condescending tones of today.

With such a backdrop, take away their hopes, insinuate against them or retain a patronising tone, and the Punjabi will rebel, as s/he has always had. Traditionally, the emotional Punjabis have typically reposed their faith in those who do not mock, ‘divide’, talk down or sound patronising to them. In doing so, they may even punt on a wholly untested or seemingly ‘weak’ horse (as far as other lands are concerned).

Just five years back, in the 2017 Punjab state elections, an interesting newspaper headline stated, “AAP’s Punjab Faces: 10 Candidates, Little Means, High Optimism”. The essential import of the headline was that the 10 candidates with the least declared assets were all from the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), and that they were only banking on ‘high optimism’ (remember, Chardi Kala?)

Lo and behold, a party that had never existed on the Punjabi swathes till then garnered an impressive tally of 20 seats in its first outing. The writing was on the walls for the other two major parties, ie, the Congress and the Akalis. It meant, "Get your act together or there is an option beyond the two parties."

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How Arvind Kejriwal Learnt Invaluable Lessons 

Five years is a very long time in state politics; AAP chanced a very important lesson in management, that if you must fail, fail fast, learn and move on. Not that AAP had failed. On the contrary, it had made a spectacular debut. However, it soon imploded with resignations, desertions and missteps even as some leaders stayed the course and still persisted with the ‘idea of AAP’. The oft-ridiculed Bhagwant Mann was one.

Aiding the wind in the AAP’s sail was the competitive harakiri between the ruling Congress and the Akalis. Incredibly, both the Congress and the Akalis outdid each other in scoring self-goals and demonstrating suicidal apathy towards the mood of the state.

If the Akalis overstayed their relations with the BJP in the lead-up to the farmers' protest, the Congress demonstrated a masterclass in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. The Akalis seemed to lack issues and leaders, whereas the perfectly rudderless Congress had one too many.

Arvind Kejriwal bided his time on the sidelines, did not try to usurp or appropriate the farmers' protest (though he ticked in with his tactical support) and waited for the Akalis and the Congress to shoot themselves in the foot, which they did with much accuracy and aplomb.

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AAP's Fresh Pitch Didn't Lack Old Tricks

Soon, Chandigarh’s mayoral election in the late 2021 was to be an augury of what was to come. Of the 35 wards, the AAP had won the most with 14, the BJP 12, the Congress eight and the Akalis just one.

The usual Indian drama of pre-poll accusations, nationalism and security concerns, freebies galore, regionalism, the invocation of the clergy and the Deras went on in Punajb.

All this while, one party caught the mood of the otherwise disengaged populace with a novelty appeal, “Ik mauka, AAP nu”. It seemed a fair pitch. A classic case of a Goliath waiting in the shadows of the suicidal Davids of Punjab. The AAP was happy to stick to the basics.

In addition to that, this party spoke populism, too (yes, freebies don’t hurt during elections). It also posited a Jatt Sikh (Bhagwant Mann with the gift of the gab), postured relatively cleaner credentials (Delhi governance versus the Punjab shenanigans that the state had just endured), and stuck to the ‘inclusive’ script.

What was, then, there to deny the AAP a thumping victory? Nothing. From banking on ‘optimism’ just five years back, the AAP in Punjab has romped home and how.

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AAP Mandate: Did Punjab Vote to Reject? 

An unequivocal mandate, as per the leads, shows that the Punjab electorate rejected the appeal of subterranean religiosity, uber-nationalism, populism, casteism or even sub-regionalism, and instead opted for a centrist hope of aspirational ‘difference’. It is, perhaps, a vote for rejection, rather than selection, and with that, the AAP has earned that right to “Ik Mauka” (one chance) and rule, regardless.

The overwhelming mandate insists on the futility of dissecting the voting pattern in terms of sub-regional, casteist, religious, urban-rural or any other cuts – it may well be the vote against such divisive slicing and dicing. Done with Maharajas, tycoons, fiefdoms, mafias and assorted pretenders, it was time for a “mauka” (chance) for the Aam Admi (the common person). The Punjab electoral results today are a political graveyard of many post-Independence Sikanders (Alexanders)!

Partisanship aside, the results bode well for everybody, including the vanquished Congress and the Akalis. They need to take time out and look within, seriously.

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Punjab Assembly Poll Result Has Something For Everyone  

Before 2024, the Akalis need to imagine and stitch a compelling spiel, for they had either a defensive pitch or a laughably unbelievable one with “10 saal vikas de, vishwas de”.

The Congress can decide for itself (let alone the other parties) whether it still wants to play an individual game of vanity, survival and fleeting relevance, or a strong team game.

The assorted farmers' parties ought to define the contours of their ambition and determine whether they will be issue-focused or power-focused.

For the AAP itself, it has the brilliant opportunity to emerge as the definitive alternative in national politics, as the ‘mauka’ is usually a one-time ticket for non-performers. There were once chief ministers in Punjab from the Punjab Janta Party and the Akali Dal Sant, but neither party exists today.

It is time to hold Bhagwant Mann and the AAP to account for the former's message to Arvind Kejriwal on getting nominated as the chief ministerial candidate on 18 Jan 2022: “Sir, I shall do my best to justify the trust and belief that you and the people of Punjab have bestowed upon me. Each and every step that I take forward, will make you and three crore Punjabis immensely proud”.

Chardi Kala for the AAP and Punjab!

(Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is a former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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