Will AAP’s conciliatory moves make Cong blink in Punjab?

The Congress rank and file in the border state have made their aversion to any electoral understanding in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections with the ruling AAP amply clear even as senior AAP leaders sound more conciliatory in their statements, writes Raju William

The member parties of the INDIA alliance – Congress and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) opposed to the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) at the national level are at loggerheads in Punjab. The Congress rank and file in this border state has made their aversion to any electoral understanding in 2024 Lok Sabha elections with ruling AAP amply clear. Top leaders of both parties including chief minister Bhagwant Mann are trying to outdo one another in conveying to Punjab voters that their alliance is fragile and has least chance of materializing on the ground.

Almost the daily show of this political discord displayed in the media has left voters confused and amused! They are trying to make sense of the absurd political drama unfolding before them. Political observers are also trying to decode as to what the central leadership of both parties are up to. Do the warring state leaders have their tacit approval? Have these state leaders been deliberately allowed to behave like this for the purpose of extracting better bargains for their respective parties in the seat sharing deal?

Punjab Congress president Amarinder Singh Raja Warring and Punjab Tourism Minister Anmol Gagan Mann have said their respective state units are preparing to contest all 13 Lok Sabha seats in the state. Warring attributed his statement to the message from Rahul Gandhi and the Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge as conveyed to the state unit.

Leader of Opposition and former Punjab Congress president Partap Singh Bajwa has categorically opposed any electoral understanding with AAP in Punjab. In contrast, some senior AAP leaders including Punjab Finance Minister Harpal Singh Cheema have sounded conciliatory in their responses to questions on the fate of their alliance in Punjab. It is interesting to note that Congress leaders sound more belligerent in terming AAP as unworthy of their companionship.

“Punjab Congress Cadre is in no mood to form an alliance with the @AAP Punjab for the forthcoming general elections. Even after getting hold of the power in the state for the past 18 months, the AAP is desperate to form an #alliance with the Congress. No Punjab Congress leader has ever issued a statement about contesting elections in an alliance with the AAP. It is only the AAP leadership that is making such statements because they have lost their ground in Punjab…” he said in his September 6, 2023 post on social media platform X, formerly Twitter.

Asked to comment, Prof Jagrup Singh, former Head, Department of Political Science, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, said the existing realities of ground level electoral politics in the state shows that the possibility of a workable alliance between these two big stakeholders is not feasible. The biggest reason for this is the distribution of seats in the coming parliamentary elections as each party would claim a major share of the seats. It is likely that both parties would end up contesting all seats.

Notably, the AAP leaders sound conciliatory in their statements. Is it unsaid acceptance of Bajwa’s assessment about AAP’s weak poll prospects?

The problem besetting AAP is to find suitable candidates from its cadre. It had failed to find one for the Jalandhar Lok Sabha by-election. It fielded Sushil Kumar Rinku as the party candidate after his overnight defection from Congress. At present, it is dependent on winnable candidates from other political parties which may pose a serious setback for it in the coming elections. The people of Punjab had given mandate to AAP for the revival of Punjab.

“Most likely, AAP will contest 2024 elections in the name of Kejriwal who has already lost his charm with the majority of Punjabi population because of various reasons. The nomination of seven Rajya Sabha members did not go well with the people of the state. The day to day intervention of the party leaders from Delhi in Punjab affairs, most of its MLAs disconnect with their constituencies, appointments of persons from outside Punjab on key posts on his directions are some of the issues which are likely to adversely affect the winning prospects of the party. In this situation, Congress may have the upper hand. Rahul Gandhi is an emerging choice of the people of Punjab because of his strong stand against Modi and the BJP’s brand of politics,” explains Prof. Sekhon.

It is not that the entire Punjab Congress unit has spoken in one voice on the raging issue. The day Bajwa’s September 6 post was countered the same day by firebrand Congress leader Navjot Singh Sidhu. In his post on X, he commented “The decision of the party high command is supreme. It is for a greater national cause…Petty parish pump politics loaded with selfish vested interests should be discarded for safeguarding our DEMOCRACY. Elections are not fought for the next election, they are fought for the next generation. Long live INDIA. Jurrega Bharat.”

Sidhu’s post brought cheers to the AAP camp. An unlikely ally for AAP as he turned out to be, Sidhu has earned compliments for having taken a principled political stand in accordance with spirit of the INDIA alliance of which his party is the major partner. Skeptics may interpret this statement as an effort to win central Congress leadership’s favour after he was not considered for a position in the recently reconstituted Congress Working Committee (CWC).

Observers believe the top leadership of both parties has allowed free run to their respective state leader as the deliberations over seat sharing are still on among the INDIA alliance partners. They are hard pressed to balance conflicting party interests and compulsions of staying as alliance partners.

“Actually, both parties are together only till Lok Sabha elections. They have realized that fighting BJP together is in their mutual interest. But at the same time, they do not trust each other for the fear of ceding political ground. This especially is the case of Congress because the emergence of AAP is directly proportional to its political marginalization in Delhi, Punjab and even Gujarat. What we are witnessing in Punjab is also happening in Delhi. The Congress leaders there have also opposed any poll pact with AAP,” commented Ludhiana-based social activist Kuldeep Singh Khaira.

Being out of power at the Centre for a decade, Congress is gearing up for 2024 elections in a way that would ensure it regains power though as a major partner of the INDIA alliance. To ensure this, it must find suitable allies to prevent division of votes against the Modi-led BJP. For this purpose, in north India it cannot ignore AAP which has a strong presence in Punjab, Delhi where it is ruling. It would be risky to underestimate its influence in Haryana, where the party has been active for long and is preparing to contest Assembly elections next year.

“The ongoing tussle between both allies at the national level should be seen in the context of their political stakes at the regional level. It is a very peculiar situation that both parties are politically allies and bitter adversaries at the same time, in the same territory that is north India. AAP is desperate to increase its tally of MPs in the Lok Sabha. There is no ally except Congress to go with. Will Congress oblige?” asks KP Singh, a well-known Chandigarh-based TV anchor.