By end of Saturday, voters of Punjab would have decided for themselves the leadership they want for possibly the next five years. A triangular contest between the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance, the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party has made everyone take notice of the Punjab assembly polls. While a win in Punjab for their alliance will be a shot in the arm for the BJP in the 2019 parliamentary polls, for the Congress and the AAP, the win is a do or die for the image of the party as well as its leaders.
Thanks to the anti-incumbency sentiment against the current SAD government, the Congress was hoping for a comfortable win in Punjab, in fact, its best chance at victory out of all five state going into assembly polls stood in Punjab. The entry of AAP, however, has raised the stakes for all other parties. The massive undercurrent of support that AAP enjoys has come as a threat both, to the BJP as well as the Congress but AAP has its own drawbacks. The assembly polls in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh potentially has the power to change the future course of Indian politics.
Why a win is important for the Congress?
For far too long now, Rahul Gandhi's elevation in the Congress has been pushed. With the election commission asking the Congress to hold its internal polls before June 2017 the need to enhance Rahul Gandhi's image as its leader has become important. With Sonia Gandhi's health issues and Priyanka Gandhi's reluctance to join active politics any time soon and in the absence of any other leader out of the Gandhi family to become the torch bearer of the Congress, this is a make or break election to project Rahul Gandhi as the obvious choice. The onus of reversing Congress' losing streak since 2013 (with certain exceptions like Bihar) is now on Rahul Gandhi. The need is not just to revive the party but emerge as a leader independent of the family he belongs to or the legacy he carries.
Moreover, the Punjab elections where Congress is fighting as an independent entity unlike in Uttar Pradesh where it is in alliance with the SP, a win will be the Congress' alone. The victory in Punjab will decide who Narendra Modi's nemesis would be, Rahul Gandhi or Arvind Kejriwal. The Congress needs to cement its position as the entity for the BJP to reckon with in Punjab instead of the AAP, who is a debutante. Congress' fight in reality is first with the AAP to establish supremacy and then the BJP-SAD alliance to gain power in the state.
Claiming its place as BJP arch rival means more support from like-minded regional parties like the Trinamool Congress and Janata Dal-United to the Congress. Mamata Banerjee's TMC cosied up to the Congress during agitations against demonetisation as much as it did to Arvind Kejriwal's AAP. Politics of convenience was at play and none can deny that regional parties with an interest in national political scenario, especially an anti-BJP outlook, will seek alliances that can be a formidable force to reckon with against the BJP in general and Modi in specific. The results of Punjab election will decide if this 'alliance' will be with Rahul Gandhi or Arvind Kejriwal.
What the AAP stands to gain
The AAP started focusing on its poll campaign much before any political party in Punjab. With no evident foothold, the AAP managed to win seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls but assembly elections are a different ball game and Arvind Kejriwal realised this only too soon. Candidates of the AAP began campaigning as early as August in 2016. The efforts seem to have paid off with people trusting in the positive image of the AAP.
For the AAP whose political fortunes have not been successful so far except in Delhi, Punjab and Goa are in all likelihood, their gateway to national politics. Often ridiculed as a party of part-time politicians, the AAP is in dire need of stretching its legs beyond Delhi. They need to establish themselves as a national party and a win in Punjab will give them just that.
Most opinion polls have predicted a favourable result to AAP in Punjab. In the case of a comfortable victory, Kejriwal will become the face of anti-BJP brigade. A victory in Punjab will lead the AAP to other states like Gujarat, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra, where the electoral battle is largely between the BJP and the Congress.
Kejriwal has never minced words when it comes to criticising the prime minister as well as the Congress. The Congress has always maintained an agenda based campaign while the AAP has followed a person-bashing campaign. The response to AAP's direct, straight attack on leaders seems to have inspired the Congress this time around in Punjab with the party also coming forward to mount direct attacks on specific leaders. The jitters that Congress, AAP and BJP have for Punjab is evident. While for the BJP winning in Punjab will come as a face-saver, for the AAP and the Congress, the win will have implications beyond the state of Punjab.