CHANDIGARH: After its resounding victory in the Delhi assembly polls, there is widespread speculation of Aam Aadmi Party’s next electoral destination. Punjab has cropped up again where AAP had mounted a strong campaign but lost the elections to the Congress party. Hence the question of the street here is: Is AAP ready for a Punjab adventure once again?

There is definitely a space for a third alternative in Punjab. A recent visit to parts of Ropar and Ludhiana by this reporter confirmed this as people, fairly fed up of the electoral cycle of the two parties i.e. Congress and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) (Badal) feel that AAP has the potential to break through.

And that despite all its shortfalls over the last three years, AAP MLAs have made the right kind of noise on people centric issues.

But first AAP needs a credible face from Punjab to lead the political charge against the two powerhouses of Congress and Akalis. As of now it is the Sangrur Lok Sabha MP Bhagwant Mann who remains the most popular face of the party but he has been the centre of several controversies at regular intervals. Whether it was taking a vow to give up drinking ahead of the last Lok Sabha polls or losing his cool at a journalist questioning him at a press conference, he has often made headlines for the wrong reasons. The party needs a mature and sober face to lead its charge in the run up to the polls.

Secondly AAP needs to give more freedom to its local leadership instead of imposing its Delhi unit leaders. The issue of autonomy for the Punjabi leadership had spelt disaster for the party ahead of the last assembly polls as the Punjabi leaders of the party were openly upset with what they described as the Delhi diktat.Their contention was that they had enough political experience and understood Punjab far better than outsiders. Political observers feel that this is an issue that needs to be handled deftly by AAP’s national convener and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal.

Third, there is the issue of restructuring the AAP organization in Punjab. AAP had emerged on the political scene in Punjab through a very well devised strategy of a strong organizational presence at the local level and action on hyper local issues. There was a hardly a day when the party was not making headlines on people centric issues whether it was farmer suicides, sale of spurious pesticides and seeds, the rampant drug menace, the sacrilege of holy texts etc. All this had helped the party win four of the 13 parliamentary seats in the state in 2014 when there was a Modi wave blowing across India. The party’s tally, however, came down to one in 2019 -- a fall out of the 2017 Assembly polls.

The party will have to revive its cadre on the ground as the unrest among the public on issues continue to provide an opportunity. While the Akali-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) combine has failed to revive over the last three years, the Congress is facing growing anger on issues like drug menace, unemployment, farmer unrest etc. continue to simmer in public domain.

The latest issue is that of high power tariffs at the centre of which are Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) signed by the SAD-BJP regime with private players. SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal had recently tried to go aggressive on the issue saying these were drafted by Dr Manmohan Singh’s UPA government. Facing public unrest Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh has tried to wriggle out of the situation saying that his government would bring out a White Paper on PPAs in the monsoon session of the state assembly. But the government is facing heat on the issue being generated by Punjab Congress party president Sunil Jakhar.

This is the perfect issue on which AAP is already showing signs of going aggressive. Leader of Opposition in Punjab assembly Harpal Singh Cheema has stated, “If the government fails to do away with these controversial PPAs in the forthcoming budget session, AAP cadres would disrupt power supply to Moti Mahal which is Amarinder’s ancestral palace.”

The party has also taken up the issue of stray cattle menace that has caused loss of lives in the state. This is another hyper local issue where the party is gathering public support.

Kejriwal has shown that polls can be won by side stepping the narrative of the opponent, and focused in Delhi only the basis of his government’s performance. He refused to be drawn into the divisive campaign of the BJP in Delhi. Political observers say that AAP will have to take the same route in Punjab and keep away from the Panthic (religious) politics of the Congress and SAD-BJP combine. The party had landed itself in a soup when the cover of its manifesto for Punjab polls had the party symbol of a broom alongside a picture of Harmandir Sahib. Kejriwal had to apologize for the goof up and perform ‘Sewa’ at the Golden Temple.

While AAP should revive its strong NRI base it needs to keep away from hard line Sikh elements. The party had paid a heavy price on this count in the last polls. The people of Punjab who witnessed the dark days of 1980s are wary.

Lastly, the party needs to go beyond the Malwa region and set up a strong support base in Doaba and Majha regions of the state. It is well placed in Malwa that accounts for almost half of the 117 seats but had performed very badly in the other two regions. Its tally was a dismal nil in Majha in the last assembly polls.