Arvind Kejriwal, Prashant Kishor And Captain: The Making Of A Summer Blockbuster In Punjab

By Shivam Vij

(This article first appeared in HuffPost India on 21 January 2016.)

In some ways, it will be a battle of equals. The two people who changed how election campaigning is done in India, Prashant Kishor and Arvind Kejriwal, will be face to face in the Punjab assembly elections in early 2017.

Neither would like the comparison. For Kishor, Kejriwal is an upstart. For Kejriwal, Kishor is a mere political campaigner. That’s how two strong teams downplay each other before the match begins. Both sides are experienced in the game of changing public perceptions within weeks, setting the agenda, creating the hawa and riding the wave. Arvind Kejriwal won Delhi 67/3, but before that, Kishor’s Modi campaign had defeated Kejriwal 7-0.

Prashant Kishor has made two impossible elections possible. After helping Narendra Modi win the 2012 assembly elections in Gujarat, he took the Gujarat chief minister from political untouchability to 282 Lok Sabha seats. If the BJP juggernaut looked daunting to Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav, Kishor’s campaign changed the direction of the wind in Bihar. Three elections later, Kishor is being wooed by every other politician in the country.

Arvind Kejriwal is the enfant terrible of Indian politics. Every time he takes on the impossible, the world scoffs at him. And he makes it possible. From an RTI activist to Delhi chief minister in three years, Kejriwal has changed the rules of the game. With every passing day, he makes the Congress party look irrelevant. The political consensus in the chattering classes of Delhi and Chandigarh alike is the Aam Aadmi Party is going to sweep Punjab.

Captain vs the Broom

The same people who will say AAP is taking Punjab will say in the same breath, “Don’t underestimate Captain.” Captain Amarinder Singh is so strong he manages to be at the top of the Punjab Congress even when Rahul Gandhi is trying to get rid of him. The war veteran is always ready for battle. He enjoys a favourable image, formidable political experience and now, blessings of the High Command.

The Patiala royal looks strong, it is his party, the floundering old Congress, that looks weak. Aam Aadmi Party looks strong, but it doesn’t have a chief ministerial face. That makes the Captain a perfect candidate for a template presidential-style campaign, just what Kishor did for Modi in 2014 and Nitish Kumar in 2015. The party becomes inconsequential, the election becomes a referendum on the leader.

The incumbent Akali-BJP are absent from the election discourse, their fate a foregone conclusion. The Aam Aadmi Party is unlikely to be able to declare a chief ministerial candidate. If it does one, whoever it is, will look weaker before captain. The AAP in Punjab has everything going for it, except when it comes to the kaun banega CM question, the AAP finds itself in the same spot in Punjab as the BJP did in Bihar. Widespread rumours that Kejriwal himself is eyeing the chief minister’s chair in Chandigarh, won’t help him, neither in Punjab nor in Delhi. The state’s growing lawlessness is also seen as part of the SAD’s way of running the government as a Badal family fiefdom.

Naked in the hammam

So far the AAP’s strategy in Punjab has been to portray the Congress and the Akali-BJP as the same, two sides of a coin. In the 2014 election, the AAP won zero seats in Delhi and four in Punjab. But that was 2014. Amarinder was battling the ambitious rebel Pratap Singh Bajwa. The Punjab Congress suffered for the sins of UPA-2. Narendra Modi suffered for the sins of the Akalis.

Yet the Aam Aadmi Party heard the Punjab voter and has been silently working on the ground ever since. Its leader Sanjay Singh spends more time in Punjab than Delhi. He’s even made a trip to Canada seeking support of NRI Sikhs. Its campaign has been in full speed for months now, even as the Captain was still sorting things out with Rahul Gandhi. Intimately understanding the voter and responding to political opportunities, the Aam Aadmi Party has steadily created the impression the Punjab election is in.

Corruption enquiries ordered by the past Congress governments against leaders of the Shiromani Akali Dal went nowhere, giving the AAP the opportunity today to say the Congress and SAD are naked in the same hammam. The drugs crisis, widely seen amongst people as the doing of the SAD government, is so serious that many say it’s the number one issue. Farmer suicides, rural distress, unemployment are all issues related to the widespread drug abuse. The AAP’s spiel is that as a fresh, new, young and clean party, it alone can turn things around for Punjab. With the Congress, AAP’s spiel goes, it would be business as usual. The AAP has smartly, many say dangerously, moved into Sikh religious issues. Expect to hear the word Khalistan a lot in the next twelve months.

The AAP’s offensive campaign may soon have to be re-calibrated by March, when Kishor moves full time to Chandigarh. Kishor’s Indian Political Action Committee, better known by its moniker IPAC, is hiring 500 workers to run the Punjab campaign, and Kishor is keenly watching Kejriwal’s moves there. It’s a rare moment when Punjab 2017 looks more interesting than Uttar Pradesh, which will have elections around the same time. Keep the popcorn ready.

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