After the traditional political rivals in Punjab – the Congress and the alliance partners Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) - held massive parallel rallies on December 15 to sound the poll bugle, the third major contender for the Assembly elections a year away, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is all set for a show of strength at the historic Maghi Mela tomorrow (January 14).
The Congress and the SAD-BJP combine too shall be holding "political rallies" and will try to outdo each other at the platform provided at the mela. However, all eyes would be on the AAP's debut in organising large-scale gatherings. Its ability to mobilise people has become a prestige issue for the AAP and its supremo Arvind Kejriwal will be present to announce the formal initiation of the party's election campaign. The three major contenders in the Punjab elections would organise their rallies around the same time at a little distance from each other.
Punjab deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal, who is also the SAD president, is known for his management abilities and has organised several mass rallies in the last couple of months. He and his father, chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, have been stressing that their main rival in the upcoming elections would be the Congress.
They have been claiming that the AAP has no grassroot support in the state. In order to run down the fledgling party in the state, Sukhbir had been calling it in derogatory terms as a party of "topiwalas" implying that was not rooted in Punjab. He has been also saying that the AAP leaders were from other states and that the party doesn't even have an identifiable chief ministerial candidate.
The AAP, which has all its four MPs from Punjab and had done well in some other constituencies in the state in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, has been spreading its wings in the rural areas. It has taken the lead in setting up ward-level committees and enjoys considerable support of the youth. Partly in order to tackle the criticism of the AAP's non-Punjab base, Kejriwal is learning Punjabi and has released a short video invitation for the Maghi Mela rally in which he has spoken in chaste Punjabi.
He has even referred to the traditional Lohri snack, rewris, and has asked people to bring these along to share at the rally. It may not be a surprise if Kejriwal, who is supposed to be a fast learner of languages, renders his speech at the rally in Punjabi. The party has also been active in using the Gurmukhi script on WhatsApp groups and other social media platforms to get closer to the youth, particularly in rural Punjab.
The Congress, significantly, is considering the AAP as its main rival, for the upcoming Assembly elections. Its state chief Captain Amarinder Singh has been saying that the SAD-BJP combine is no longer in the fight and that his party would focus on tackling the AAP. He too has been mocking at the party's non-Punjabi leaders and has been wondering how Kejriwal, who hails from Haryana, would take up inter-state disputes between the two states. The Congress has also been pointing to the division in the AAP in view of two of its four MPs leaving the party.
Amarinder has been saying that the AAP was becoming the junkyard of disgruntled leaders from other parties and claiming that the party has no clear vision for the state's development. The faction-ridden AAP, on its part, would like to put up a show of unity at the Maghi Mela rally tomorrow.
While AAP leaders have been working at the grassroots, the party has refrained from contesting any of the by-elections to the state Assembly where it could have tested its strength. Another opportunity to test the strength of political parties in the state is coming up next month with a by-election from the Khadoor Sahib Assembly constituency. However, again the AAP has decided not to contest the seat. Instead, two of its rebels have expressed their intention to be in the fray as independent candidates.
One of them, Bhai Baldeep Singh, was the AAP's candidate from Khadoor Sahib Lok sabha constituency and had garnered a substantial 1.40 lakh votes. He had received over 12,000 votes from the Assembly segment of the same name.
It will be of interest to see if he is able to translate the AAP's votes in the constituency in his favour. The seat fell vacant after Congress MLA Ramanjit Singh Sikki had resigned from the Assembly to protest the series of incidents of desecration in the state. He is again the party's candidate while the SAD-BJP combine may field the son of SAD MP Ranjit Singh Brahampura's son Ravinder Singh Brahampura.
A major absentee from the highly charged Maghi Mela rally will be the enstranged Badal – former finance minister Manpreet Singh Badal – who had formed his own party, the People's Party of Punjab. He had been organising his party's rallies at the Maghi Mela since he fell out with Sukhbir Singh Badal and his father about five years ago. There are reports that he is weighing his options – to either join the AAP or the Congress. He has himself confirned reports that he was in talks with the Congress.
In fact, he had contested the previous Lok Sabha elections as a Congress candidate from Bathinda losing by just 20,000 votes to SAD candidate Harsimrat Badal. There are indications that he would prefer the AAP if he is projected as the chief ministerial candidate. A decision in this regard is expected shortly and that can influence political fortunes in the state as his party had garnered a crucial seven per cent of votes in the previous Assembly elections which had partly led to the Congress losing the elections.