Shimla: The fledgling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), it seems, is attempting to conquer Himachal Pradesh with an army without a general.
So far, the party in power in the national capital and neighbouring Punjab has not been able to rope in any prominent leader to head the team in the hill state that is slated to go to the polls at the year-end.
Political pundits believe the situation is not very different from Punjab where the party had only Bhagwant Mann at the helm of affairs. But it may not work in Himachal where the political parties almost always announce the Chief Ministerial candidate’s name well before the polls.
“AAP’s promise of alternative politics to clean up the government and administration of rampant corruption and ensure governance has not only delighted many of those who are disenchanted with the state’s bipolar system but also generated curiosity and excitement among the voters, largely the youth,” an observer said.
Thousands of supporters have come forward to work for or join the party, which was unusual in the past. “But the party is leaderless. It has to come with a Chief Ministerial face well in advance along with its prospective candidates,” he added.
AAP’s spectacular performance in the Punjab Assembly elections in February gave a boost to the party to start its organisational expansion in Himachal from the village-unit level with mass contact programmes to provide an alternative to the ruling BJP and the opposition Congress in the upcoming elections.
“But still AAP is a fledgling party,” said the observer, adding that with the arrest of Delhi Health Minister Satyendar Jain, who was heading the party in the hill state, the party largely lags behind in poll preparations.
Currently, the AAP is banking on Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and his Punjab counterpart Mann to strengthen the organizational footprint in the hill state, where more than 90 per cent of the population resides in the rural areas and the literacy rate is 83 per cent, with honesty, patriotism and health and education its main poll planks.
Of and on, the Kejriwal-Mann duo is coming for the party’s show of strength. In the latest rally on July 25, they could not make it to Solan town due to bad weather but attended the oath-taking ceremony of about 5,000 office-bearers virtually.
At the Solan rally, Kejriwal, who had formally launched the Himachal mission on April 6 from Mandi town, the home turf of Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur, said the AAP family is growing in Himachal with over 9,000 people having joined as office-bearers so far.
With the workers’ base crossing over six lakh, the AAP, which claimed that Delhi and Punjab had no history of a third party forming the government and history will repeat itself in Himachal too, has announced to contest on all the 68 seats in the Assembly elections.
To woo the voters, the party has been banking largely on its Delhi model of governance, promising to form an honest government with an overhaul of the education and healthcare sectors, if voted to power.
In June, the AAP announced new office-bearers of the state unit, which is led by Surjit Singh Thakur.
The party had dissolved its state unit in April after its state president and many other leaders switched loyalties by joining the BJP, which is banking largely on its “double-engine” government — a phrase used to refer to the BJP helming the Centre as well as the state — to return for a second consecutive term in the state.
A strong anti-incumbency wave against the BJP — evident from the loss of three Assembly and one parliamentary seat in the October 2021 bypolls — and the absence of veteran Chief Minister faces may work for the AAP that is already ruling in two states.
Both the conventional game changers — Virbhadra Singh of the Congress and Prem Kumar Dhumal of the BJP — are out of the scene. Singh is dead, while Dhumal is virtually in political exile after his defeat in the previous Assembly polls.
Political observers are of the view that the way is more or less clear for the AAP, which is yet to mark its presence even in the state civic body polls, to sweep away the traditional political outfits in the hill state where both the Congress and the BJP ruled the state alternatively from 1985.
Himachal Pradesh was traditionally dominated by the Congress and saw its first non-Congress chief minister, Shanta Kumar, in 1977, when the Janata Party came to power.
Claiming no threat from the AAP, a senior minister dismissed the party foray into Himachal with that just before every poll a handful of rebels both from the Congress and the BJP leave the party just to avenge the humiliation about being denied party nomination as candidates. “This time too some disgruntled leaders from the party are likely to join AAP. They will not help save the sinking ship,” he said.
A political observer believes the AAP is posing more of a threat to the Opposition Congress than the ruling BJP.
“In every poll, the victory gap in vote percentage traditionally remains four to five per cent in the state. If AAP manages to cut a two-three per cent vote share of a party, the damage seems more to the Opposition than the ruling party owing to the absence of Congress veteran late Virbhadra Singh. So the AAP’s maiden foray in the assembly polls makes the political landscape smoother for the BJP,” added an observer.
The AAP made its debut in the state in 2014 by fielding candidates for all the four Lok Sabha seats.
The leaders, who joined the AAP then, were keen to contest the 2017 Assembly elections, but the AAP decided not to enter the fray. In that poll, the BJP won a majority with 44 seats in the 68-member Assembly.