Recently the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) scored an astounding victory in the assembly elections of Indian Punjab, winning 92 out of 117 seats. The AAP not only demolished two entrenched political dynasties, the House of Badal and the House of Patiala, which had dominated the state politics for several decades, but it also routed all major parties, including the BJP, the Congress and the Shiromani Akali Dal.
Does the AAP’s stellar electoral victory hold any lessons for politics in Pakistani Punjab? In my view, the answer is yes, and it is with reference to the PTI. This is because the AAP and the PTI are, at least on paper, like two peas in a pod. Both parties were founded by outsiders and not by career politicians; the goal of each party is to create a society based on equality and justice and to eliminate divisions on the basis of class, wealth and privilege; both are against dynastic politics; and anti-corruption is the central plank of their agenda.
But if one examines the electoral record of the PTI in Pakistani Punjab with that of the AAP in Indian Punjab, certain key differences emerge.
The AAP made its debut at the 2017 state assembly elections, when it gained 20 seats – an impressive feat for a five-year-old party! Before the 2022 elections, the party conducted a telephone poll vote to determine which leader commanded majority support of party members, and largely on this basis Bhagwant Singh Mann became its chief ministerial candidate. Mann, a former entertainer, who had been in the AAP since 2014 and had been elected to the Lok Sabha in 2014 and 2019, proved to be the right choice and he led the party’s campaign to a resounding success.
The AAP succeeded in Indian Punjab because of a few distinct reasons: its brand of governance had already been fully tried and tested in Delhi; its national leader Arvind Kejriwal had chosen to become the capital’s chief minister in 2015 and since then he planned and implemented the considerable executive successes of the Delhi government; the party fielded an overwhelming majority of new faces – over 90% of its 92 MLAs have made their debut in the assembly; and finally, the party provided a strong and popular chief ministerial candidate who galvanised the rank-and-file, and led the party to a historic victory.
On this side of the Punjab fence, let’s examine the record of the PTI, which was formed in 1996. In the 1997 elections, the party failed to win a single seat at the federal or provincial level, while in the 2002 elections its sole successful candidate was Imran Khan, who was elected MNA from Mianwali. The party decided to boycott the 2008 elections, but it contested the 2013 polls and on this occasion it finally tasted some modest electoral success in the Punjab – it gained 5 of 141 MNAs and 24 of 297 MPAs from the province.
The AAP succeeded in Indian Punjab because of a few distinct reasons: its brand of governance had already been fully tried and tested in Delhi
Now let’s come to the controversial general elections of 2018. The PML-N was on the back-foot, with its leader and his daughter imprisoned, an avalanche of defections of parliamentarians from its ranks and corruption allegations being vigorously pursued against its key leaders. All these points of adversity for the PML-N amounted to an inversely proportional advantage for the PTI, which was then basking in the glow of warm approbation from the establishment and its leader was striding the country addressing mammoth public gatherings.
But the election results proved to be quite an eye-opener. Even with all seen and unseen factors working in its favour, with Imran Khan’s much vaunted popularity at its height and the PML-N fighting with its back to the wall, only 64 seats out of 141 general National Assembly seats from the Punjab were won by the PTI, while the PML-N grabbed 61 seats, the PPP picked up 3 seats and 4 were won by the PML-Q. Nine independent MNAs elected from the Punjab later wisely joined the PTI, in keeping with hallowed tradition.
Similarly, in the Punjab Assembly elections, the PML-N was the single-largest party with 131 seats, while the PTI won 123 seats. The latter was only able to form the provincial government after a bevy of independent MPAs joined its ranks as a result of the yeomen efforts of Jehangir Tareen and Aleem Khan, and the PML-Q, whose leadership had once been roundly castigated by Imran Khan, decided to support the government, in the greater “national interest”.
Interestingly, notwithstanding all the unceasing invective and sensational corruption allegations hurled against the Sharifs by the PTI, both Shehbaz Sharif and Hamza Shehbaz were easily able to win their seats in the National and Punjab Assembly, respectively, unlike the case of Indian Punjab where the AAP knocked out titans such as Prakash Singh Badal, Captain Amarinder Singh, Sukhbir Singh Badal and Navjot Singh Sidhu. Even after 10 years of PML-N rule in Punjab, the incumbency factor did not substantially work against the party, which shows the serious limitations of acceptability of the PTI’s anti-corruption narrative.
The PTI’s less-than-spectacular performance in Punjab in 2018 was chiefly on account of: the negation of its ethos by embracing turncoats, electables and entrenched politicians; the failure to nominate any, leave alone an inspiring, chief ministerial candidate in advance of the election; and, the lack of a particular brand of success from its government in KP. Had Imran Khan himself become the KP Chief Minister in 2013 and led a radical reform government in the province, as did Kejriwal in Delhi, he could have presented the Punjab voters in 2018 with a convincing alternative to the Shehbaz Sharif model of governance. But Imran Khan lost this golden opportunity to showcase some tangible personal achievements, leave alone to gain much-needed administrative experience which would have held him in good stead when he became prime minister.
The moral of the story of the PTI and the AAP is that public rallies, dharnas and marches, no matter how impressive the size and how impassioned the crowd, can only take a political party so far forward. If the leader adheres to the party’s guiding principles and philosophy, chooses a competent and popular leadership team and ensures delivery of durable benefits to the electorate, then mass public meetings are the icing on the cake for securing the party’s electoral success. But if the cake is absent, the icing is of no use on its own! Both in the past, as well as today, therein lies the rub for the PTI.