In Punjab, the Congress and the Shiromani Akali Dal (with its alliance partner Bharatiya Janata Party) have been the traditional political rivals. The tradition of power alternating between the two camps was broken in the previous Assembly elections in 2012 when the SAD-BJP combine managed to retain power after having won the 2007 elections as well. In 2014, the Aam Aadmi Party shook up the status quo by winning 4 of the 13 Lok Sabha seats.

The AAP’s emergence as a force to reckon with was evident at the historic Maghi mela at Muktsar on Thursday. The Congress as well as the SAD-BJP combine had stretched all their resources for a prestigious rally at the political platform provided at Punjab’s biggest mela, but received a lukewarm response with crowds beginning to melt away even before their top leaders had begun to speak. The AAP, on the other hand, managed to attract the largest crowd and received an enthusiastic response, much to the concern of the traditional political rivals in the state. The AAP supporters appeared to latch on to every word spoken by the party chief and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal.

The Maghi mela this year would be the last before the Assembly elections which are due in a year and going by the response, the day belonged to the AAP.

Rising anxiety

The anxiety betrayed by the SAD-BJP combine and the Congress at the response was palpable as they, instead of attacking each other, both chose to target AAP, calling it a party with no tradition of sacrifice. Derisively calling it a party of “topiwalas”, a term having communal connotations, the traditional rivals claimed that a party whose leadership was from outside the state would not be able to protect the interests of Punjab.

Sukhbir Singh Badal, the SAD president and deputy chief minister, said that the fledgling party was only a mirage. He asked the Akali supporters to replace the AAP flags in villages with the SAD flags and “not to get misled’’ by the “false propaganda’’ launched by the AAP leaders.

Captain Amarinder Singh, who was able to pull along various warring factions of the Congress at the rally, also devoted a considerable part of his speech targeting the AAP. He described it as a “momentary bubble’’ and claimed that the party had not fulfilled any of the promises made by it during the run upto to the Delhi Assembly elections. He also spoke of the “unreliability’’ of Kejriwal, recalling that he had once declared that he would not enter electoral fray.

It was apparent that the AAP was no longer being looked at as a spoiler but as a potent rival, both by the SAD-BJP combine and the Congress.

The third force

On the other hand, while the audience at the rallies organised by the Congress and the SAD-BJP combine had to be prodded and asked to stay put, those at the AAP rally listened with rapt attention to Kejriwal and other leaders and lustily cheered their attacks on the traditional power blocks.

Kejriwal, who donned a yellow turban and was clearly thrilled by the crowd response, took the political rivals to task for letting Punjab slip into poor financial health. He also blamed them for the drug problem in Punjab and said one of the first task of the AAP government, if elected to power, would be to effectively tackle the menace. He lashed out at the alleged drug mafia and did not hesitate to name a minister who, he said, was responsible for the spreading the menace. The minister has filed a defamation case against the AAP’s state convenor Sanjay Singh for alleging his involvement with the drug mafia in the state.

Kejriwal said his party would put the ruling party leaders and others involved behind bars for their alleged misdeeds. He also alleged that the Akalis and the Congress had an unwritten pact and pointed out that while Capt Amarinder Singh had lodged a case against the Badals when he came to power in 2002, the Akalis had instituted cases against Capt Amarinder Singh when they came to power in 2007. However, no one was ever given any punishment which, he said, proved that they were in cahoots with each other.

Sounding the bugle

Warmed by the response from the crowd, which had come on its own unlike the supporters of Congress and the Akalis who were brought in hired buses, Kejriwal said he was sure that the party could win 100 of the 117 seas if the elections were held now. He appealed to the supporters to work hard in the next one year to bring up the tally to 117 and break the party’s Delhi record.

Unlike the SAD-BJP alliance and the Congress, the AAP lacks a face for its campaign in Punjab. It has not declared any chief ministerial candidate yet and there are several contenders for it. There were speculations earlier that the BJP leader Navjot Singh Sidhu may be inducted in the party but he had been facing resistance from the local leaders. Also, the possibility of Punjab People’s Party chief Manpreet Singh Badal joining the AAP is now ruled out. Kejriwal also made it clear that he would himself continue to focus on Punjab and shall spend considerable time campaigning in the state.

Even though mere numbers at political rallies is no indicator of the support at the hustings, the massive and enthusiastic response attracted by the AAP at the Maghi mela has left absolutely no doubt that the AAP has emerged as a serious contender for power in the state next year.