The public outrage against drug abuse and rampant corruption is popularly perceived to be responsible for the astonishing rise of the Aam Aadmi Party in Punjab. But no less important a factor in its rise is the desire, and need, of the Punjabi diaspora and aspiring social classes for a new style of governance in the state that is slipping into darkness.

Once billed as the granary of India, the role of agriculture in Punjab’s economy has been declining – from contributing 58% of the state’s GDP in 1971, its share dipped to 24% in 2011. Agriculture growth slid below 2% after 2009-2010, and in two years – 2009-2010 and 2012-2013 – plummeted below zero. The industrial growth rate has steadily dropped from 8.77% in 2009-2010 to crawl at below 3% in recent years.

These dismal figures, however, conceal the story of buying and selling of agriculture land, suggesting to the economic mobility of certain social groups. In a piece, "Punjab at the Crossroads", in the Economic and Political Weekly (Oct 17, 2015), sociologist Paramjit S Judge cites Agriculture Census of 2010-2011 to note:

“…In the case of all social groups the number of marginal holding has increased and there has been a fractional or negative increase in medium and large holdings….”

The only exception to this trend, Judge says, are the Scheduled Castes.

“The number and operated area of medium and large land holdings of Scheduled Castes have increased by almost 200%.”

The Dalits

This increase may not convey the correct picture of the economic empowerment of Dalits (that is, Scheduled Castes) in Punjab. Political scientist Ronki Ram contends that though Dalits constitute nearly 32% of the state’s population, they own just 3.2% of the total area under cultivation.

Nevertheless, field surveys do show that Dalits quarters in rural Punjab are no longer sites of acute despair and poverty. Even in Punjab’s Malwa, where inequalities are sharp, Nicholas Martin, of the University of London, found in his survey in 2014 that the houses of Dalits boast latrines and access to at least communal running water supply.

Martin writes:

“Overall, despite the fact that less than 5 per cent of Punjab’s SCs own any land, most of them now have access to amenities and consumer goods – including televisions, refrigerators, washing machines and motorcycles – that were far beyond their reach 30 years ago.” 

In his survey of a tehsil in Patiala district in 2014, he couldn’t “find a single SC who still lived in a mud house.”

Partly, their relative economic prosperity can be linked to the affirmative policy, or to the fact that the tertiary sector now contributes to nearly 51.2% of the state’s GDP. It shows that not just the Dalits, but other social groups too are no longer predominantly dependent on the agriculture sector for jobs. Non-agriculture jobs are pulling them to the cities and towns, where nearly 38% of its population now lives.

Judge, who teaches at Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, told this writer, “Rapid transformation, particularly urbanisation, is alienating and unnerving.” The anchor of old certainties are uprooted, and past ideas of entitlements and relations of domination and subordination are challenged. This is why AAP’s rhetoric against the entrenched political class, its emphasis on the proverbial common man, and promises of ushering in a new style of governance strike a chord.

The appeal of a new political language to the new city migrants is not peculiar to Punjab. For instance, AAP has had the same resonance among Delhi’s Poorvanchalis, or the migrants from east UP and Bihar, who have become the party’s mainstay in the city-state.

Punjabi diaspora

Unlike Delhi, however, what is peculiar to Punjab is the deep and continuous engagement of its diaspora, or Non-Resident Indians, with it. They have invested their wealth in Punjab’s economy, buying land and urban real estate, besides venturing into construction, transport and tourism.

Further, as Judge says, the Punjabi diaspora, particularly over the last 30 years, is crucially linked to the family network. People migrate abroad not necessarily because they are highly qualified or educated or skilled, but because they have a relative willing to provide sponsorship, shelter and job in a foreign country. Remittances from abroad enable them to offer patronage back home.

All this provides the Punjabi NRI the clout on those dependent on them. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, a good many of them personally canvassed for AAP among their dependents on their annual visits, which they usually undertake between October and March, or spoke to them over the phone. Technology has helped bridge distances elsewhere, but in Punjab it has given the NRI a tool for influencing politics in the state of his or her birth.

The NRI’s choice of AAP as the party to support in Punjab might seem bewildering. Yet it seems to make sense for two reasons. The Punjabi diaspora, as Prof Ronki Ram affirms, is a phenomenon among Jat Sikhs and those belonging to the caste of Chamars, who now predominantly describe themselves as belonging to the separate religious community of Ravidassia, or followers of Saint Ravidas.

In parts of Europe, particularly Italy, the Ravidassias dominate the Punjabi diaspora, which remains riven with the caste divides. They have their own gurudwaras, and have funded what sociologists call a musical renaissance. From opposing social discrimination as the most favoured strategy, they have turned to extolling their Chamar identity, taking pride in it, and rejecting the Jat culture as a reference point.

This is evident from the songs Ravidassia singers have belted out. Since 2009, when their guru, Sant Ramanand, was gunned down in Vienna, we have had such chart-busters such as "Sons of Chamars", "Think before messing with a Chamar", "The Fighter Chamar", "Hummer Chamar", "Young Lions of a Chamar", etc.

These songs portray aspirations as well as their deep antipathy, and opposition, to the Jat Sikhs, whose interests and ethos the Badals – Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal and his son and Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir – are popularly seen to represent. The cultural revolt readily translates into the battle of ballot. The emergence of AAP as a viable vehicle of protest and change has sent a frisson among lower castes and classes.

Filling the vacuum

AAP leader Durgesh Pathak, who over the last one year has been overseeing the building of the party organisation in Punjab, says, “Dalits have turned to us because their own leaders have been discredited or have failed them. We have stepped into the vacuum.”

Indeed, AAP’s appeal for subaltern groups is because of the marginalisation of the Left and, subsequently, Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati. She was unable to unite the Dalits, not least because of the bitter rivalries among the 16 subgroups comprising this category in the state. The rumour or suspicion that Mayawati fielded weak candidates in certain constituencies at the behest of the Badals in the last Assembly elections has eroded her credibility among the Dalits.

Otherwise too, the BSP is well past its best in Punjab – it had polled 16.32% of votes in 1992 and won 9 seats, but has struggled to bag 4.5% of votes over the last two Assembly elections. After 1997, not a single BSP candidate has been elected to the Punjab Assembly. From this perspective, the socially discriminated groups, including their more privileged members of the diaspora, perceive in AAP their chance to undermine the traditional elites and their partisan, venal ways.

Regardless of caste dividing the Punjab diaspora, AAP’s promise of clean governance has an appeal to it because of the shared experiences of those who comprise it. Punjab’s eminent political scientist Harish Puri said,

“Many have their properties appropriated by gangs enjoying political patronage, or their families cheated. They encounter corruption at every step in conducting their business, in which they have invested their wealth earned abroad. This is why AAP has an appeal for them.”

By contrast, the Congress doesn’t because it had been tried and tested – and it failed the people repeatedly. Nor has the memory of corruption under the two United Progressive Alliance regimes bolstered the confidence of voters. The party does not symbolise to them the possibility of replacing the old style of governance with one in which the focus is on equal treatment of all, regardless of their class-caste background or being networked into the system. This is precisely what AAP promises, the seeming ordinariness of its leaders rendering their rhetoric persuasive.

This rhetoric has a particular charm for the Punjabi NRIs who are accustomed to this method of governance in their adopted country, as it has for the urban citizenry and the angry youth reeling under the unemployment rate of 48 persons per 1000 in urban Punjab and 26 persons per 1000 in rural Punjab. This bleak scenario galls people because of the conspicuous consumption of the rich and the venality of the political elites.

Puri says AAP is drawing tremendous support in rural Punjab as well. One possible reason for this is the popular backlash against the use of power and money to protect the interests of entrenched groups. In his study of the Malwa belt, Nicolas Martin found that the prohibitive cost of fighting panchayat elections, often requiring more than Rs 10 lakh, has made it inordinately difficult for people other than the Jat landlord-businessman to contest. (Martin’s survey, "Rural Elites and the Limits of Scheduled Caste Assertiveness in Rural Malwa, Punjab", was published in the Dec 26, 2015 issue of the Economic and Political Weekly)

But, more interestingly, he also found instances of Akali Dal politicians threatening their rivals with fabricated police cases to enable their party to gain control over panchayats. As Martin narrates,

“In one village a Jat sarpanch told me that the local Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) had told him to first try and persuade a Mazbhi (Dalit) Sikh panchayat member to join his faction with a bribe, and that if this did not work he would either threaten him with fake police charges, or get him roughed up by some local goondas.”

He also refers to Jats compelling the sarpanches of reserved panchayats to quit and handing over the power to them. Hijacking of panchayats enables principal landholding families to cultivate the village commons at very cheap rates, abort Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Gurantee Act in order to ensure labour remains cheap, siphon off development funds, and extend the patronage system to build their vote-bank.

Given Martin’s study, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that AAP picked four Lok Sabha seats and narrowly came second in another in the Malwa belt. Not only did AAP’s alternative politics, defined as making electoral politics affordable, have a resonance here, but its rhetoric of wielding state power impartially clicked with the people. That, as a fledgling, it doesn’t have a sullied past helps to win the popular confidence.

Winds of change

The partisan nature of the state is also the reason for drug smugglers operating with impunity. Not only is the political class implicated in it, but also, as Puri says, “state power is deployed to beat the competition in controlling the narcotics trade.” The politician-drug mafia nexus has eaten into the vitals of the administration, besides leading to a sharp spurt in its consumption. Opioids worth as much as Rs 7,500 crore are consumed every year, says a recent study of All-India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS).

This is why AAP’s slogan of “Na bhukki ko,na daaru ko, vote denge jhaddu ko,” had such a purchase in the 2014 election in the Malwa belt, even though it barely had a party structure in place. “Our confidence today arises from having built an organisation, from booth-level onwards, over the last one year in Punjab. It showed in the massive turnout at our rally of Jan 14 in Muktsar,” says AAP’s Pathak.

However, Ronki Ram cautions: “It is to be seen whether AAP can translate goodwill into votes.” He says the managerial skills of the Akali Dal shouldn’t be underestimated, nor the ability of Amarinder Singh to galvanise the Congress as a countervailing factor to the possibility of AAP springing a surprise on the state. A triangular contest often comes down to electoral arithmetic unless one of three contenders is completely decimated, as it happened with the Congress in the 2015 Assembly election in Delhi.

But the winds of change already seem to be blowing in the state. Both the Akali Dal and the Congress have been targeting AAP, asking the people not to support or trust the topiwalas, the moniker derived from the white cap AAP activists wear. In Punjab, the moniker has been interpreted as a plea to the Sikhs not to accord greater primacy to the cap over the pagdi. It suggests a subtle use of religious symbolism and tagging of AAP as the "outsider" to trump it.

In this context, the party’s biggest impediment is that it doesn’t have a state-level leader of the stature of Prakash Singh Badal or Amarinder Singh. But what if AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal quits Delhi to lead the party in the election, as is being speculated? “In that case, going by the current indicators,” says Puri, “AAP will win hands down.”

For an outsider to lead his party to victory in Punjab, it would undeniably be both historical and unprecedented for India’s democracy.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.