Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has been missing from most of the advertisements his government issued to newspapers this month. It is Delhi’s Deputy Chief Minister, Manish Sisodia, who has pictorially, and symbolically, replaced him in the advertisements.

No political party consciously replaces its very face – which Kejriwal is for AAP – with another unless he or she plans to retire or has been marginalised, neither of which applies to Kejriwal.

These advertisements are the strongest evidence of Kejriwal’s intent to wing out from AAP’s nest in Delhi to Punjab, not just to campaign there, but to also become the party’s chief ministerial candidate. Though AAP would officially deny this proposition, yet, seen from the party’s perspective, it makes great sense for Kejriwal to shift base from Delhi to Punjab.

This is because AAP – now around for three years and more and controlling a state – can no longer expand to other states through the mode of agitation politics. It must demonstrate to people that it can cleanse a decidedly corrupt system – which was the very reason why it came into existence.

This AAP can’t do through the Delhi government’s performance. For one, Delhi is a quasi-state, its powers are limited. For another, the smidgeon of power it possesses has been further eroded because of the Central government’s concerted efforts to ensure that AAP is seen to have defaulted on its promise of combating corruption. This is why the Central government was quick to appropriate the Anti-Corruption Bureau.

What AAP has been denied in Delhi, Punjab could well provide. If there is a state in India which has become a symbol of the crushing impact that corruption has, it is Punjab. Drug addiction there wouldn’t have assumed epidemic proportions but for the connivance of the state’s political class and police. Mafiosi dominate just about every sector – land, construction, drugs, liquor trade, industry, et al.

But first AAP has to win Punjab

Assuming AAP wins Punjab and Kejriwal becomes its chief minister, his success in tackling corruption there would immensely boost his – and his party’s – profile.

It can be very well argued that one of the AAP leaders in Punjab could spearhead the crackdown on corruption, so does Kejriwal necessarily need to lead the Punjab government? Yes – and for very good reasons.

For one, AAP’s Punjab unit lacks the requisite administrative experience to govern a state caught in a downward spiral. Zest and intent can take you till the point where mastery of rules and regulations becomes imperative. Kejriwal has been a bureaucrat; he has a certain familiarity with the system, regardless of his own pitch of being the proverbial outsider.

Then again, AAP is a coalition of disparate local leaders and activists – they would be susceptible to factionalism, which undermines governance. This problem can be averted through Kejriwal’s presence in the state.

More significantly, should AAP come to power in Punjab, it simply can’t afford to become a failure there. It is, unlike Delhi, a full-fledged state and, therefore, can’t rationalise its failings. Punjab will be AAP’s chance of showing that it can walk the talk.

Given what the state could well come to mean for AAP, there is a political logic to Kejriwal leading the government there. This is because Kejriwal symbolises AAP. His success in Punjab could become a catalyst for AAP spreading elsewhere. It is beside the point to debate whether or not Indian politics should remain personalised, as it has undeniably been from the Republic’s inception.

But there is also a flip side to Kejriwal descending on Punjab. With its economy languishing and youth hooked to drugs, Punjab could prove Kejriwal’s undoing. Yet this very possibility will give Kejriwal an aura of daring, a personality trait Indians adore – a trait the Gandhis appear to lack.

Conventional wisdom has us believe that Kejriwal’s decision to shift to Punjab could set off a reaction among Delhiites. They could vote against the party in the next Assembly election, which will be in 2020. It gives ample time for a Kejriwal government in Punjab – and Sisodia in Delhi – to make an impact. If Delhi can influence Punjab’s political behaviour, so can the latter alter the former’s political choices.

Indeed, Delhi is unlikely to repeatedly vote a party confined just to the Capital. Its politics is neither rooted in regional identity nor driven by caste. These two factors sustain most state-based parties in India. No doubt AAP draws tremendous support from the lower classes which once constituted the Congress support base. Should the Congress witness a revival nationally, it isn’t hard to conceive that the lower classes could return to their original home.

AAP’s rise in Delhi was predicated on its imagination of redefining Indian politics. This is why Delhi voted for it, in sharp contrast to its history of backing one of the two national formations – the BJP and the Congress. AAP, therefore, stands a better chance to retain Delhi by proving it can be a viable national player in the future.

Challenging Modi

AAP's viability as a future national player will also give it an advantage in the race already afoot to determine who among the Opposition leaders could become the principal challenger to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. There are, as of now, three who are vying for this status – Rahul Gandhi, Nitish Kumar and Kejriwal. To this race for the top job, we could add Mayawati as a contender in case she wins Uttar Pradesh.

Gandhi lags behind them all as he hasn’t yet spearheaded the Congress to win a state Assembly election, let alone an important one. The party seems to have already forfeited UP by not projecting Priyanka Gandhi as its chief ministerial candidate there.

Kumar has Bihar to prove his credentials. Mayawati could have UP. Both these states are electorally large enough for them to bag a crucial number of seats in the Lok Sabha to become a frontrunner among Opposition leaders to take on Modi. These two states also give their leaders a chance to prove their administrative skill in a large and complicated political setting – which is what a prime minister is expected to possess.

Of all these players, it is Kejriwal who has emerged as the most vocal opponent of Modi, helped no less by the BJP’s constant pinpricks. However, Delhi is no match to UP and Bihar. Nor does AAP have the national spread the Congress enjoys even in its days of decline.

From this perspective, Punjab could bolster Kejriwal’s credentials to become an alternative to Modi, to also convey he is a strong and decisive leader, a projection the Prime Minister so successfully managed before the 2014 Lok Sabha election.

The challenge in Punjab

Whether or not AAP projects Kejriwal as its chief ministerial candidate in Punjab, both the Akali Dal and the Congress will undoubtedly portray the party as led by one who doesn’t belong to the state – and a Hindu at that. But it is a case of viewing Punjab through the old prism of identity politics.

Punjab’s current woes are on account of poor, corrupt governance – not because of religious issues. It is hard to imagine the state gravitating towards a party openly playing the card of identity politics. It is unlikely to be allergic to a Hindu because, as political scientist Ronki Ram told Scroll in an interview, Punjab’s culture is inherently eclectic. It is precisely why there has been a flowering of different ideas of religion in Punjab, manifest in the mushrooming of deras in the state.

These deras also represent a subaltern challenge to the hegemony of Jats. As such, among the current crop of AAP leaders, including former cricket Navjot Singh Sidhu, who is slated to join the party, Kejriwal is most likely to pull the votes of Dalits who constitute nearly 32%-34% of the electorate. His carefully cultivated persona of the common man gives him an edge over his rivals of other parties.

AAP will not name Kejriwal as its chief ministerial candidate, believing political wind tends to change direction suddenly because of unexpected occurrences. (Mayawati’s surge overnight is an example.) It would want to insure its mascot against unforeseen happenings. In case AAP announces Kejriwal as its chief ministerial candidate and AAP fails to win Punjab, he can only return to Delhi at the risk of being seen as power-hungry.

However, AAP will drop ample hints to the people of Punjab that Kejriwal would take over its reins of the state in case the party is voted to power. The first of these hints has come through the Delhi government’s advertisements this month. In preparing Delhi to accept Sisodia as chief minister, it is also readying Punjab for Kejriwal.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist from Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, published by HarperCollins, is available in bookstores.