Gearing up for the battle for Punjab next year, the Aam Aadmi Party overcame an initial hurdle by releasing its first list of candidates on Thursday.

Though the AAP beat rival parties to it – becoming the first one to release the list – it finalised only 19 candidates, instead of 26 as expected, with opinion in the party divided on some names. The remaining 98 candidates will be revealed in subsequent lists.

The party also missed several of its self-assigned deadlines before coming out with the list – it had earlier planned to declare it in April, then May and June.

Two prominent names on the list are senior lawyers HS Phoolka and Himmant Singh Shergill. Phoolka will contest on an AAP ticket from Dakha in Ludhiana district, Shergill will represent Mohali, a city near Chandigarh, the shared capital of Punjab and Haryana. Former Bahujan Samaj Party leader, Mohan Singh, who joined the party in June is the party’s Dalit face in the state and will contest from Ferozepur (Rural) in the eponymous district. You can see the complete list here.

The delay and speculation over the list has brought to the fore fissures within the party and its desire to tread with caution in the run-up to a high-stakes election that will see a three-way contest between the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiromani Akali Dal combine, the Congress and the AAP.

Rumours and disagreements

For instance, more interesting than the list itself was the buzz over the absence of AAP's Punjab convenor Sucha Singh Chhotepur from the press conference where the names were announced. The leader was unhappy with some of the names that made it to the list as opposed to those he had supported.

His absence prompted speculation that Chhotepur, an aspirant to the post of Punjab's chief minister, had stepped down and PTC News, a local TV channel purportedly backed by the Badal family that heads the Akali Dal, latched on to the rumours and flashed news of his supposed resignation. Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal even commented that the party seemed to be crumbling under its own weight. Chhotepur eventually quelled the rumours on Twitter.

AAP rebel Prashant Bhushan, who was expelled from the party along with Yogendra Yadav in April last year, tweeted most of the names on the list were “party hoppers” from the Akali Dal.

No consensus

One reason for the delay in coming out with the list is that the AAP is facing a problem of plenty in finalising candidates, in part owing to its rigorous selection process. The party had set up a 16-member election campaign committee and five-member screening committee to zero in on suitable candidates. Meetings of AAP volunteers were held at booth, ward and zonal levels in each Assembly constituency.

The election campaign committee, after identifying probable candidates from each seat, sent the names to the screening committee, which then interviewed each of them and sent a shortlist to the political affairs committee of the AAP, which will take the final call on candidates. The screening committee has shortlisted nearly 550 candidates for 117 seats.

While the party was initially expected to release 26 names in the first list, reports earlier this week indicated that AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal cleared only 20 names for the list, while a decision on the remaining six were withheld. There are many theories within the party on why this has happened – some said there was more than one suitable candidate for these seats, others said the aspirants had not met all the criteria set by the AAP while some said volunteers had objected to these names.

Fear of poaching

What made the AAP doubly cautious while finalising its list were fears that aspirants who are denied tickets could be poached by rival parties, or propped up by them as Independents. In particular, there are apprehensions that Swaraj Party, a breakaway unit of the AAP that in May announced plans to contest the Punjab polls, may open its doors to those denied tickets.

Senior party leaders are, however, hopeful that voters will choose AAP over Independent candidates and finds reason for optimism in its performance in the 2014 Parliamentary elections – when it won four seats out of 13 seats. Of these, only Bhagwant Mann, the MP from Sangrur, was a familiar face.

The AAP finished third in eight Parliamentary constituencies and was ahead in 34 Assembly segments in 2014. Moreover, with the Akali Dal-BJP combine facing strong anti-incumbency after two terms in power and the Congress yet to put its house in order, AAP senses an opportunity that it does not want to squander. The party is also keen to widen its footprint in the country, having so far been confined to Delhi, where it is in power with Kejriwal as chief minister.

However, with Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party, Independent candidates, and new players like the Swaraj Party also in the fray, the contest is likely to be tight and victory margins narrow. In such a scenario, even one strong rebel candidate can dent the AAP's prospects.

Achilles heels

Though the party is said to enjoy the support of rural and semi-rural constituencies in Punjab, the absence of any credible local leader that it can pitch as its chief ministerial candidate could work against it. Opinion is divided in the party on whether or not to project former BJP MP Navjot Singh Sidhu, who resigned as Rajya Sabha member on July 18 and is expected to join the AAP soon, as the chief ministerial face.

Though he is likely to be the party’s star campaigner in Punjab, the choice of chief ministerial candidate will be left to Kejriwal and elected MLAs after the polls.

The party is also battling an image crisis, with 12 of its legislators having been arrested on various charges ever since it came to power in Delhi in February last year. Seven of these arrests have taken place this year. One these MLAs – Naresh Yadav – was arrested in connection with the desecration of the Quran in Malerkota in Ludhiana, Punjab, on June 24. Violence had ensued in Malerkota, the only Muslim-majority Assembly constituency in the state and one that had always been peaceful, after pages of the holy book of Islam were found scattered near a cemetery.

Yadav was arrested after Vijay Kumar, the main accused in the case, alleged that he acted at the behest of the legislator, who had offered him Rs 1 crore to tear the Quran to rouse communal passions. Yadav is currently out on bail. Malterkota is in the Sangrur Parliamentary constituency, represented by the AAP.

Earlier, the party had found itself in a spot when it released its youth manifesto for the 2017 polls with a picture of the Golden Temple – Sikhism’s holiest shrine, – alongside the party symbol, a broom, on the cover. After an outcry from a section of Sikhs, Kejriwal apologised and atoned for this by washing utensils as a service, or seva, at the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar. The party got into further trouble over the manifesto after AAP leader Ashish Khetancompared it to the Guru Granth Sahib – the central religious text of the Sikhs. The Punjab police booked Khetan for insulting religious sentiments.

Having just about made it through after these gaffes, the party is now keen on proceeding with caution –which possibly explains the delay in releasing the full list of candidates –as its political rivals eagerly await any misstep.