The blanket of fog that has descended on Punjab over the past few days is symptomatic of the political haze enveloping the state as it heads into the Assembly elections early next year.

There is little doubt that the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party government is facing huge anti-incumbency. A combination of factors – the deteriorating law and order situation, the spreading drug problem, an agrarian crisis, poor job opportunities and the over-projection of the state’s first family – have pushed the ruling coalition on the backfoot. Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal is fighting a tough battle as his Shiromani Akali Dal makes a strong pitch for a third successive term.

However, there is no clarity about which political party stands to benefit from the Akali Dal’s plunging popularity. Under normal circumstances, it would have been easy to predict that the electorate would vote for the Congress, not because it is particularly enamoured with the grand old party but because it is the only available alternative.

However, the emergence of the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party as a serious challenger has made it difficult to predict the outcome of this election. At one stage, it had appeared that the AAP was a strong contender for power and there was a distinct possibility that it could march ahead of the traditional mainstream parties.

A quiet AAP

In recent weeks, though, the fledgling party – which took everybody by surprise by winning four Lok Sabha seats in the 2014 general elections and then going on to win absolute majority in the Delhi Assembly elections the following year – has taken a beating. Dissension in its ranks, which resulted in the exit of Sucha Singh Chotepur, the party's face in Punjab, and several others, and corruption charges against its members suggest that the party has hit a roadblock. Kejriwal’s visit to Amritsar for a court hearing earlier this week and to Ludhiana last month to release the party’s trade and industry manifesto failed to make an impact.

In July, the AAP had faced massive protests from Sikhs over senior leader Ashish Khetan's comparison of the party manifesto to the Guru Granth Sahib, and the cover of the party’s youth manifesto that carried a photograph of the Golden Temple along with an image of the party symbol, a broom.

And yet, nobody in Punjab is willing to write off the AAP. The recent setbacks, it is being said, could prove to be a passing phase. A Ludhiana-based government official maintained that Kejriwal’s party may have lost sizeable support among the urban, educated middle classes but its appeal in rural areas, especially among the youth and peasantry, remains largely intact, a cause of great concern for the Akalis. Kejriwal’s consistent attacks against the Badals have particularly endeared him to the electorate.

But Punjab Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal insists the AAP is not in the picture at all, and that the coming election is a battle between the Akali Dal and the Congress.

On the other hand, there is a view that the Aam Aadmi Party is deliberately lying low for now and will hit back with a new strategy and fresh campaign at an appropriate time. “The party is capable of staging a comeback as it did in Delhi in the last election,” said a Punjab government official. “Most people had written off AAP but there was a sudden resurgence of support for the party as the election drew closer.”

The Akali fightback

Well aware that it is on a weak wicket, the Shiromani Akali Dal is going all out to shore up support. It is especially making an effort to reach out to its core constituency of rural Sikhs, who have been disenchanted with the ruling party ever since the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs, was desecrated at various places in the state last year. They were further angered when the police opened fire on crowds protesting the desecration.

“The Sikhs in rural areas had gravitated to the AAP last year after these incidents,” said a party sympathiser. “But this voter has fallen silent after the mistakes made by Kejriwal’s party. The Akali Dal is now trying to win back its traditional voter.”

The Shiromani Akali Dal is now appealing to this vote bank with a constant emphasis on the Sikh identity, even as it warns against outsiders (read Kejriwal) making inroads in Punjab. Punjab for Punjabis is the overriding message.

As a step in this direction, Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and his deputy Sukhbir Singh Badal were present at a grand show outside the Golden Temple in Amritsar on November 1 to celebrate 50 years of the formation of the state of Punjab. The very fact that Punjab Day was celebrated for the first time in the state is a clear sign that the ruling party needs all the necessary props to regain its credibility. The programme itself focussed on the Badal family and its contributions to the development of Punjab in the last decade it has been in power. The Rs 250-crore renovations undertaken around the Golden Temple and the new museum on the history of the shrine is being showcased by the Badals to consolidate its Sikh vote. The party is also depending on next month’s elections to the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandak Committee, the body responsible for the upkeep of all gurdwaras and controlled by the ruling party, to help in this outreach.

But not many in the party were happy with the manner in which an official programme was used to project the Badal family. “Instead of putting the party above the family, the entire focus was on the Badals,” said an Akali leader. “Given the public anger against the family, the achievements of the Akali Dal should have been highlighted.”

However, Bikram Majithia, revenue minister in the state government, found little merit in this criticism. “Look at all the posters in Delhi… they all carry Kejriwal’s photographs,” he remarked. “Tell me which state government does not build up its chief minister, whether it is Jayalalithaa or Shivraj Singh Chouhan.”

Besides being blamed for promoting the family, the Badals are also in the dock over the growing drug problem that is said to have virtually destroyed the state’s youth. The ruling family is fighting the public perception that it did little to contain the problem and that the drug trade has official sanction. Majithia, Sukhbir Singh Badal’s brother-in-law, in particular, has been attacked after an accused in a drug scam claimed to have given the minister Rs 35 lakhs as election funds.

Majithia has rejected the allegations against him. “These charges are baseless,” he told “Who will decide if I am guilty… the media or the judiciary? So far, no investigating agency or the courts have filed any case against me.”

Stating that he has been under attack ever since the Akalis won a second term, Majithia said he has always lived a principled life and there was no question of his involvement in any drug trade. “I am a vegetarian and teetotaller,” he explained. “I have grown up in an atmosphere where prayers were always conducted in our house.”

Congress rumblings

As the ruling party fights various allegations while taking steps to fend off anti-incumbency, and Kejriwal lies low, the Congress campaign in Punjab is going full steam ahead. Despite the rumblings in the party about poll strategist Prashant Kishor, he has succeeded in activating the state unit. Punjab Congress chief Amarinder Singh has launched a mass contact programme through the state.

Nevertheless, the party is beset with problems. The internal rumblings refuse to die down. These could get worse when candidates are picked for the elections as each faction will want their loyalists to be selected so that they are in a commanding position after the polls.

It is imperative for the Congress to field fresh faces that do not come with baggage, unlike some of the old timers who have not only been losing elections but are also discredited. According to a party leader, the Aam Aadmi Party is waiting for the Congress to announce its candidates so that it can target them. “We have to guard against their campaign,” he said.

But, above all, the Congress must launch a sharp attack against the Badals, especially Majithia, if it is to be seen as putting up a serious fight against the ruling party. More importantly, it has to prove that Kejriwal’s claim that the Congress and Akalis are in collusion with each other is wrong.

Punjab Congress workers lamented that though the rank and file are battling the Akali Dal on the ground, their top leaders have been seen socialising with the ruling party’s leaders, sending out a wrong message to the electorate and demoralising the cadre. “Kejriwal’s USP is his sharp attack against the Badals and Majithia,” said a Punjab Congress leader. “But our leaders are not as strident and this creates doubts among the people.”