The Aam Aadmi Party’s fortunes in Punjab, which goes to polls early next year, have been swinging like a pendulum in the last few months. Considered a strong contender at one stage, it faced massive protests in July over its use of a photograph of the Golden Temple along with an image of its party symbol, the broom, on the cover of its youth manifesto. Party leader Ashish Khetan was also forced to apologise for comparing the manifesto to the Guru Granth Sahib.

Then in August, the party’s minister in Delhi, Sandeep Kumar, was accused of rape and a video of the alleged crime released. Though the AAP sacked the minister immediately, the Opposition in Punjab used the scandal to portray the party as anti-woman.

The AAP’s troubles continued as, a month later, its star campaigner, Sucha Singh Chottepur, quit over allegations of corruption in ticket distribution. Since most of AAP’s managers in Punjab come from other states, the party was also dubbed a party of outsiders.

But then, on November 8, came the Union government’s demonetisation announcement and the AAP, lying low till then, was back in action. Delhi Chief Minister and AAP National Convenor Arvind Kejrkiwal has since been trying to mobilise the Opposition to take on the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is in power in the state in alliance with the Shiromani Akali Dal. He joined West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee in the Capital to trash the move to ban high-value currency notes.

The AAP has called demonetisation a gimmick that has put the poor in distress while letting the rich, who have stashed their money abroad, get away. In Punjab, it has been trying to get this message across through street-corner meetings and posters. However, with conflicting signals coming from the ground on the demonetisation move, AAP’s second-rung leaders have no clue how their efforts will impact the election results.

Impact on poll spending spoke to several mid-level leaders of the Aam Aadmi Party to understand the party’s strategy on demonetisation.

Glancing through slogan drafts for party posters, one AAP leader, considered a strong probable for one of the nine Assembly constituencies in Ludhiana, said demonetisation has presented the party with a solid issue to take its campaign against the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP alliance forward. He said people standing outside banks for hours are “increasingly becoming agitated” over the shoddy implementation of the currency ban. “People are finding it hard to get work due to the cash crunch,” he added.

Party officials said support for AAP among small businessmen has multiplied after demonetisation, which has greatly impacted the industry. Many such businesses have had to drastically cut down on production as a result of weak demand.

However, the AAP leader said there may be one political gain to be made from demonetisation. With the exchange of large amounts of cash becoming increasingly difficult, he hoped this would level the playing field in terms of election spending.

Earlier this month, former Chief Election Commissioner SY Quaraishi, too, had pointed out that a drop in election expenditure was one of the positives that could emerge from demonetisation. In fact, when the policy was announced on November 8, the Opposition had accused the BJP of trying to weaken its rivals in Uttar Pradesh, which also goes to polls next year.

Electoral rules require a candidate to open a new bank account and route all his election transactions through it. A statement of expenses is to be filed with the Election Commission after the campaign. Currently, the ceiling of expenditure for a state election is Rs 28 lakhs.

All expenses over and above this limit are done through cash payments to avoid scrutiny, said the AAP leader. “But now, since converting the old notes has become a problem, we hope this will dampen election spending,” he added.

However, the cash crunch has made life difficult for middlemen in the business of arranging public meetings for political parties. Santosh Singh, who helps both the Congress and the Akali Dal mobilise crowds for rallies in central Ludhiana, said there has been a marked drop in the number of campaign meetings since the demonetisation announcement.

“We have hardly had two big meetings in the last two weeks,” he claimed. Arranging these meetings requires paying those who put up stages and audio equipment and then getting the crowd in. “Without Rs 100 notes, meetings are impossible,” he added.

Singh said it was, in fact, more difficult to arrange street-corner meetings. Bigger rallies with star campaigners draw crowds on their own but audiences for smaller meetings are always arranged, he added.

Mixed response

But while the AAP goes all out to corner the BJP and its ally, the Akali Dal, on the demonetisation decision, party officials are worried about the sentiments they are confronting on the ground, which has made them unsure about how this may all play out in the elections.

A party leader from Urmar Assembly constituency in Hoshiarpur district said that while the policy has greatly inconvenienced the poor and the lower middle class, many of them have bought into the rhetoric that the move has also hurt the rich.

He said that when he spoke to people standing outside banks in his constituency, a sizeable number had said that they were happy with the note ban as it had brought the rich to the streets. “At the moment, they seem to be ready to put up with the inconvenience, hoping it would bring some benefits later,” he added.

Officially, though, the party maintains that the are no positives from demonetisation. Calling the government’s decision a “Tughlaqi diktat”, AAP’s Punjab in-charge Sanjay Singh has repeatedly said that the Akali Dal-BJP alliance will face the wrath of the people in the elections.