Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia made a curious statement on Tuesday that was bound to raise eyebrows: Cast your votes, he said at a rally in Punjab, believing them to be a vote for Arvind Kejriwal. A lay person hearing that couldn’t be blamed for taking that to mean that Kejriwal, currently chief minister of Delhi, would take over the chief ministerial post in neighbouring Punjab if the Aam Aadmi Party comes to power in elections next month.

Later on television, AAP spokesperson Atishi Marlena attempted to explain what Sisodia could have meant. “[Sisodia] did not say Kejriwal will be the chief minister. He is the face of AAP and that is the face the people of Punjab are looking at,” Marlena told CNN-News18. “Kejriwal represents AAP. He represents credibility... He is bringing that credibility to Punjab, saying all the promises made to the people of Punjab will be fulfilled.”

That’s not exactly an unequivocal declaration that Kejriwal will take the chief ministerial post in Punjab if AAP wins, but it also isn’t a straightforward denial.

Instead, Marlena is interpreting Sisodia’s words to mean that a vote for AAP in Punjab is like a vote for Kejriwalism. It is a vote for the credibility that she insists Kejriwal represents, even if it doesn’t necessarily mean he will be chief minister.

Nevertheless, AAP’s political opponents in the state were quick to jump on the statement.

There are a few things going on here.

  1. Firstly, after a roaring head start, AAP seems to have fallen behind the Congress, at least in opinion polls and no longer looks like it is set to romp home in Punjab – the only one of the five states going to elections this year where it is a serious contender. With Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi’s return from holiday in time to hand out tickets, including to former Bharatiya Janata Party member Navjot Singh Sidhu, it seemed like the Congress was consolidating its lead. At least in terms of messaging, AAP needed to make a splash. That it has done, capturing headlines and becoming one of the stories of the day.
  2. But, secondly, offering up Kejriwal as chief minister is no slam dunk, as Punjab Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal’s criticism makes clear. Kejriwal is not just not Punjabi. He’s from Haryana, a state that is currently wrangling with Punjab over rights to the Sutlej-Yamuna Link Canal, whose water would also affect Delhi, where Kejriwal is chief minister. AAP’s opponents have attempted to portray it as an outsiders party, a charge that doesn’t seem to have held, but was enough to force senior AAP leaders to promise that the prospective chief minister would be Punjabi. Going back on that promise could have consequences.
  3. Thirdly, Kejriwal’s record on this matter isn’t exactly spotless. After surprisingly coming to power in Delhi in December 2013, Kejriwal infamously resigned from government 49 days into his tenure, earning the moniker bhagoda (deserter). It took a very public apology and a campaign that literally promised panch saal Kejriwal (Kejriwal for five years) for the capital’s voters to trust him again. Delhi’s half-state status, making it hard for the chief minister to actually do much if the Centre isn’t on-board, has frustrated Kejriwal and gives him good reason to want to bolt. But actually breaking that promise to Delhi voters yet again would be another huge gamble.
  4. And finally, even if Marlena is right and Sisodia was simply asking people to vote for what Kejriwal represents, there can be no better illustration of how AAP has gone from an anti-corruption movement into a one-man band. Fellow AAP spokesperson Deepak Bajpai explained Sisodia’s remarks like this: “Is Narendra Modi BJP’s CM candidate in UP if the party is fighting the election there in his name?”

    That’s an astonishing argument coming from a party that has constantly criticised Modi and his unilateral approach to political power. AAP began as a people’s movement, but Kejriwal has systemically evicted those who don’t agree with him. The sign of Sisodia publicly canvassing for votes not on the basis of AAP’s principles but on Kejriwal’s name may be politics as usual in India, but it’s exactly the sort of thing that AAP was supposed to break away from.