Everywhere you go in Punjab, you see brooms. The Aam Aadmi Party has made sure of this. In buses, on autos, on sidewalks, on billboards, the young political party from Delhi, which is hoping to ride the anti-incumbency wave to power in the upcoming assembly elections, has plastered the state with its election symbol. Ask people what that broom stands for, however, and you will realise a more appropriate party symbol would have been something else altogether: A blank slate.

Residents of Delhi are now familiar with the young party, which was founded in the capital four years ago to build on an anti-corruption movement that captured the mood against the Congress-led government. The party’s founder, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, is a regular fixture in headlines, constantly getting into controversy either because of something he said or as a result of his running battle with the Centre.

But in Punjab, AAP stands for both everything and nothing at all. The party has some strong stands, like ending the drug menace and bringing employment to the state, but for most people it has become known for what AAP is not: the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal or the principal Opposition, the Congress.

What does AAP mean to you?

Ramkumar, rickshaw puller, Ludhiana: “Change. Respect. Empowerment. We’ve seen years and years of the Akali government and all they have done is steal money, and send the goondas after us. The Congress doesn’t have the goondas, but they also want bribes. But in  AAP’s Delhi, I heard they even treat sweepers well. If Nitish Kumar in Bihar can stop alcohol, which earns a lot of money, AAP too can stop drugs and corruption.”

Ever since it was founded, AAP has thrown up a surprise in elections. In the 2013 Delhi election, Kejriwal managed to beat former Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, and AAP ended up forming a minority government after the very first elections that it contested. In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, it managed, somewhat out of the blue, to capture four Parliament seats from Punjab, even as it drew a blank everywhere else. And in 2015, when Delhi held elections again, AAP won 67 out of 70 seats, an astounding result.

That made Kejriwal a chief minister with a massive mandate, but one big problem. Delhi is not a full state, and most policies have to run through the Lieutenant Governor, who gets his directions from the Bharatiya Janata Party-run government at the Centre. This has meant constant battles between Kejriwal and the Centre, devolving into name calling and police probes.

If AAP had to expand its footprint and come out from under the Centre’s shadow, it needed to capture another state where it wouldn’t be quite so shackled. The 2014 result turned up the most obvious candidate, Punjab.

What does AAP mean to you?

Himmat Singh Shergill, AAP candidate, Majitha: “This is not a party, this is a revolution. We’re not here to do politics. We’re here to take the revolution to the people. The whole world  will be surprised by what happens in Punjab. 70 years the people suffered. Now see where we will take Punjab and then in 2019, Arvind Kejriwal will be the prime minister.” 

Things have changed since the Lok Sabha elections, of course. AAP went through a bitter period of infighting in 2015, as Kejriwal asserted his primacy in the party, leaving some of the original leaders estranged – including two of the four MPs from Punjab. But AAP still had two big weapons in its arsenal: Bhagwant Singh Mann, a comedian-turned-MP and Gurpreet Singh Ghuggi, another comedian who is the party’s state convenor for Punjab. Mann in particular has built a massive online following through his brand of political comedy where he constantly takes potshots at the other parties. The two comics have in fact helped put a friendly Punjabi face on AAP, which was gaining a reputation nationally for over-promising and under-delivering.

Bhagwant Mann

But AAP also needed a platform, and for this it relied on the work its volunteers have been doing in the state since 2014. They identified the core issues that were driving the anti-incumbency and then doubled down on these.

Drugs? AAP has been working on this from the beginning, and indeed it is Kejriwal’s willingness to call out the alleged Akali connections that has helped make Punjab’s drug problems familiar nationwide. AAP is now promising to end the drug problem in a month. Corruption? This is the issue that AAP was founded to fight, and one in which it has a clear lead over the Congress. Kejriwal has helped make Sukhbir Singh Badal into Punjab’s big corrupt villian. Unemployment? Where the Congress and Akalis are promising a job in every household, AAP has said they will bring 25 lakh jobs, basically offering up a job to just about everyone.

The manifestos are a good indicator of AAP’s tendency to try and be all things to all people. AAP has one official manifesto for the elections, but in the months running up to the polls it also released a separate manifestos for Dalits, farmers, the youth, transport, trade, industry and even the disabled.

What does AAP mean to you?

Lovejeet, taxi driver, Amritsar: “We have four votes at home. I told them, give me 10 bottles and whatever button you want, I will press it. They said they’ll give at least two per vote. Congress is only giving one. The Akalis will give, but what’s the point, they’re not going to win anyway. AAP is doing in Delhi what the Akalis do here. They take care of the poor, the backward, not the people in cars and cities. Because those are the ones that will vote. But they will be better. Akalis take 50 out of every 100 rupees, and still tell you how to spend the rest of it. Congress will take Rs 5 out of every 100 and leave you to it. Maybe AAP will be even better?” 

But this also means AAP lacks a concrete identity in the state. The Akalis are seen as the guardian of Sikh interests, a conservative party built on a religious platform that has of late become associated with entrenched corruption. The Congress maintains its secular, welfarist image although it has had to update its tactics to match up to the challenge from AAP.

Outside of the headline issues, the promise to end drugs and jail the corrupt, most people who say they are switching their votes to AAP acknowledge that it isn’t the issues so much as the promise of something different. “We’ve given the Akalis and Congress a chance,” is the common refrain, “let’s see what they have to offer.”

AAP Punjab

And this image has been reasonably successful. By August of 2016, most polls seemed to think AAP was popular enough to win a majority in the state. Closer to December, this picture changed, with the belief that the Congress had caught up and AAP peaked too early, but even now many expect the party to put in a strong showing.

What does AAP mean to you?

Jagmail Singh, General Secretary, Lok Morcha Punjab, Bathinda: “There’s such a serious crisis that the anger against the Akalis is sending people onto the streets. When people don’t have food in their stomachs, that’s what they will do. AAP is only trying to take advantage of this. People want change, and they’ve found a way of channeling that anger into votes. But there is no attempt to engage with the problems. They say they’ll put Majithia in jail, but what will they actually do to stop the drug problem? They’re lucky to have Bhagwant Singh Mann, people see him as a man with integrity and he is funny. But otherwise they’re cashing in on a negative vote, an anti-Akali vote. Any outside party promising the same would have got it.” 

Which brings up the question, what would an AAP government in Punjab actually look like? The state is undergoing an agrarian crisis, a massive drug problem, unemployment and a crippling amount of state as well as household debt.

Many activists and people in civil society who have worked in Punjab are concerned that, in its rush to capture the state, AAP has done what it seems to have tried in Delhi: Promise the world, and worry about delivering afterwards. Economists have raised questions about how an AAP government will be able to fund the welfare schemes it has promised, especially when it is unlikely to have a cordial relationship with the Centre.

There is also the question of a leader. Over its existence, Kejriwal has steadily ensued that there are few challenges to his authority within the party. Yet he has also promised that the chief minister would be a Punjabi – a promise that might easily be broken if the Punjabi leaders of the party themselves ask Kejriwal to take the post after elections. Still, running Punjab will be a bigger challenge for a party that has proven to be rather volatile in its operations. And AAP will not be able to fall back on the excuse of being stymied by the Centre, even if it continues the adversarial relationship.

What does AAP mean to you?

Saroj, shop owner, Patiala: “Not much. They come and go, just like any other party that comes and goes. My husband votes for Akali, we usually vote for Congress, but for the last few years we haven’t voted for anyone, because no one has taken care of us. We’re eligible for a blue (ration) card, and they’ve made it, but the government won’t give it to us. Because of that we can’t get any of the things, like atta-dal, that we are due. Anyone who is able to give these things to us, we’ll happily support them. Can AAP do that? They barely engaged with us during the elections, and usually politicians disappear right after you vote for them. We’ll see.” 

Kejriwal is often described as a politician in a hurry, and indeed the pronouncement of AAP’s candidate in Majitha – that he will be prime minister in 2019 – while bombastic, may still accurately represent his ambitions. The limits of this drive are clear, however. AAP’s hurry to move forward led to its first big mistake, dissolving its first government in Delhi after just 49 days. Kejriwal had to publicly apologise, and leaders then spent months canvassing in the capital – and promising a full five-year government – before the landslide victory in 2015.

AAP looks all set to capture the anti-incumbent mood in Punjab. A win would properly shake up the Congress-BJP calculations of many North Indian states. The more interesting question might be what happens if AAP wins a healthy number of seats, but doesn’t form the government. Does the young upstart party have enough patience to sit in Opposition and build a genuine Punjabi presence? Or will Kejriwal simply turn his sights to the next electoral prize?