Punjab’s cities and villages have become the battleground for a gripping electoral contest between two equally matched political contenders in the February 4 Assembly elections. With the 10-year-old Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP ruling combine down and virtually out of the race, the polls have now turned into a straightforward slugfest between the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party, with neither of them willing to yield an inch. Indeed with just a day or two left till polling day, it is still difficult to predict who will emerge the ultimate winner.

The two parties are a study in contrast and so are the voters likely to support them.

The Congress is a long established party in Punjab, and has won and lost many electoral battles in the state over the decades. In striking contrast is the fledgling Aam Aadmi Party, which did not even exist when Assembly elections were last held in Punjab. The party made a spectacular debut just about three years ago when it surprised everyone by winning four out of Punjab’s 12 Lok Sabha seats during the parliamentary polls.

There is a striking difference too in the leadership of the two parties. The Congress is led by Amarinder Singh, the Doon School educated former maharaja of Patiala, who has been in politics for nearly four decades. Singh was belatedly named the Congress’s chief ministerial candidate last week. In contrast, most leaders of the Aam Aadmi Party in Punjab – stand-up comedian Bhagwant Mann, lawyer HS Phoolka and, of course, party supremo Arvind Kejriwal a former Income Tax officer – have no such lineage. In fact, they had nothing to do with politics till just a few years ago.

Congress and AAP appeal

During a three-day-long road trip across Punjab it quickly became evident that the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party also appealed to completely different constituencies although both strived to reap an advantage from the public anger against the Akali rulers. The vast majority of people who have a stake in the establishment – transporters, storeowners, businessmen, big farmers, private company employees and executives – were keen to bring Amarinder Singh and the Congress back to power. On the other hand, the Aam Aadmi Party has attracted the poorer peasantry, rickshaw pullers, small shopkeepers, carpenters, students and teachers who seek a decisive break from the past.

The Congress appears to hold an edge in cities and larger towns, but there is a strong current blowing in favour of the Aam Aadmi Party in semi-urban clusters and even more so in the rural hinterland. There are age and caste biases as well. While the elderly seemed inclined to lean towards the more familiar Congress, the enthusiasm of young people for the new party was palpable. Similarly, while Jat Sikhs and upper caste Hindus particularly in urban areas were far more supportive of the Congress, the Mazbi Sikhs and Dalits appeared inclined towards the Aam Aadmi Party.

With the Akali edifice that has for so long dominated the Punjab landscape about to crumble, Congress and Aam Aadmi Party supporters across the state have clearly contrasting compulsions for a new order.

“We want the Captain and the Congress party in power because they have the administrative experience and political acumen to restore stability and bring back prosperity to Punjab,” asserted the owner of a large tyre store in Amritsar. “After 10 years of chaos under the Akalis, Punjab cannot afford to take a chance with political upstarts like the AAP.”

The same sentiments were echoed by an elderly farmer in Ferozepur who felt that the Congress alone was capable of ousting the Akalis.

“The Congress has a history of fighting such electoral battles and has defeated the Akalis several times before,” he said. “The jhadu party [as the Aam Aadmi Party is known because of the broom, its electoral symbol] will need more time to get its political bearings here.”

‘Give AAP a chance’

Ironically it is this very political virginity of the Aam Aadmi Party that is so appealing to its supporters. “There will not be much difference to poor people like us if the Congress replaces the Akalis because after all they too will look after the interests of the rich and powerful,” said a rickshaw puller in Majitha constituency about 20 km from Amritsar. “But the AAP do not look like the old netas and promise radical change.”

There were similar expectations from a family of three eating their Sunday lunch at a roadside dhaba near Barnala. An educated farmer, his schoolteacher wife and college-going daughter were determined to give the new party a chance.

“I think we need to give them at least one chance having tried out both the other parties who have looted ordinary people while looking after themselves and the rich,” declared the schoolteacher as her husband and daughter nodded in approval.

Congress workers are more visible particularly in cities and towns and its supporters exude confidence that their party is ahead in the electoral race. Aam Aadmi Party workers have run a relentless innovative campaign that depends on the silent majority to push them over the finishing line. Significantly, unlike supporters of the Congress many of those rooting for the Aam Aadmi Party said they were determined to vote for the party even though they were not sure it would get the majority of seats.

As a matter of fact, there were a surprisingly large number of both Congress and Aam Aadmi Party supporters who felt that neither party would be able to muster a full majority even though they were convinced that the Akali-BJP combine would be wiped out. Many of them felt that the two parties would have no option left but to run a coalition together.

“The fact of the matter is that despite AAP’s political naiveté and its many mistakes, the party has captured the imagination of Punjab,” said a professor of political science in Guru Nanak University in Amritsar. “Even if they think that the Congress would be a safer bet there are many of us who are drawn by a new political era promised by AAP.”

It remains to be seen whether Punjab will vote with its head or its heart.