Punjab was supposed to be a game-changer for the Aam Aadmi Party.

After its stunning victory in the 2015 Delhi Assembly elections, the party decided it was time to expand beyond the National Capital Region. A strong performance in Delhi may have grabbed eyeballs, but real power could be achieved only by wresting larger states from the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Punjab was a natural choice. In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, it was the only state that gave its candidates victories, sending four AAP leaders to Parliament. The decision to contest the 2017 Punjab elections was swift. Party convenor and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal imported a large group of “coordinators” from other states and began building the AAP’s organisation in Punjab as early as 2015.

The state’s dynamics seemed tailor-made to suit AAP’s politics. First, there was the corruption-tainted Badal family of the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal, who could be projected as “asuras” – as AAP poster boy Bhagwant Mann called them – who needed to be vanquished to restore order. Second, the drug mafia had in its grip a chunk of the youth in the state, which was linked to the purported nexus between the drug lords and the ruling party. And farmers, burdened by unprecedented levels of debt, were committing suicide in hundreds. Thus, the need for a change in administration was sorely felt by many.

Kejriwal did run a spirited campaign. But as the results showed on Saturday, it failed to create the necessary impact. While the Akali Dal was indeed vanquished, the victor was not the AAP but veteran warrior Captain Amarinder Singh, who led the Congress to a stunning majority, with 77 out of 117 seats. The AAP, with 20, was a distant second.

So what went wrong? Despite the euphoria it created as the new entrant, a series of blunders cost the AAP its big chance in Punjab.

Radical choices?

The AAP’s main plank is its crusade against corruption. Thus, when it entered Punjab’s political arena, it was seen as a harbinger of clean politics in the nepotism-driven state.

However, the AAP did not realise that corruption comprised only a part of Punjab’s political puzzle. With a history of violence and separatist movements, internal security was as important as clean administration to the average Punjab resident.

This was perhaps where the party’s decision to leave the campaign management to outsiders cost it dearly. In their eagerness to draw the support of Non Residential Indians, who bring both money and social clout to the campaign, AAP’s coordinators seemed to have missed verifying the backgrounds of the people they were associating themselves with.

There were allegations that some NRIs working for the party had previously been associated with militant groups. In January, Kejriwal stayed at the residence of former Khalistan Commando Force militant Gurinder Singh, creating a flutter across the state just five days before the polling on February 4.

Both the Congress and the Akalis seized the opportunity to attack the AAP over this. In particular, Singh was acerbic and even accused the AAP of trying to ravage Punjab by providing former militants easy passage to the mainstream. Bomb blasts in places like Bhatinda days before polling on January 31, which reportedly killed five, accentuated people’s fears about violence returning to the state.

That the AAP did not have a strong chief ministerial candidate to counter such accusations added to its woes as the party had to bank on Kejriwal’s image. Given the nature of Delhi’s administration, the Opposition lost no time in pointing out that Kejriwal lacked the experience of handling security forces, as the police is under the control of the Union Home Ministry and not his state government.

Candidate selection

The AAP also played into the hands of the Akali Dal and the Congress in choosing its electoral strategy and candidates.

There was an eagerness to appease the state’s majority Sikh community, forgetting the fact that both the Akali Dal and the Congress were experts in the art of wooing gurudwara committees and the voters they influence.

Given the strong sub-nationalistic feelings in Punjab, the tag of being an outsider began to hurt the AAP very early in its campaign. The party tried to overcompensate by appeasing the community by giving them an overwhelming majority of tickets, despite suggestions that it should try to mobilise non-Sikhs, especially the Dalits who constituted 32% of the the population. The party woke up to this reality very late, when in November Kejriwal announced that if the party won, the deputy chief minister would be a Dalit. By then, the damage was done.

Another big blow came in the form of internal bickering, when Sucha Singh Chottepur, Gurdaspur strongman, the party’s state chief and its biggest crowd-puller, was removed from the AAP over allegations of accepting a bribe for ticket distribution. With his exit, the AAP looked like a divided house prone to infighting. Chottepur too went on to float his own party and target Kejriwal over his image of being an outsider, further hurting the AAP’s credentials.

Limited reach

The results also showed that the AAP had overestimated its strength in Punjab. The party was unable to make inroads outside the Malwa region of southern Punjab, where it had major gains in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. But even in Malwa, the party did not get the sweeping results it hoped for. It won 33 Assembly segments in this region in 2014, but managed to retain only 16 of those on Saturday.

Even Mann, one of its more popular candidates, lost to Akali Dal chief Sukbhir Singh Badal in Jalalabad. This was especially devastating for the party since its anti-corruption crusade was largely constructed around the Badal scion, whom Kejriwal vowed to put in prison if AAP won the elections.

National ambitions

Under normal circumstances, the AAP’s performance should have been celebrated. Less than five years after its inception, the party managed to become the principal opposition in Punjab and transformed the state election into a triangular contest.

But the celebrations are subdued because of Kejriwal’s overconfidence about Punjab. The state was converted into a launchpad for the party’s national ambitions. The party hoped a win in Punjab would pave the way for its quick expansion in other states, where it hoped to take the position of Congress as the BJP’s primary opposition. It had also projected a similar confidence about Goa, from where it was contesting for the first time and subsequently failed to win a single seat.

Kejriwal had simultaneously begun preparations for Gujarat, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state that goes to polls later this year.

But after Saturday’s results whiplashed these ambitions, Kejriwal may now have to remain in Delhi for some time and focus on strengthening his party there, to ensure the AAP does not lose its advantage in the only territory under its control.