Ten months into government in Punjab, chief minister Bhagwant Mann and his team are accused of being remote-controlled by the party bosses in Delhi and being obsessed by ‘Delhi model’ of governance.
The Aam Admi Party (AAP) came to power in Punjab after winning an unprecedented 92 out of 117 assembly seats bringing an end to the electoral dominance of Congress and Akali Dal in state politics. Soon after the Punjab Assembly election results were declared on March 10, 2022, Bhagwant Mann told the electorate: “You have fulfilled your responsibility very well, now it is my turn to fulfill my responsibility.”
Mann assured the people of Punjab that “badlaav (change)” would be visible in a month. As Mann’s government has just completed about 10 months in office, its performance has been a mixed bag. There are some hits, misses, and serious concerns.
Although 10 months is not sufficient to evaluate the performance of any government, yet there is something significant to be discussed: the control, direction, and purpose of the government’s decision-making process. It is important to study the gap between what is being done and what needs to be done for the much-needed revival of the state. As Punjab stands at a crossroads, it is important to unravel AAP’s governance approach and the political dynamics involved.
The AAP government rolled out its biggest promise of 300 units of free power from July 1, 2022, onwards. A large number of citizens paid nothing towards electricity after the scheme was launched. However, it also meant the state would a burden of Rs 1,800 annuallly. This is significantly a lot given that the state has a whopping debt of around Rs 3 lakh crore. The power subsidy bill alone is set to cross Rs 20,000 crore mark this fiscal year, in addition to Rs 7,117 crore due from the previous fiscal.
The AAP government would also incur an expenditure of Rs 6,947 crore on free farm power and Rs 2,503 for the subsidy to industry. Experts from the power industry say that the government would end up paying Rs 3,000 crore, as there are several existing categories which also get 300 free units, due to the welfare measure brought in by former chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi.
The AAP government has not yet been able to fulfill its promise of giving Rs 1,000 per month to the women of Punjab who are above 18 years of age. It was one of the key poll promises announced by AAP convenor Arvind Kejriwal in the run-up to the Punjab Assembly elections. Once implemented, it would cost the state exchequer Rs 12,000 crore per year.
The politics of populist promises and freebies have already damaged the economy of the state. The fulfillment of AAP’s poll guarantees like free electricity and Rs 1,000 per month to women would leave a huge dent on the exchequer, and the government would additionally need to borrow to keep up with the promises. Further, the burden on the exchequer without increasing the state revenue indicates no significant change in political thinking.
Zero tolerance against corruption
What has gained praise for Bhagwant Mann’s government is its zero-tolerance policy against corruption. Strict action has been taken against several politicians and government officials. There is no denying the fact that several political leaders and senior officials, even at the assistant inspector general of the police level, have been put behind bars. A number of IAS and PCS officers have also been booked under corruption charges.
Such has been the effort in this regard by the AAP government, which has not hesitated to take action against its own leaders if found guilty. In May 2022, Punjab health minister Vijay Singla was sacked from the Cabinet under corruption charges. Recently, Punjab horticulture minister Fauja Singh Sarari was forced to resign amid corruption charges. By taking action against its own ministers, the AAP government has effectively blunted the opposition’s allegations of a witch-hunt against them.
Mann’s action against his own ministers could very much be part of AAP’s political strategy, yet it has earned significant praise from many quarters. Given the scenario that how endemic corruption has been in Punjab, the Mann government’s tirade against corruption is a major initiative that signals a significant shift in governance, and thus has received notable support from the public. However, to curb the deep-rooted corruption, much more systematic effort and reforms in governance are required.
High propaganda, little reforms
The AAP government in Punjab has so far taken the following decisions/initiatives: (i) launching of anti-corruption helpline (ii) withdrawal of security cover of more than 400 people (iii) minimum support price (MSP) on moong (iv) notifying “One MLA, One Pension Scheme” (iii) regularisation of few temporary government jobs (iv) slashing of load enhancement fee on tube-wells (v) enhancing of sugarcane prices (vi) opening of 500 ‘Aam Admi’ Clinics on the model of “mohalla clinics” in Delhi (vii) crackdown on illegal encroachments, (viii) 600 units free electricity (ix) starting of government Volvo buses to Delhi airport (x) constitution of an anti-gangster task force (xi) implementation of the old pension scheme (OPS) (xii) upgrading of 117 government schools as “schools of eminence”, etc.
The Mann government has announced these major decisions on the back of an advertising blitzkrieg. Advertisements and heavy propaganda material are being pushed on all media platforms. Social media is agog with posts, highlighting the initiatives of the AAP government. Huge publicity material now dots major roads in the state. Full-page advertisements in newspapers in and outside of the state have become a regular feature of the Mann government.
There is a perception among a section of people in the state that the 10 months of the AAP government in Punjab has been more about political stunts and propaganda rather than delivering effective governance at the grassroots level. Some even say the performance of the AAP government appeared to be as if it is readying itself for an election. They say the Mann government has not been able to strike a balance between delivering effective governance and political messaging.
There has also been a concern that the Mann government’s initiatives appear to have been more about pandering to “AAP’s Delhi Darbar” than devising strategies keeping in mind the socioeconomic welfare of Punjab. This was also reflected when AAP campaigned aggressively during Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh polls last year. It appeared that the AAP government was more concerned about its electoral performance in other states, given its intention to expand its footprint outside of Delhi and Punjab. In the process, the leadership did not manage to focus enough on the crises afflicting Punjab, as some allege.
The constant election mode that AAP leadership finds itself in prevents it from truly understanding and acting on the “badlaav (change)” narrative on which it rode to power. There is a widening gulf between the direction of the Mann government and the grievances of the people of Punjab.
Obsession over ‘Delhi Model’
The governing style of the Bhagwant Mann-led government makes it clear that there is a heavy dominance of AAP’s Delhi ‘think tank’ over the state’s decision-making process. There is so much obsession to replicate the ‘Delhi Model’ in Punjab, which has utility for the party’s poll propaganda drive across the country but lacks a sense for a state that has 23 districts, 237 towns, and 12581 villages.
The ‘Delhi Model’ obsession is also going against the spirit and sentiments of Punjabis. Both in political and psychological terms, the idea of replicating the ‘Delhi model’ in Punjab does not appeal to the people of Punjab. Instead, there will be a high sense of belongingness if Punjab is given its own model based on the fundamental needs and aspirations of its people.
Besides, considering the diverse religious, socioeconomic, and political environment of Punjab, the replication of the ‘Delhi Model’ for Punjab seems highly irrational and illogical. Issues concerning Punjab are quite diverse having roots in religion, identity, history, and culture, which the Punjabis take very sentimentally.
In the context of Punjab, the overpowering dominance of the ‘Delhi Model’ demonstrates three crucial tendencies:
- AAP’s central think tank’s high priority in branding ‘Delhi Model’ through the power it holds in the state of Punjab.
- Dominant control of AAP’s central team over the government’s decision-making in Punjab.
- Weakness and inability of AAP’s Punjab leadership to govern Punjab with autonomy that an elected government must possess.
As the majority of government initiatives taken so far have predominantly been cosmetic and symbolic in nature, it strongly indicates that the focus of AAP’s think tank is more on gaining political mileage and much lesser on addressing the real concerns of the state. That again indicates no significant “change” than the previous regimes.
The attempt to replicate the ‘Delhi Model’ in Punjab is under severe criticism from various corners. Not only it falls flat on grounds of utility for Punjab but also it clearly demonstrates AAP’s centralised control over the state’s policy and decision-making process. Mann must come up with a relevant and sensible ‘Punjab Model’ for Punjab’s revival, leaving aside the ‘Delhi model’ for Kejriwal and his Delhi team.
Wasting no time, Bhagwant Mann needs to realise that he is the chief minister of state which is facing an existential crisis on various fronts, and any further continuation of disadvantageous policy can lead to serious adversities.
Mann government and the perception challenge
Besides performing more on symbolic lines than targetting the grassroots, the AAP in Punjab is also facing an intense ‘perception’ challenge that the government in Punjab is a proxy government with dominant control in hands of the party’s high command in Delhi.
Such perception is being articulated not only by the opposition but is widely palpable among the public too. Mann’s government also came under criticism for allegedly using funds and resources from the state to promote the electoral needs of the party in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, where assembly elections were held recently. The excessive focus of the party on elections and electioneering is heavily denting AAP’s image in Punjab, that of chief minister Mann in particular.
Considering the first nine months of rule, Mann has not been able to project himself as a leader that the “badlaav (change)” narrative had promised to offer. His image and role as chief minister of Punjab have been no match to his fiery pro-Punjab speeches that Punjabis have witnessed in the last six to seven years.
The path that Mann is taking since being in power seems similar to that of conventional politicians, and he has not been able to project himself as a leader offering true ‘change’. There have been numerous speeches blaming Congress and Akalis for the Punjab crisis, lectures on road maps and reforms, motivational addresses, etc. This has been a regular feature of Punjab politics for decades, but “badlaav” was meant to bring in changes and reforms in a realistic sense.
It has been a matter of surprise, maybe shock and even embarrassment for people in the state that he has become a quintessential politician who is stereotyped. This is being reflected both at the grassroots level and also on social media.
Although Mann himself revived the hopes and aspirations of Punjabis during his stint in opposition and in the run-up to elections, his conduct as chief minister has left many disillusioned and disheartened. The perception that the chief minister of Punjab is possessing relatively much lesser autonomy vis-à-vis his Delhi bosses is denting Mann’s image to a significant extent. Such perception seems quite valid as it is based on the nature and content of the AAP government’s decision-making process.
Excessive political advertisement and marketing in other states by using Punjab resources, decisions more cosmetic or symbolic in nature than welfare-oriented, frequent and active participation of Delhi bosses in Punjab governance events, and dramatic and hyped-up ways to launch the new initiatives, all have contributed to reflecting a stronger power centre vis-à-vis Mann and his cabinet.
Earlier decisions by AAP think tank like Rajya Sabha membership to non-Punjabis (Dr. Sandeep Pathak and Raghav Chadha) from the state that gave 92 seat landslide mandate, and the most irrational “Knowledge Sharing Agreement” with Delhi Government were widely criticised and have already caused substantial damage to Mann Government’s image.
During its campaign drive for Punjab assembly elections, AAP had promised to make Punjab “Dharna Mukt”. Mann was the face of that promise. However, the reality on the ground so far has been the opposite. Already the unemployed youth, various unions, teachers and farmers have been protesting against the AAP government as has been the case in previous governments.
Citizens gheraoed chief minister and cabinet ministers on a number of occasions. Numerous protests/dharnas have been staged by different farmer unions in the last few months across Punjab, particularly in Faridkot, Amritsar and Bathinda districts. The discontentment among various protesting sections of Punjab has further dented the credibility of the Mann government in very short span of time.
Bhagwant Mann must shun ‘interference’
Since the Mann government has fulfilled few promises and taken some positive initiatives, people largely are of the opinion to give them more time. They are willing to wait and watch. As the Punjab electorate has become quite aware and keeping a close eye on political developments, the AAP leadership of Punjab must start thinking in accordance with the needs and aspirations of Punjabis. The government policy and decisions must be based on reviving the “Punjab situation”, and not on the fulfillment of the agenda given by party bosses and their strategists.
As emerging discourse in Punjab is predominantly regional and one that of seeking autonomy, the policy and action in fulfillment of Delhi Darbar’s political agenda will not only be detrimental to the state but will also leave little space for the survival of state leadership.
A state with a debt burden around Rs 3 lakh crore and its core sectors facing an existential crisi, there is absolutely no scope to be further exploited by inept, impudent, and arbitrary political establishments. Any further misuse of Punjab’s natural, human, and material potential for vested political interests can push the state towards the paradox of intense depression – a fact that the Mann government must acknowledge in their policy and decision-making process.
Mann has all the power and time required. However, Mann and his team must understand the essence of being in power. The day he sets the tone to run “Punjab” from Punjab by rejecting the unnecessary interference of ‘Delhi Darbars’ will bring about real “badlaav”. The day Bhagwant Mann decides to put the revival of Punjab above the party and its bosses, he will be the chief minister with the “change” that state badly needs. The day Mann and his team of elected representatives decide to place accountability towards the electorate higher than the party bosses, it will mark a significant shift towards the political reformation of Punjab.
The chief minister must emphasise establishing effective structures/bodies administered with the task of reforms in the policy-making and distribution process for the much-needed socio-economic revival of the state. Instead of taking commands from those for whom “Punjab” is more of a political agenda, Mann must engage experts from the state who understand the crisis and are willing to offer solutions.
Aam Admi leadership of Punjab must understand that their political graph is on a significant decline, and that too in only about 10 months’ time. The biggest reason is the diminishing confidence of Punjabis in the working of the Mann government. So, what is of importance for the Mann government is to instill the spirit of belongingness among the masses through initiating well-thought-out confidence-building measures.
The only way the AAP government can progress and succeed is by making the people of Punjab, youth in particular, stakeholders in the revival and reformation process of the state. Although, Bhagwant Mann has all the power to bring in the “changes”, it will depend upon his will and intent.