In conversation with prominent AAP leader, and likely chief ministerial candidate, Harvinder Singh Phoolka.
Jalandhar: Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Harvinder Singh Phoolka, a senior advocate in the Delhi high court, has been fighting a long and arduous battle for justice for victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots for many years now. As the AAP candidate from Dakha constituency in the upcoming Punjab assembly polls, Phoolka is back in the electoral race after having narrowly lost the Ludhiana parliamentary constituency in the 2014 general elections. As one of the top leaders of the AAP and among the party’s most prominent faces in the electoral campaign, many commentators say Phoolka is likely to be considered for chief minister if the party wins a majority. The Wire spoke to Phoolka during a rally on the AAP’s vision for the state, his view of the current dispensation and controversies surrounding the party’s electoral campaigns.
What is the message the AAP is taking forward in Punjab?
You see, Punjab is like a patient in the ICU. You pick up any field, it is in shambles – be it education, health, drugs, finances, even employees are in bad shape. Everything is really in a bad shape. We need to change the whole system. The message we are taking forward is that it is not that we need to only change the people who are sitting in power but that we need to change the system. And that is what is needed here now. This is the time we need to do this. We need to give a system where every citizen should feel true independence; he should feel that the government belongs to him. Not a kind of government where leaders are so powerful that ordinary citizens feel like their servants.
If it comes to power, what will be the focus areas of your party?
The prime focus will be on the [eradication] of drugs and then education and health. Of course, [rooting out] corruption is our main plank.
Does the party have a framework of how it would govern? For instance, the party has promised the implementation of Swaminathan committee report on agriculture.
You see, there are various issues on which we are already talking. We have a plan. As far as the Swaminathan committee report is concerned, we want it to be implemented but the centre says that it is purely in their domain and that the state cannot do anything.
What are the objective chances of your party forming the government?
Oh, there is a huge wave. People are so enthusiastic about us. You go to the villages and see for yourself.
There is a view that AAP is stronger in rural areas than in the cities.
In cities, people do not normally come out. They just come and vote. In villages, people by nature are more vocal. Even in cities people would vote for us.
Had [Navjot] Sidhu been brought in, would the party have performed better?
No, it would not have made much of a difference. But of course, the party offered him a place but he declined. He wanted something else which the party cannot give. So, he has gone to the Congress. I don’t know what the Congress has offered him.
Many prominent leaders of the party have left it ahead of elections, because of which it is believed that the party has disintegrated and it may not perform as well as it was thought to a few months ago.
I won’t call it disintegration. I would call it cleansing. The party has been cleansed now. Nothing to worry about it.
But organisational leaders like Himanshu Pathak who founded the party in Punjab have left.
That is an unfortunate development. Himanshu is a good friend. He had some differences with the party leadership and I don’t know what transpired.
Even former convenor of the party, Sucha Singh Chhottepur, was suspended. There is a feeling in the party that he was wronged and that he was a genuine person.
What happened was unfortunate. But with such allegations against him (of taking unaccounted money as donation), the party could not have kept him as a convenor. The party suspended him but he himself left it. Every party changes their office bearers but that does not mean that you leave the party and go against the mandate.
With the present organisation, do you think it can challenge parties like the Congress and the Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal)?
It is a much bigger force now and big enough to take on the combined forces of these parties. The set up is much bigger than all of them put together.
With a strong anti-incumbency wave against the government, there is a perception that AAP may play a role in splitting the anti-incumbency votes. What do you have to say?
Anti-incumbency is of course there. But the point is that people are angry against the Congress also. The excesses the Badal government has done, the Congress is also a party to it. It was the role of the opposition to stop the excesses but they did not do it. They had an understanding with the Badals, so they left the people at their mercy.
One of the criticisms against AAP is that while it preaches clean development politics in Delhi, it is pandering to Sikh extremist emotions here, say of Khalistan sympathisers.
Not at all. At one point, people were so angry against the government because of the 1984 riots, Operation Blue Star. It is a good thing to bring those people back to the mainstream. The AAP engaged with only those who were already in the mainstream. This is a good thing we are doing. People who are continuing with their separatist agenda, we have absolutely nothing to do with them.
The Delhi government seems to be working well in education and health sectors. What plans do you have for Punjab? Punjab has a poor schooling system.
We have similar plans. But it will be a challenge. We will improve both sectors.
The AAP in Punjab has also been criticised for giving tickets to people who are seen as turncoats. Many of them were either in Congress or SAD.
Many local factors also need to be seen. The intention is to win the election. When in your own party, you do not have a strong enough candidate, (you look for a winnable candidate). This happened in only a few seats, in less than 10% seats. Only 1 or 2 seats were given to people who joined the party recently. Most of them are new faces and were members who associated with the party for a long time.
Won’t new faces be your Achilles heel?
We do not want old, evil, traditional politics to be brought by these people. The new people will also perform politics in a new and vibrant manner.
Why did AAP not project a chief ministerial candidate? Who could be the chief minister?
The people of Punjab will choose the chief minister through their MLAs. We are leaving it to the people of Punjab.