Can Punjab AAP Govt Rise Up to Emerging Challenges With No Interference from Delhi Bosses?

The party's challenges on the ground appear to be quite different from what the party leadership in Delhi had presumed.

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Jalandhar: Two months into power, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government’s efforts at delivering its poll promises, including free power up to 300 units for every household from July 1, doorstep ration delivery from October 1, an anti-graft helpline, among others, have earned the public support; however, its challenges on the ground appear to be quite different from what the party leadership in Delhi had presumed.

In the run-up to the Punjab assembly elections 2022, AAP’s consistent campaign theme remained the Delhi model of governance – education, health, power and water at affordable prices. Along with that, the party’s decision to choose Bhagwant Mann as the chief ministerial candidate struck a direct chord with the voters in Punjab. The outcome saw AAP winning with a historic mandate of 92 seats – highest tally for any party in four decades.

However, questions are being raised on the party’s poll promises as the government is yet to announce anything on the Rs 1,000 per month scheme for women, which had received a thumping response from voters. However, despite the delay, many women said, “We are eagerly waiting for the Rs 1,000 scheme. It is a big financial support for women. Chief minister Bhagwant Mann is fulfilling poll promises, we are sure he will implement this scheme too.”

Another major issue the party is facing is maintaining law and order in the state. Despite the formation of the Anti-Gangster Task Force (AGTF), which is focussed on intelligence-based operations, Punjab has been witnessing a spike in murders, clashes and attacks.

The law and order challenge

On March 14, UK-based international Kabaddi player Sandeep Singh from Nangal Ambiyan village in Jalandhar was shot dead in broad daylight by unidentified assailants during a tournament. The murder sent shock waves across the state and abroad, raising questions over the AAP government’s tall promises. Punjab Police arrested four accused and booked three main conspirators in the incident.

This was followed by targeted killings of three Kabaddi players, and an attack on two youth at a volleyball ground, in Tarn Taran district of Punjab, all in a span of one month.

A close family friend of Sandeep, requesting anonymity, told The Wire, “The police should extradite the accused sitting in safe heavens. Unless the accused are extradited, how can we expect justice? The accused should be behind the bars for killing Sandeep, ruining his family and affecting the game of Kabaddi.”

Representative image of Punjab police. Photo: PTI

AAP’s litmus test

Recently, the AAP government faced its first litmus test, when a Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) blast took place outside Punjab Police’s Intelligence Headquarter in Mohali on May 9, putting the state on high alert.

However, Punjab Police claimed to have solved the case within days and said that the Mohali blast was carried out by pro-Khalistan outfit Babbar Khalsa International (BKI) and gangsters backed by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Five accused were arrested in this case.

The Mohali blast took place days after a clash took place between Shiv Sena (Bal Thackeray) and Sikh Hardliner groups in Patiala over an ‘anti-Khalistan’ march. The Patiala clash brought the opposition – the Congress, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – on the same page with the trio questioning Mann’s failure at taking corrective measures despite warnings.

Similarly, the crackdown of the Punjab government on AAP critics such as Congress leader Alka Lamba, former AAP leader Kumar Vishwas and BJP leader Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga was also seen as an unnecessary issue in which the Punjab Police was becoming a scapegoat.

Commenting on this matter, Chandigarh-based senior journalist and author Jagtar Singh said, “There are two dimensions to these incidents. After the change of government, the intensity of such cases has increased. The attack on the Mohali Intelligence office is nothing short of an attack on Punjab. Moreover, in the Patiala clash and Mohali blast, ‘Khalistan’ narrative has come to light. Khalistan ideology used to have committed people in it. However, those arrested in connection with the Mohali blast are petty jobless criminals.”

On the political front, Singh said, “Arvind Kejriwal’s poll campaign was confined to schools and hospitals only. He ignored the other dynamics of Punjab. In fact, Punjab had the best link roads way back in the 1960s but everything got damaged during the militancy period. Punjab’s development could never restart post-militancy and the system collapsed. But I still feel that let us give AAP some more time. Let them (AAP) understand Punjab.”

Also read: Punjab: After Case Against Kumar Vishwas and Alka Lamba, AAP Accused of Political Vendetta

The ‘controlling’ factor

Notably, in early April, a month after the formation of AAP in Punjab, chief minister Mann and Punjab governor Banwarilal Purohit visited Fazilka district on the Indo-Pak border over national security and drugs issue.

The focus was on the six border districts of Punjab – Pathankot, Gurdaspur, Amritsar, Tarn Taran, Ferozepur and Fazilka. Governor Purohit reiterated that he would visit the border districts every three months to take stock of the security situation. The governor’s visit with the chief minister raised questions over AAP acceding to the Union government’s interference in Punjab.

On one hand, a knowledge sharing agreement was signed between Delhi and Punjab to revitalise the core sector of health and education, while on the other hand, the party sparked a row in the state by nominating non-Punjabis to the Rajya Sabha.

Reacting to AAP’s performance so far, senior journalist and former AAP MLA Kanwar Sandhu said, “It is too early to judge AAP’s performance. The government hasn’t even presented its first budget.”

On the growing perception that the Punjab government was being run from Delhi, Sandhu said, “The feeling that the Delhi effect is overbearing appears to be the perception and not without reason. Every decision or announcement in Punjab either has an echo effect (is repeated with a video or tweet from Delhi) or is preceded by a meeting there. This perception is eroding the Punjab chief minister’s authority.”’

On the ‘Khalistan narrative’ gaining prominence in Punjab, Sandhu said, “Like in 2016-2017, [the current party’s] effort to destabilise things is evident again. Obviously, the powers that want to destabilise are taking advantage of a new government and loose command control. The government will need to show that it is indeed in command. The fact that the chief minister has as many as 27 portfolios, including the home department, is not helping. By not having a full ministerial strength of 18, the government appears to be a lame duck and they will have to change this perception.”

However, Sandhu reiterated that people should give more time to the AAP government.

“People are expecting better education and health facilities. It will take time. Finances are going to be a big constraint, though. But initiatives on tackling corruption, including anti-graft helpline and action against some corrupt people have gone well with people. But with challenges like drug abuse, farmer indebtedness and unemployment, the government will have to prove that it has a plan. It has to move beyond PR, raids, advertisements and photo-ops,” he added.

Even Congress leader Sukhpal Khaira said, “It is not Bhagwant Mann but Arvind Kejriwal who is running the Punjab government from Delhi. Bhagwant does not have a free hand to run Punjab. On the other hand, AAP MLAs are blatantly intimidating people with their tall claims at controlling corruption through a helpline, which is nothing but a PR trick.”

Also read: Rookies, the Centre and the Role of ‘Insurgency’: What AAP in Punjab Can Learn From Assam’s AGP Govt

Agricultural policies

On the agricultural front, farmers welcomed the Mann government’s decision to provide minimum support price (MSP) on moong dal and Rs 1,500 per acre financial assistance to those opting for direct seeding of rice (DSR) – a technique that saves groundwater.

Bharat Kisan Union (BKU) Ekta Ugrahan general secretary Shingara Singh Mann said, “Punjab government’s decision to provide MSP on moong dal is laudable. They have also announced Rs 1,500 financial assistance on DSR but how can we do farming with conditions? Then the government took a one-sided decision on region-wise paddy sowing on June 18, 20, 22 and 24 and divided the state into four zones, which is not practically possible. Delayed paddy sowing means farmers would be left with less time to sow wheat crop and handle paddy stubble. Also look at the power cuts in Punjab. Paddy season is yet to begin and the situation does not appear to be promising.”

Representational image. Credit: CIAT/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

The farmer union leader also questioned AAP government on farmer suicides and said, “Arvind Kejriwal had announced during polls that after April 1, 2022, he will ensure that no farmer or farm labourer dies by suicide. However, 20 farmers have died by suicide since AAP government came to power. Farmer suicides is a serious issue and the government should address this issue on priority.”

Moreover, the AAP government is yet to announce any major step in solving the emotive issue of sacrilege and drug menace, which became the biggest reason behind the defeat of both the Congress and the SAD in Punjab polls.

Also read: Has AAP Taken Another Leap to Embrace Communal Politics?

Several U-turns on decision-making

The government allegedly took away Dalits’ hard-earned right of one-third share in the panchayat land by making amendments to the auction rules.

As per the Village Common Land (Regulation) Act, 1961, one-third of the panchayat land can be leased out only to Dalits. However, it is common practice in Punjab for upper-caste landlords to get the land in the name of their Dalit ‘pawns’. Dalit organisations had been protesting against these practices, and in 2018, they got several changes made to the rules.

However, after fighting over this issue for over a decade, the department of rural development and panchayats reverted to the old norms of auction.

Additionally, the AAP government had also ordered a ban on makeshift vehicles, which were used by the underprivileged section people to sell their produce. However, fearing public backlash, chief minister Mann directed the transport department officials to withdraw the order.

Recently, the Punjab government also took a U-turn on its decision of summer vacations in Punjab following the heatwave. Earlier, they had announced summer vacations from May 15 till June 30 but the government revised the order to June 1 to June 30.

“We have fulfilled all our poll promises including jobs, ration delivery, one MLA, one pension, Rs 1,500 boost for DSR and an anti-graft helpline. Our government is all set to start a Rs 1,000 per month scheme for women in the upcoming budget. Ours is the first government, which has sought suggestions from the public and it should be hailed,” AAP spokesperson Neel Garg said.

He added that what previous governments could not deliver in their five-year tenure, AAP delivered within 50 days.

“The opposition is raising such issues out of frustration. While crime rate has declined, chief minister Bhagwant Mann was running an independent and successful government without anybody’s control,” AAP spokesperson Neel Garg said.

But despite these shortcomings, newspapers in Punjab are flooded with full-page advertisements promoting the AAP government’s initiatives. The PR campaign of AAP is not just confined to Punjab but poll-bound states of Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat too. “Kejriwal is eyeing 2024 Lok Sabha polls and all efforts are being made in that direction only,” said a former AAP worker, who is now with the Congress.