Interview | As AAP Sets Sights on Himachal Polls, New State In-Charge Feels 'Change' is Near

'If we are so weak then why are they targeting us on a daily basis?' Durgesh Pathak asks, referring to Congress and BJP's reactions to AAP entering Himachal electoral politics.

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Chandigarh: After a landslide victory in Punjab, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has officially launched a poll campaign in Himachal Pradesh, following the Mandi road show by party supremo and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal on April 6.

Many believe AAP’s entry has the capacity to alter Himachal’s political landscape which has, for long, been singularly dominated by Bharatiya Janata Party and Congress.

AAP, meanwhile, is firm in the belief that voters  in Himachal have become frustrated with both these parties and are ready to vote for change – a belief that has found success in Punjab and Delhi. Rivals, on the other hand, claim AAP represents more hype than reality and has no future in the hill state. AAP has recently appointed Kejriwal’s close aide Durgesh Pathak as Himachal in-charge. Pathak is believed to have had a big role to play in the party’s victory in Delhi and has helped efforts in Punjab too.

What does he plan to do now? The Wire speaks to Pathak to know more about how the party is gearing up for the polls in Himachal later this year.

Excerpts are as follows.

Can you outline AAP’s priorities ahead of the Himachal election?

The major focus of AAP right now is on strengthening the party at the grassroots level. While our structure is complete at constituency level, we are building party units at the panchayat level at present.

We are also enlarging our support base. In the past few months, thousands joined AAP as volunteers and surprisingly 99% of them had no political affiliations.

There is a lot of enthusiasm among people especially after the party’s victory in Punjab. Our workers’ base in the state was a few thousands till last year has already crossed over three lakh. This reflects that AAP is already being seen as a vehicle of change that people here were yearning for for long. Their wait is over now.

Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal and Punjab CM Bhagwant Mann speak to media personnel during their visit to Gandhi Ashram, in Ahmedabad, Saturday, April 2, 2022. Photo: PTI

Rival parties say AAP is still structurally and organisationally very weak in the state. It could not get more than 2% vote share when it first fought here in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. 

The party has strengthened a lot in the past couple of years in Himachal. We are now structurally very strong. That is the reason we are on the continuous radar of both Congress and BJP.

Also read: Himachal Pradesh Bypolls: As Infighting Troubles BJP, Congress Hopes for a Revival

If we are so weak then why are they targeting us on a daily basis?

AAP has emerged out of a public movement. Therefore our organisation is public and the public is our organisation. They are the ones who drive the narrative of change. That is why traditional parties are afraid of AAP’s rise.

A third party has never made inroads into Himachal. What makes you think AAP has a chance here?

A third party had never won in Delhi. Likewise, Punjab had no history of a third party forming the government. But AAP made history there.

It is because people are fed up with traditional parties and their corrupt rule. Wherever they got a good option, they did not think twice in packing them off. See what happened in Delhi and Punjab? So called big leaders bit the dust.

History will repeat in Himachal too now. Earlier people of Himachal had limited options. That was the reason Congress and BJP were conveniently playing a musical chair game by fooling people. This will no longer happen now.

Is it the win in neighbouring Punjab that makes the party confident in Himachal this time?

AAP’s victory in Punjab is significant but more than that it is the party’s track record of development in the national capital that helped us win people’s trust. On the other hand, traditional parties are continuously looting the public resources wherever they are in power.

Himachal is a perfect example.

Despite so much natural resources here, the state’s per capita income is extremely poor. Unemployment is rising. I have toured the whole state and I have seen how voters in the state are frustrated with the working of ruling BJP and Congress governments in the past. Like Punjab and Delhi, people in the state are also ready to give one chance to AAP.

Do you think your party’s poll strategy has limitations? Barring Punjab, AAP has miserably failed in four of the five states that recently went for polls.

We work hard wherever we go. Sometimes results come early. Sometimes it takes time. But the underlying theme is that wherever we go, we get a lot of public support. This is what is driving us.

You said BJP and Congress ran ineffective governments in Himachal. What makes you think that?

Congress ruled Himachal for nearly 30 years while BJP has been in power for nearly 20 years. Yet, several areas of the state are underdeveloped with no water or road facilities. Health system of the state is lying collapsed. Standard of government schools is worse.

Unemployment is a very big issue in Himachal. The youth of Himachal are forced to leave their homes for a meagre salary. COVID-19 broke the backbone of the state’s tourism industry, yet the BJP-led government did not provide any relief.

Also read | Himachal Pradesh: 10 FIRs Against 6 Journalists For Reports, Posts on Lockdown

The root cause of the whole issue is that both BJP and Congress used politics to siphon off public money. We are entering Himachal for change and will use politics to make a difference in people’s lives. Himachal has got a lot of untapped potential.

Will AAP’s development model in Himachal comprise freebies and popular schemes just like in Punjab or go beyond it?

It is disrespectful to voters when we see social security schemes through the prism of “freebies”. In Delhi, we ensured free electricity, free water, free health and education services, yet the annual budget of Delhi has increased threefold from Rs 25,000 crore to Rs 75,000 crore.

The core ideology of AAP is to make the government efficient in order to achieve the fundamental needs of people. AAP managed to achieve it in Delhi and will follow the same governance in Punjab because we stay away from corruption and make judicious use of public money. This is what the AAP’s model of development is all about.

File photo of Arvind Kejriwal at a Jantar Mantar protest against the farm laws. Photo: PTI

But in Punjab, AAP announced several popular schemes before the election and also claimed that money will not be an issue. But soon after forming the government, your chief minister went on to seek a Rs 1 lakh crore financial package from the Prime Minister?

AAP is committed to fulfil all the promises made during Punjab election. But how does it matter from where the money comes from? Moreover, the central government is very much this country’s government. We will take help from wherever possible. For us it is not an ego fight. Our goal is to improve people’s lives.

Kejriwal started the Himachal mission from BJP chief minister Jai Ram Thakur’s home down Mandi. Does this mean that BJP will be your prime rival in the state instead of Congress?

In Himachal, both BJP and Congress stand exposed. But we don’t believe in political rivalry. Our whole focus is to win public trust wherever we fight elections. I am happy to say that we are getting unparalleled public support in Himachal. You will see in a matter of weeks the overwhelming rise of AAP on the ground.

Also read: As AAP Plans To Expand Further, a Look at the Factors Behind Its Victory in Punjab

AAP leader Manish Sisodia recently claimed that BJP will be introducing Anurag Thakur as the party’s next chief minister in Himachal due to the failure of Jai Ram Thakur. Is AAP meddling in the internal affairs of BJP here?

The main issue here is that a chief minister worked for a full five-year term and has completely flopped. People in Himachal say that he made around five to six helipads in his assembly constituency. He hardly worked outside his constituency whether it is roads or other civic development. He was a complete failure during COVID-19 as well. In fact there was a major medical scam under his watch during COVID-19 here.

Now to hide his failure, BJP is bringing a new chief minister face. But the public knows everything. Congress too played this gimmick in Punjab by changing its chief minister in the fag end of their term. See what happened later? They were routed. In Himachal too, people are in the mood for major change.

Another reason for AAP’s victory in Punjab was the declaration of a CM face before the polls. Will the party follow a similar strategy in Himachal as well?

The party will take this decision at an appropriate time and accordingly media will be informed.

Will your CM face be from the Rajput community as they dominate HP politics? Five of six CMs of Himachal come from this community. 

All I can say is that our CM will be from Himachal. He will be from within the party. He will be honest and one who fully believes in AAP’s ideology and will be fully prepared to serve the 70 lakh people of the state.