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Chandigarh: The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) faces a major challenge ahead of the state assembly polls due in February 2022, after two more MLAs deserted the party last week, reducing the strength of its MLAs to almost half.
It is widely perceived that there has been a strong urge for change in Punjab for some time as people are widely unhappy with two parties – the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and Congress – sharing power alternatively (one exception in 2012 election when SAD retained the government).
But AAP has failed to translate that feeling into its advantage, if considered in terms of its vote share from the time it first fought election in 2014 in Punjab till the recent municipal bodies elections.
AAP’s vote share in Punjab was 25% when it shocked everyone by winning four parliamentary seats in the 2014 general elections. It has now fallen below 5% in the 2021 municipal bodies polls where mostly urban and semi-urban seats were contested across all regions of Punjab, including Malwa, Doaba and Majha.
The party’s number of MLAs have reduced to 11 from 20 since the 2017 assembly elections. The nine MLAs either left the party, were suspended, disqualified or shifted to the Congress in due course. Another MLA left the party but came back last year.
What snowballed the latest crisis in the party was the way two MLAs left last week, forcing the party to announce assembly tickets for the leftover MLAs for the state assembly polls to stop further defection in the party.
Bathinda rural MLA Rupinder Kaur Ruby joined the Congress on November 10 while Raikot MLA Jagtar Singh Hissowal crossed over to the treasury benches amid a dramatic turn of events in the Punjab Vidhan Sabha on November 11.
Calling chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi a real ‘Aam Aadmi’, Hissowal announced to switch over officially to the Congress in a few days.
Earlier four AAP MLAs – Sukhpal Khaira (Baloth), Pirmal Singh (Bhadaur) and Jagdev Singh Kamalu (Maur), Nazar Singh Manshahia (Mansa) – already switched to the Congress.
Another AAP MLA from Jaito in Punjab, Master Baldev Singh, was disqualified as MLA last month for violating anti-defection provision.
‘A lack of understanding of Punjab’s religious and social politics’
In the 2017 assembly elections, AAP’s major focus was on the Sikh vote bank, including Sikhs and Hindu Dalits. This strategy backfired as Hindus, fearful of allegations of AAP’s fiddling with extremist elements, shifted to Congress which comfortably formed the government in the state.
Later, in the 2019 parliamentary election, whatever support base it had got in 2017 crashed down as the party then was grappling with internal rebellion and defection, which continues even till date.
Pramod Kumar, a political analyst, said that AAP could not understand Punjab’s politics over the years.
In Punjab, exclusive community or religion-based politics does not work, he said. That is why mainstream political parties in Punjab cultivated a support base among different religion and caste formations in different regions. For instance, Congress has well a oiled leadership among Dalits, Hindus and Sikhs. SAD, though perceived as a Sikh party, kept its alliance with the BJP to have a wider social base in different sections. But it is now enlarging its base after breaking off the alliance with the saffron party over the farm laws.
“AAP is not even focusing on expanding its social base in Punjab, without which no political party can survive in the state. Even today, its present leadership (whether Harpal Cheema, Bhagwant Mann or Aman Arora) is confined to the Malwa region while the party lacked known faces in Doaba and Majha regions at the state level,” he said.
In the 2014 parliamentary polls and 2017 assembly polls, AAP had managed to get nearly 28% vote share among Dalits. But now the vote share has been blunted with Congress’s move to elevate Channi as first Dalit chief minister and further alliance between SAD-BSP.
Journalist and author Jagtar Singh recently wrote in his blog that Punjab is still the most secular state despite the fact that its politics is dictated by the Sikh religious and political dynamics; reason being that Sikhism preaches love, brotherhood, universalism and dignity of labour and service. The Punjabis share a composite culture and heritage.
“Kejriwal should know that although the BJP has been in alliance with the Akali Dal for almost two and a half decades, the Hindutva failed to take roots here. Kejriwal presents himself as a soft copy of Hindutva. The RSS, of course, has expanded. He can’t impress people in this state by reciting Hanuman Chalisa,” Singh wrote in the blog.
Internal issues equally problematic
AAP has been disintegrating ever since it won four seats in the 2014 general elections. Former AAP leader Dharamvir Gandhi, who defeated Preneet Kaur, Captain Amarinder’s wife, by a massive margin, from the Patiala parliamentary constituency, was suspended in 2015.
After the 2017 assembly election defeat, war ensued within the party over leadership issues. Slowly, it started disintegrating, and from 20 MLAs, it has now been reduced to only 11.
AAP’s suspended MLA and former journalist Kanwar Sandhu told The Wire that AAP’s excessive control from Delhi is the reason for the Punjab unit’s disintegration.
After the party’s defeat in the 2017 election, Sandhu had written a letter to Kejriwal, stating that the Punjab unit of the party lacked autonomy. He further explained why it was important for AAP to end the ‘high command’ syndrome.
He added: “I am not saying that ‘high command’ culture does not exist in other parties. But AAP was supposed to be a party with a difference, and focus more on internal democracy and decentralisation of powers and responsibilities. AAP was supposed to change politics and they ended up doing the same thing.”
Sandhu further said that many things are going wrong in AAP’s Punjab unit. First, although funds are collected from Punjab but are not being utilised in the state, due to which employees are not getting paid properly.
“Tickets [for the polls in the state] were recently announced without checking with the local people. In most of the press conferences [in Punjab], who all are at the centre stage? It is the Delhi leaders close to Kejriwal. In 2016 and 2017, it used to be Sanjay Singh and Durgesh Pathak. Now it is Jarnail Singh and Raghav Chadha. Behind the scene is Sandeep Pathak (another Delhi leader),” he said.
AAP did not empower the local leadership at the district level and even at the state level, he said.
“When I wrote Kejriwal letter six months after election loss in 2017 and demanded autonomy, I was targeted and it was one of the reasons why I was sidelined,” he added.
On why Kejriwal is behaving in that fashion, he said: “They don’t believe in giving more power. Their thought process is completely different of what people really want at the ground.”
“They think what we know is best. They are functioning like the East India company of old times,” he alleged.
Meanwhile, the ‘Delhi’ syndrome in the party, as Sandhu alleged, is also disenchanting a section of voters in Punjab who are anti-Delhi, due to the Union government’s heavy control over the state. This feeling has festered more after the Union government’s decisions on bringing in and then repealing the farm laws.
When contacted, Harpal Cheema, AAP’s leader of Opposition refuted these allegations and said that there is complete internal democracy within the party. Those who left the party did so because of their vested interest and people know it, he added.
On being asked why party MLAs are joining Congress, he said: “The Congress is deliberately playing dirty politics. They are also misusing anti-defection laws for their political purpose. Even all these defectors have ditched the party and their end result will be out very soon.”
Where is the Captain?
One of the major issues confronting AAP is that it has failed to project a face in Punjab all these years, and even more so now, especially ahead of the 2022 polls.
It is an open secret that AAP Punjab in-charge Bhagwant Mann had aspirations to be the party’s face for the 2022 election. But by delaying his name, the party has almost made certain that Delhi is not interested in him as the chief ministerial face.
Last time when Kejriwal was in Punjab, he declared that the party will give the state its chief ministerial face before elections are announced, and that the face will be from the Sikh community.
This is where the party is making a mistake. Journalist Jagtar Singh said that certain rules of Punjab’s political and electoral dynamics are unwritten.
“One of the [unwritten] rules is that the chief minister should be a Sikh and this is accepted by every section. However, this need not be stated publicly. The Congress too committed a blunder when it was recently asserted by one of its senior leaders in Delhi that only a Sikh leader would replace Captain Amarinder Singh,” he said.
After AAP MLA Rupinder Ruby resigned from the party, Mann gave an interview to The Print and stated, “Let me make it very clear. I am not saying declare me as the CM candidate but any CM candidate… Because soon it will be too late for anyone to campaign and ensure a victory for the party. We have a clear roadmap for victory ready and this is the only flaw.”
Mann made an important comment when he stated, “We made many mistakes in the run up to the 2017 elections and we should not repeat those. In fact, on some accounts we are making bigger mistakes than we did in 2017. Then, we had declared our candidates more than six months before the elections. Now, as on November 10, we have not declared a single candidate, and people in the party, especially the MLAs, are becoming restless.”
Days after this interview, AAP declared its first list of 10 candidates for the 2022 polls. All these MLAs are the ones who are left in the party after a series of defections.
Meanwhile, there are rumours that AAP is considering some of the farm leaders to join the party. Whether their inclusion in the party may help revive its fortunes remains to be seen.
‘Delhi’ model of governance
Few days ago, Kejriwal tweeted that if Delhiites can have world-class healthcare services, so can Punjab.
If Delhiites can have world class healthcare services, so can Punjab. People of Punjab will soon have 16,000 pind and ward clinics in every village when AAP forms the govt. https://t.co/ZoXpXKdbOY
— Arvind Kejriwal (@ArvindKejriwal) November 16, 2021
Kejriwal selling the “Delhi model of governance” in Punjab is seen as a “menu card response” to the Punjab problem.
“Without making its stand clear on critical issues affecting the state for long including water sharing treaty, Chandigarh issue etc., no political party can gain ground,” Pramod Kumar said.
Meanwhile, AAP is also focusing on populism. Recently it announced a guarantee of 300 units of power per month. Later, chief minister Channi, who is moving fast to fulfil the promises made by the Congress in 2017, slashed power tariffs for the poor in order to blunt Kejriwal.