From a fledgling party that took the Punjabi hinterland by storm, winning four Lok Sabha seats in 2014, the Aam Aadmi Party in Punjab has been reduced to a deeply divided political entity. That, in a state where AAP had started out with much promise, perhaps even more than its 2013 debut in Delhi.
On August 2, seven of AAP’s 20 MLAs hosted a convention of volunteers at Bathinda, in open defiance of the party’s national convenor Arvind Kejriwal. While the rebels, led by former Congressman Sukhpal Khaira, failed in their promise of getting 14 legislators to attend, the massive turnout largely AAP volunteers and supporters from the southwestern Malwa and central Doaba regions has the Delhi chief minister and party leaders in a sweat. In fact, Khaira claims that 95 per cent of the party’s rank and file, barring a handful of leaders beholden to Delhi, are with us.
The rebels have now proclaimed autonomy of AAPs Punjab unit in as much as they will no longer take instructions from Kejriwal and the others in Delhi. Trouble had been brewing well before the party’s dismal assembly election showing in March last year. Poised, according to most estimates and surveys (including those of election winners, the Congress), to win at least 100 of the states 117 assembly seats in early 2016, the party fizzled out at just 20 wins. The downslide then too was attributed to grievous miscalculations by Kejriwal which reflected a less than poor understanding of Punjab’s multicultural ethos.
Midway into the overlong poll campaign (launched a year-and-a-half before the March 2017 elections), the Delhi leadership summarily sacked the party’s Punjab convenor, Sucha Singh Chhotepur, over allegations that he was demanding cash for party tickets. Being the man on the ground who helped set up AAP in Punjab, Chhotepurs unceremonious exit cost the party more than half its organisational apparatus in the state.
This was followed by disturbing allegations of Delhi’s men commandeering cash collections by AAP’s Punjab volunteers and indulging in sexual misdemeanours inside party offices, which didn’t help matters. As if that weren’t enough, spurred by the show of support he was getting from the Punjabi diaspora, particularly in Canada, Kejriwal made the colossal error of publicising a campaign night halt in the home of an alleged former Khalistan Commando Force terrorist, Gurinder Singh.
Then, just three days before polling for the state assembly, the terror bombing that killed seven people at Mandi Maur (Bathinda), sealed AAP’s fate, given Kejriwal’s association with the Khalistanis. In fact, the party lost all momentum thereafter, losing both the Lok Sabha bypolls in Gurdaspur and the assembly byelection in Shahkot. The AAP nominee also lost his deposit at Shahkot, polling an ignominious 1,900 votes.
Given its many misfortunes in Punjab, the current developments could be the party’s worst calamity. Once again, it has been sparked by what Khaira and his supporters describe as Kejriwal’s dictatorial stance. It was provoked by the Delhi CMs summary decision to replace Khaira as the party’s Leader of the Opposition (LoP) on July 26. The move, says former journalist-turned-politician-and-MLA Kanwar Sandhu, was foisted on the state unit without so much as a discussion. And this isn’t the first time it has happened: AAP has had six different state convenors in the past six years, and three changes of LoP in the past 16 months. Besides Chhotepur, his successor as state convenor, Gurpreet Singh a.k.a. Ghuggi, was also turfed out without any explanation. Ghuggi, a comedian and actor of some repute is, unsurprisingly, siding with the rebels.
And while Kejriwal and his friends remain tight-lipped on the developments, Khaira and his lot have announced their intention to take over the party from within. AAP was built with huge contributions, including finances, from Punjabis in India and abroad. We will not quit. We intend to take over the party here (Punjab), Khaira said on August 5.
Meanwhile, the party has another quandary: its still-loyal Punjab leaders want Kejriwal, Manish Sisodia and other national leaders to address a rally in Punjab before October. The problem, says an insider, is that Kejriwal is afraid that anything he attempts will be eclipsed by the mega rebel convention at Bathinda.