AAP at crossroads in Punjab

Daily World’s Bureau Chief Nitin Jain sizes up the current turmoil in Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), after the 2017 Punjab Vidhan Sabha polls debacle.

As late as December, 2016, the AAP was poised for the kill in Punjab. The ruling SAD-BJP were at their wits end to stop the AAP juggernaut and Congress was struggling to keep pace with the Arvind Kejriwal Brigade which was on the March. Poll analysts were giving AAP a comfortable 70 to 90 seats in the House of 117 seats.
But then the slide started and the last six weeks before the polls were the AAP’s undoing. Over-confident and faltering in its seat allotments and failure to project a “Punjab face” coupled with an overly Delhi-centric campaign brought down the party’s prospects much before the polling day – February 4, 2017. True enough, when the results came out a week later, there were shock waves all over. Not only was AAP leadership shocked by the debacle, even the Congress found it hard to believe that they had emerged victorious with 77 seats in their kitty! It had snatched victory from the jaws of a defeat.
AAP leadership was numbed into inaction. It was looking for excuses. It found one in faulty EVMs. But there were few takers for that alibi even within the party. What followed in the coming months was a blame game. The AAP leaders from Delhi who were seen all over the state – and in the media – disappeared. The Punjab leaders searched for answers. Its Punjab Convener, Gurpreet Singh Waraich “Ghughi” was replaced unceremoniously like his predecessor, Sucha Singh Chhotepur before the polls. Ghughi quit the party. The ramshackle outfit in Punjab put its star campaigner, Bhagwant Singh Mann, MP, at its helm of affairs. Since he had failed to win even his Jalalabad seat in the Vidhan Sabha polls, he was too demoralised to galvanise the party. Aman Arora, MLA from Sunam, was appointed co-president to build the party structure in Punjab. He had barely completed half of the job that the party was hit with an “earthquake” of sorts. National convener, Kejriwal tendered an unconditional apology to Akali leader, Bikram Singh Majithia for branding him a drug kingpin during polls. Majithia withdrew his defamation suit against Kejriwal and some others. This had the Punjab unit virtually in turmoil. Some Punjab AAP MLA, notably, Sukhpal Singh Khaira, Kanwar Sandhu and Nazar Singh Mansahia were more vocal in voicing their opinion against the apology. Bains brothers of Lok Insaf Party walked out of the alliance. Bhagwant Mann and Aman Arora too tendered their resignations from party posts.
Dr Balbir Singh, who had unsuccessfully contested from Patiala, was made the Co-president. This led to further resentment in the already demoralised cadres. The party, whose candidate had lost his security deposit in Gurdaspur bypolls, suffered a humiliating defeat in Shahkot byelections – its candidate polling a bare 1900 votes. Meanwhile, desertions from the party of volunteers continued. The only silver lining was the role of the Legislative Wing – earlier led by Harvinder Singh Phoolka and then Sukhpal Singh Khaira. Khaira adopted a very aggressive posture, which even contributed to the resignation of a Congress Cabinet Minister, Rana Gurjit Singh in a blatant conflict of interest case. However, Khaira’s penchant for publicity and self-glorification was leading to resentment in many quarters.
The party high command in Delhi then struck. It replaced Khaira with a little known MLA, Harpal Singh Cheema, as Leader of Opposition. This led to some MLAs, including Sandhu protesting openly at the party’s style of functioning. Their flock swelled to 8 MLAs out of a total of 20. Emboldened, they organised a state-level Volunteers’ Convention on August 2, which was attended by more than 20,000 people. The Convention cocked a snook at the Delhi leadership and declared the Punjab unit “autonomous” to take its own decisions in the interest of the state and its people. It also disbanded the existing structure within Punjab, which was more or less defunct. The outfit got state-wide and world-wide support of Punjabis, especially the rural folk.
The AAP initially mulled taking disciplinary action against Khaira and others. It even activated Bhagwant Mann to neutralise the rising popularity of Khaira, Sandhu and their group. However, there was a backlash. Once the idol of masses, Bhagwant Mann received a lukewarm response. In some quarters he faced opposition. The party was forced to go on the back-foot.
The AAP in Punjab is clearly at crossroads. While Khaira has emerged the mass leader, Sandhu, who has wide support among NRIs, is seen as the brain behind the group. Who – Delhi leaders led by Mann or Punjab Group led by Khaira are able to carry the masses with them? Who blinks first? The battle lines are clearly drawn, though efforts at reconciliation are still continuing.

Trust us to write fresh chapter in Punjab’s glorious history: Kanwar Sandhu

“The way forward is to encourage democratic functioning within the party and allow state units to plan their own strategies in line with the aspirations of the people of each state.”

Amidst this crisis, we spoke to journalist-turned-politician, first-time Kharar MLA and AAP’s spokesperson Kanwar Sandhu on the present crisis and the possible way forward. In a freewheeling interview with Nitin Jain, Sandhu poured his heart out on a wide range of issues ranging from present crisis in Punjab AAP to their future plans. He appeared optimistic on their new move. Here go excerpts from the interview.

Q. Where does the AAP stand in Punjab today?
A: The party in Punjab is undergoing a churning process and emerging stronger by the day. This was evident by the huge spontaneous turnout at the Bathinda Volunteers Convention on August 2 and the subsequent district-level and other meetings which have been organised at Garhshankar and Issru. The same unit of the party which could not gather 500 people one month ago is now getting thousands for routine meetings.

Q. Who is responsible for the divide and rivalry within the main Opposition party in Punjab?
A: I leave it to you to judge as to who was responsible for the division or creating rivalries. We had no role whatsoever in the division and are trying to make the best of a bad situation by infusing fresh life into the party which was on the verge of extinction as the 1,900 votes to AAP candidate in Shahkot by-poll shows.

Q. What are the issues concerning the AAP in Punjab?
A: The primary issue is of being given autonomy to take our own decisions within the party in Punjab. The system of decisions being imposed from above without taking Punjab leaders into confidence has been catastrophic for the party before and after elections. On this hinges the decision of forming and building a party structure in the state for day-to-day functioning and to plan and execute the future strategies and moves.

Q. Was removal of Sukhpal Khaira from the post of Leader of Opposition (LoP), a design/ conspiracy hatched by both the ruling Congress and the previous ruler SAD-BJP in connivance with the AAP national leadership, as alleged by Khaira?
A. Not exactly but by inference, it appears so. Since the SAD-BJP on one hand and the Congress Government on the other have been baying for Khaira’s blood, removing him from the post of LoP without issuing him a warning or a show cause, is tantamount to fulfilling their desires. Since his work as LoP was being appreciated, there was no reason to change him, leave alone humiliate him.

Q. With the 2019 Lok Sabha election approaching near, what is the way forward for AAP in Punjab and overall across the country?
A. The way forward is to encourage democratic functioning within the party and allow state units to plan their own strategies in line with the aspirations of the people of each state. Look what the reverse of this has done to the party outside of Delhi. It is losing relevance in each state. In Punjab, people see a viable alternative in AAP and look forward to the state unit fulfilling that role. But they don’t want the state unit to be run from Delhi. This is what led to our defeat in the 2017 Vidhan Sabha polls.

Q. How much true is the public perception that Delhi AAP leadership wants to keep Punjab AAP’s control in its hands and only appoints those persons on key positions in the state, who can act as their puppets?
A. If you look at the way the party has been run in Punjab for the past two years or so, what you ask is not just the question but also the answer. I need to say no more.

Q. What are your plans for future? Would you continue to remain in AAP despite all the mess prevailing in the party or is there a plan to part ways?
A. No plan to part ways at any stage. What we are doing is because with each decision taken the party graph has only gone down. Now, we are reversing the system of decision making. We are making it more democratic. We are going as per aspirations of the volunteers and the people of the state. The party is already on the path of revival. Why would we break away?

Q. How true are the reports that Khaira had been even negotiating with ruling Congress leadership to come back in his old party? Are other members/ MLAs of your party also considering/ interested in joining Congress?
A. I have no information about any such negotiations by Sukhpal or any other MLA colleagues. These appear to be nothing more than canards and rumours.

Q. What needs to be done to resurrect AAP in Punjab and make it a force to reckon with during the 2019 Lok Sabha election?
A. The party in Punjab is already on the path of revival. The way forward is to stick to the original ideology and make changes in the strategy by learning from our mistakes. Yes, granting greater autonomy to state units with guidance of the Central leadership is the only way the party can emerge as a force to reckon with in 2019 Lok Sabha polls and the 2022 Vidhan Sabha polls in Punjab and elsewhere. We need to build on our NRI base and they are not just our well wishers but also well wishers of the state. We, in AAP, have a huge task – to be seen as being able to give good governance, as being honest, as being secular, as being genuine protectors of Punjab’s interests and as being forward looking. God willing and with peoples’ support, we will stitch together the state’s tattered past. Trust us to write a fresh chapter in Punjab’s glorious history.

Q. How do you personally feel after joining politics/ AAP in the current situation?
A. It has been a satisfying experience. Unfortunately, I am only able to work at 50 per cent of my real self as I lost a part of myself last year in a tragedy. We have been a very close knit family and my elder son was a pillar of strength. But I am trying to do my best under the circumstances with support of the family that I still have. I think I have made a difference for good wherever I have served and whichever organisation I have worked in. I hope I can do
that in some way in my current role, even with the severe handicap.


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