In Punjab a “disgraced” pagri sparks surprising bonhomie between AAP and arch-foe SAD

The new-found love between AAP and the Akalis could disrupt the political strategies of all parties in the coming weeks.

Chitleen K Sethi

It has been only three months since the Captain Amarinder Singh-led Congress government came to power in Punjab, but the Aam Admi Party (AAP) has already warmed up to its bitter enemy, the Akalis.

The six- day budget session that concluded Friday witnessed scenes of unexpected bonhomie between AAP and Akali MLAs. With the opposition ganging up, the treasury benches had a hard time keeping the budget proceedings on course. The Speaker, Rana Kanwarpal Singh (known as Rana KP) ended up becoming the villain of the piece, AAP was the victim and the Akalis, their saviours.

The Speaker had suspended protesting AAP MLAs en bloc on Thursday. Despite the suspension, the Leader of the Opposition and AAP MLA Harinder Singh Phoolka led a group of MLAs inside the assembly hall. The Speaker ordered that they be physically lifted out of their seats and taken out of the hall.

A scuffle followed after some AAP MLAs, including its three women legislators, resisted. Two Sikh MLAs claimed their turbans were pulled by the watch-and-ward staff of the assembly.

As many of the Congress MLAs looked on, the Akalis, led by former deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal, jumped to AAP’s assistance. They walked out to protest against the manner in which the AAP MLAs had been treated. The Speaker suspended the Akali MLAs as well.

Surprisingly, Bikram Singh Majithia, former revenue minister and the target of AAP’s ire during the election campaign, sat holding the saffron pagri (turban) of AAP MLA Manjit Bilaspur during a press conference and condemned the speaker for disgracing it.

“When we rushed behind the AAP MLAs we saw the assembly staff beating Bilaspur, while he lay crouched on the floor,” Majithia, who apparently lifted his turban and claims to have saved Bilaspur from the staff, said.

Sukhbir demanded the speaker’s removal. Later, both Akali leaders took Phoolka and other AAP MLAs to the hospital to return Bilaspur’s turban to him.

Former revenue minister Bikram Singh Majithia with the turban of AAP MLA Manjit Singh Bilaspur during a press conference by the Akalis. Chitleen K Sethi/The Print

Former chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, who has not been attending the assembly session, rushed to visit the injured AAP MLAs, terming the house proceedings as the “midsummer madness” of the Congress.

“It does not matter which party MLAs have been misbehaved with. No one’s pagri should be disrespected. And look at the way the women MLAs have been treated,” Badal said.

Sukhbir later led a delegation of Akali and BJP MLAs to meet the Punjab governor V.P.S. Badnore where they lodged a complaint against the Speaker.

Phoolka, in turn, thanked the Akalis for showing “support and concern”.

“Shiromani Gurudwara Prabhandhak Committe (SGPC) has complained to the governor against the desecration of turbans. In this matter, total opposition is standing firm against Speaker and a government,” he said in a statement issued Thursday.

Phoolka also led a delegation of the AAP MLAs to the Akal Takht on Saturday and lodged a complaint against the desecration of the turbans of five of the party’s MLAs.

This new-found love is likely to disrupt political strategies of all the parties.

Within the AAP, the growing differences between Bholath MLA and party whip Sukhpal Singh Khaira and Phoolka is expected to get worse. Phoolka has the support of the Delhi leadership, while Khaira has become the voice of dissent within the party and is opposed to Delhi’s control.

In an internal party vote, only four AAP MLAs supported Phoolka on supporting the government’s obituary reference to former Punjab DGP KPS Gill.

“Phoolkaji going in Sukhbir’s vehicle to the hospital to return our MLA’s pagri was wrong and is a sign of weakness,” said Simerjeet Singh Bains of the Lok Insaaf Party, which is an ally of AAP.

Several AAP MLAs said the Akalis walked away with the credit on the issue.

“The man whom we made the bugbear of our election campaign is holding our MLA’s pagri. I told Phoolkaji to take the pagri from Majithia and hold a press conference. But it seems our leadership suffers from an inferiority complex and is in awe of the Akalis,” a senior AAP MLA said on condition of anonymity.

Former Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Basal with injured AAP MLA Sarvjit Kaur Manuke in Chandigarh on Thursday. Chitleen K Sethi / The Print

Several MLAs also questioned AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal’s silence on the manner in which they were roughed up.

The AAP’s plan to corner minister Rana Gurjit and Majithia on the sand mining issue was dropped when Khaira and Bains were suspended on the first day of the session.

The harsh actions by the Speaker has come in for some criticism in the Congress party as well since it appears to have brought the two political rivals closer.

“Will Sukhbir withdraw his defamation case against AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal, who had accused Majithia of drug smuggling and will Parkash Singh Badal now come to the Vidhan Sabha to take charge of the opposition?” Congress president Sunil Jakhar asked at a press conference on Saturday.

Despite having the least strength in the house, the Akalis managed to derail the budget proceedings during the course of which the finance minister, Manpreet Singh Badal, had tabled two white papers on the debacles of the SAD regime. A discussion on the white papers was rendered impossible with AAP on the Akalis’ side. AAP MLAs, still learning the ropes of floor strategy, have found willing teachers in the Akalis who won’t mind supporting the AAP on issues that suit their political interests.

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