AAP sounds poll bugle in Punjab, but dissent, leadership crisis cloud 2022 hopes

AAP emerged as second-largest party in 2017 assembly polls — its first in Punjab. However, AAP's central leadership has failed to groom state leaders except state chief Bhagwant Mann.

AAP national convenor and Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal addresses kisan mahasammelan in Punjab's Moga district on 21 March 2021 | Twitter | @ArvindKejriwal
AAP national convenor and Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal addresses kisan mahasammelan in Punjab's Moga district on 21 March 2021 | Twitter | @ArvindKejriwal

Chandigarh: The Punjab assembly elections are almost a year away but the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) sounded the poll bugle with a kisan mahasammelan (farmers’ gathering) in the state’s Moga district on 21 March.

At the rally, AAP’s national convenor and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal launched a scathing attack on the Amarinder Singh-led Congress government. He also attacked the Modi government at the Centre, accusing it of passing the three new contentious farm laws without consulting the farmers.

AAP’s kisan sammelans may help the party gain some support ahead of the 2022 assembly polls, but what remains the biggest challenge for it is a lack of strong leaders within its ranks in the state.

The AAP emerged as the second-largest party in the 2017 assembly election — its first in Punjab — even as it won 20 of the 112 seats it contested (the assembly has 117 seats). However, the AAP’s central leadership has, in the last four years, failed to groom state leaders except Punjab party president Bhagwant Mann.

Even Mann, the AAP MP from Sangrur, has not been able to bring together prominent Jat or Dalit faces to work for the party and has banked mainly on MLAs to keep the AAP’s flag flying.

“The AAP has been its own biggest enemy. Besides Delhi, Punjab is the only state where it has made serious inroads. The challenge for the AAP in Punjab has been a result of its own national issues. If the AAP wins in Punjab, the leaders from Punjab can pose a threat to Arvind Kejriwal. And AAP so far has been a one-man show,” said Dr Siddharth Singh, political analyst and professor at ISB, Mohali.

“The internal dissent within the AAP, its loss of credibility due to defections, and the insecurity of the Arvind Kejriwal-led central team preventing emergence of strong local leadership resulted in the setback to the party in Punjab.”

The AAP, however, is confident about its prospects. The party says its MLAs are experienced leaders and claims it will be engaging some prominent faces as well.

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A CM candidate

After Kejriwal’s rally, Punjab Congress chief Sunil Jakhar said he was disappointed in the AAP chief as he failed to announce a CM face for the upcoming elections.

“We were expecting Kejriwal to declare a CM candidate during the rally, but it was a disappointment. They have nothing to say it seems,” Jakhar said.

In the 2017 assembly elections too, the AAP had not announced a CM candidate. Although Mann was the most popular leader, Kejriwal did not name him as the chief ministerial candidate. “That is because it was decided that Kejriwal himself will be CM. It was not announced as Kejriwal as CM face would have been rejected by the people. Punjab politics continues to be dominated by Jat Sikhs and that is not going to change anytime soon. If AAP does not learn any lessons now, then 2022 will be a repeat of 2017,” said a former AAP leader.

However, AAP leaders disagree. “Things will be very different in the party this time. We will be announcing a CM candidate well before the elections. Also, apart from the current leadership, we will be engaging both fresh credible faces and some known prominent faces as well,” AAP MLA and leader of opposition Harpal Singh Cheema told ThePrint.

“Prominent leaders with experience in government and politics were needed in the party earlier. Now we are getting into our second elections. All the MLAs are experienced and trained and brimming with confidence,” said fellow AAP MLA Kultar Singh Sandhwan.

AAP’s poll strategy is similar to the 2017 elections: A campaign targeting the party in power while promising freebies and selling the ‘Delhi model’ of health and education.

“But more than issues, it is the face that matters and, unfortunately for AAP, Kejriwal’s own iconic aura was wiped out in Punjab when he apologised to (former revenue minister and senior Akali leader) Bikram Singh Majithia (in a defamation case filed by Majithia against Kejriwal). This is the reason why, from a 25 per cent vote share in the 2014 Lok Sabha and 2017 assembly polls, AAP was down to 7-8 per cent in the 2019 parliamentary polls in Punjab,” said sociologist Manjit Singh, former Panjab University professor.

In August 2018, after Kejriwal apologised to Majithia, several of his party MLAs publicly rebelled against the move. Even Mann resigned as the state president, only to be brought back as state unit chief ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

AAP MLA Sukhpal Singh Khaira was removed unceremoniously as the leader of the opposition by Kejriwal later that year for leading the protest against him.

Also read: How faction-ridden AAP in Punjab is looking to turn farmers’ agitation into an advantage

Few prominent faces

Apart from Khaira and a few other MLAs who supported him, the AAP has lost many other prominent faces since 2014.

The party was close to inducting cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu a few years ago, but he instead returned to the Congress. In July 2016, after Sidhu resigned from the Rajya Sabha, it was expected that he would join the AAP. However, his talks with the AAP hit a roadblock. “I want my role to be defined but it was not done,” Sidhu had said at a press conference.

In August 2016, the AAP removed the then party president Sucha Singh Chhotepur on allegations of corruption. Chhotepur, a seasoned politician who had left the Congress in 2012, had led the AAP ever since its stunning performance in the 2014 parliamentary elections when it won four out of the 13 seats in the state.

“Now we are being approached to get Chhotepur to join back. But as is usual with AAP, they want him back on their stage but what role he will have in the party is never clarified. AAP leaders in Delhi and Punjab need to respect others and give them their due if they want them,” said Col J.S .Gill (Retd), a former AAP leader and close aide of Chhotepur.

Two of the four MPs who won in 2014 — Dr Dharamvira Gandhi and Harinder Singh Khalsa — were removed for anti-party activities in August 2015.

“AAP seems to be taking steps to address these challenges. Its focus on expansion in multiple states at the same time seems to be aimed at preventing local leadership from any state to challenge Kejriwal. It must continue making efforts to cultivate strong local leadership for success. It must also continue choosing issues to fight for very carefully,” added Siddharth Singh.

(Edited by Neha Mahajan)

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