Chandigarh: Not long ago, the Aam Aadmi Party seemed to have Punjab in the palm of its hand. But five years on, the party might find it difficult to even retain the four Lok Sabha seats it won in 2014.
The AAP had surprised itself and many others by winning these four seats in Punjab, despite having come into being just months before. Significantly, it managed to break the traditional Congress-Akali Dal hegemony over the state, securing over 24 per cent of the votes, just shy of the ruling Akalis’ tally, and was poised to expand its footprint.
Yet, now, the AAP seems to be in the doldrums. The Punjab Congress has made it clear that it will not have a tie-up with the AAP, and the latter has announced its candidates for all 13 seats, which will go to the polls in the seventh and final phase on 19 May.
Arvind Kejriwal had promised a political revolution by launching the AAP, and after winning power for a short period in Delhi in 2013, Punjab seemed to be the next state it would conquer. People were attracted to the AAP in hordes, after years of alternating between Congress and Akali rule.
In the run-up to the 2017 assembly polls, AAP remained a major third force, but the party’s eventual performance was far from satisfactory. Once an odds-on favourite to come to power, AAP was restricted to 20 MLAs in the 117-seat assembly, with its vote-share dropping marginally to 23 per cent.
How did it come to this? The fall is thanks to a rot in AAP’s Punjab unit that began in August 2016.
The inability of the AAP’s central leadership to trust local leaders has probably been its biggest failing in Punjab. In August 2016, it unceremoniously removed its state president Sucha Singh Chhotepur following allegations of corruption, none of which were ever proved.
AAP’s propensity to remote-control its Punjab affairs from Delhi has also been the principal bane of its strategy, approach and management. Party leaders in Delhi have been accused of interfering too much in the day-to-day affairs of the state unit, instead of strengthening the organisation within the state.
The AAP leadership’s inability to tolerate dissent or deal with dissenters tactfully has also proved fatal to its growth. Every attempt of the top crust in Delhi to brazen it out has cost it heavily in Punjab.
In August 2018, the party split after six of its 20 MLAs parted ways under the leadership of former leader of the opposition Sukhpal Singh Khaira. Khaira was dealt with no less summarily in 2018 than Chhotepur in 2016. He protested against the “undemocratic” manner in which the party was being run, where the opinion and wishes of the local leadership hardly mattered, but to no avail.
Subsequently, Khaira raised the banner of revolt and has now created his own outfit, the Punjab Ekta Party, which has fielded its own candidates in opposition to the AAP’s official candidates.
Both Chhotepur and Khaira have left AAP gasping for political breath in Punjab.
What became of the faces of the party?
Chhotepur was among the 13 candidates who had contested the Lok Sabha polls on the AAP ticket in 2014. Fast forward five years, and the only candidates who are active and not estranged from the party are sitting MPs Bhagwant Mann and Prof. Sadhu Singh.
The other two MPs, Dr Dharamvira Gandhi from Patiala and Harinder Singh Khalsa from Fatehgarh Sahib, are now rebels. Gandhi has created his own political outfit, Punjab Manch, while Khalsa has joined the BJP.
Even a mild and moderate personality like H.S. Phoolka, who lost from Ludhiana in 2014 but later won the assembly polls from Dakha, has left the party.
Popular singer Jassi Jasraj, who was one of the forebears of the party in the state and was chosen to take on bigwigs like Harsimrat Kaur Badal and Manpreet Badal from Bathinda, was thrown out barely a year later for raising his voice against the Delhi leadership.
Bhai Baldeep Singh, who was the party’s candidate for Khadoor Sahib in the Lok Sabha polls, is nowhere to be seen.
Even actor-turned-politician Gurpreet Singh Ghuggi, who was chosen to lead the AAP ahead of the assembly polls, was removed soon after the elections.
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