Chandigarh: This Sunday, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) appointed its national spokesperson Raghav Chadha as its co-incharge for Punjab.
Just the previous day, the AAP had expanded its organisational base in Punjab, appointing state, district, block and circle level office-bearers.
Three days before, AAP convener and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal had dramatically torn copies of the three central farm laws in a special session of the union territory’s assembly Wednesday. The move was a symbolic show of solidarity with the thousands of farmers from Punjab and Haryana protesting at the Singhu and Tikri borders outside Delhi for almost a month, demanding a repeal of these Acts.
The AAP’s renewed focus on Punjab is a clear attempt to catapult itself back onto the centrestage of the state’s politics in the run-up to the 2022 assembly polls.
But will the party, seen as faction-ridden and rudderless, be able to regain lost ground in Punjab and be taken seriously?
The AAP is a shadow of what it looked like at the peak of its popularity in Punjab, ahead of the 2017 assembly elections. But it was limited to 20 seats in the 117-member House, far behind the winning Congress’ 77 seats. Since then, the AAP’s graph has steadily gone downwards, and its electoral success has remained limited to the Delhi assembly polls, which it won again this year.
Back in 2016-17, the AAP in Punjab was seen as the perfect alternative to the two existing options, the Congress and the Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP alliance. It was considered a serious contender for power, but received only 23.72 per cent of the votes in 2017. This was lower than the 24.4 per cent vote-share it had won on debut in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, when it surprisingly won four seats in Punjab, despite drawing a blank in Delhi.
But by the time the 2019 polls came around, only Bhagwant Mann could retain his Sangrur seat as the AAP’s vote-share shrunk to 7.36 per cent. All other AAP candidates lost their security deposits.
Mann, the former stand-up comic, is now AAP’s state president, and the party has many lightweights in the name of leaders, political observers say.
The ouster of Punjab unit chief Sucha Singh Chhotepur in August 2016, months before the elections, was where the slide started — since then, AAP has only seen its leaders leave.
Senior advocate and MLA H.S. Phoolka, who was picked by the AAP to be leader of opposition after the elections in March 2017, left the post in July, the assembly in October 2018, and the party in January 2019.
Sukhpal Singh Khaira, who succeeded Phoolka as the leader of the opposition in 2018, turned rebel after a year and formed his own party, Punjab Ekta Party, with a handful of other AAP MLAs.
The party’s state convener and popular actor Gurpreet Singh Ghuggi quit when Bhagwant Mann was made the state president in May 2017.
The rebel leaders have not lost their membership of the House, as the Speaker hasn’t accepted their resignations or disqualified them. The only exception is Phoolka, who gave an ultimatum to the Speaker that he would take him to court if his resignation wasn’t accepted.
But now, the AAP only has politically inexperienced MLAs left holding the flag, for the most part.
“When, last week, we were told that the leader of the opposition Harpal Singh Cheema and AAP state general secretary Harchand Singh Bursat, treasurer Nina Mittal and secretary Gagandeep Singh Chadha administered oath to the newly appointed office-bearers, very few had actually heard of anyone apart from Cheema,” said Dr Kanwalpreet Kaur of the department of political science at DAV College, Chandigarh.
The appointment of Raghav Chadha as the co-incharge of the state is also not likely to go down well with the party’s state leaders.
“One of the prime reasons why the AAP failed in the 2017 elections was because of over-centralisation; sometimes even more so than the Congress and the BJP. There was a Delhi team which was brought in just one year before the elections, the way Chadha has been brought in now,” said Harjeshwar Singh, associate professor of history at the SGGS College Chandigarh, who has closely followed the AAP in Punjab for the last five years.
“The Punjab leaders feel they are made to work for three and a half to four years; they keep the party up and running; but when it comes to elections, somebody is brought in above them,” Singh said.
This played out quite clearly in Khaira’s case — he was removed as leader of the opposition for openly criticising Kejriwal and his Delhi-centric form of politics in Punjab.
In July 2016, when Navjot Singh Sidhu resigned from the Rajya Sabha and the BJP, it was expected that he would be AAP’s CM candidate for Punjab.
“But that never happened because Kejriwal himself wanted to become the chief minister. Just like the rest of the AAP’s Delhi leadership, they wanted a team to work in Punjab, win the state for them, so that then they could lord over it. Sidhu wanted clarity on his position, but when he was not given that clarity, he went on to join the Congress,” said Harjeshwar Singh.
Kanwalpreet Kaur added: “Chhotepur’s removal rang the death knell in 2016. Kejriwal’s over-ambitious Delhi team was responsible for that.”
Riding farmers’ coattails
The AAP is now looking at the Punjabi farmers-led agitation against the new agriculture laws on the outskirts of Delhi as its big ticket to power.
“The AAP has a tactical advantage because the farmers’ sit-in is happening around Delhi; it can be of help in making them comfortable,” said Kaur.
Bhagwant Mann himself had claimed in conversation with ThePrint that Delhi AAP MLAs were ensuring that the farmers had help.
“Since no political parties are allowed to participate in the agitation by the farmer leaders, we have been supporting them without our flags and banners, right from the time the agitation started in Punjab. Even in the Delhi dharna, there are many AAP workers from Punjab who are working on the ground, apart from the AAP MLAs from Delhi,” Mann said.
He added that Kejriwal tearing up the three farm laws was a historic step, “dealing a severe blow to the Modi government at the right point in time”.
“AAP was the first among the political parties to hold a press conference in Chandigarh in June 2020, to sound the trumpet against the anti-farmer legislations. Kejriwal was the first chief minister of the country who challenged the Modi government on the agricultural laws at Jantar Mantar in Delhi,” said Mann.
Harjeshwar Singh agreed that this could give the AAP some political advantage.
“The AAP can gain some political advantage from the farmers and the agitation, provided they are able to pull some farmer leaders into the party and give them tickets to contest elections,” he said.