Manish Sisodia
Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia | PTI
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Khaira, the former Punjab leader of opposition for the Aam Aadmi Party, already has eight of the party’s 20 MLAs on his side.

Chandigarh: Delhi’s deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia is headed for Punjab next week as the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) grapples with a growing rebellion in the state spearheaded by former leader of opposition in the assembly, Sukhpal Singh Khaira. Sisodia is the party’s Punjab in-charge.

Khaira Tuesday announced the creation of an eight-member ad-hoc ‘political affairs committee (PAC)’ consisting of the rebel MLAs and eight special invitees. The committee, Khaira said, will “monitor and supervise the reconstitution of the entire political structure of the party in the state”, including the appointment of the president/convener in the coming days.

Sangrur MP Bhagwant Mann subsequently lashed out at Khaira, asking him and other rebel legislators to resign from the AAP. “They are free to form their own party and run it as they want,” said Mann, referring to the rebels’ demand for “autonomy” for the AAP’s Punjab unit.

Mann also hinted at possible action against Khaira and another rebel MLA, Kanwar Sandhu. “I am asking the rest of the MLAs with Khaira to return to the party. Khaira and Sandhu are very clever and using the other MLAs for their own political interests. They are trying to emotionally blackmail the people of Punjab,” he said at a press conference.

Khaira has eight of the party’s 20 MLAs on his side after another legislator joined him Monday.

While he has lashed out at the Delhi unit’s “interference” in the party’s Punjab affairs, there have been other causes of discord as well — including AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal’s apology to SAD leader Bikram Singh Majithia, whom he had accused of involvement in Punjab’s raging drugs trade, and Khaira’s purported support for Referendum 2020 by Sikh separatists.

AAP’s state co-president Balbir Singh held an emergency meeting of the party’s office-bearers Saturday to chalk out strategy in the event of a split.

Also read: 7 Punjab AAP MLAs raise banner of revolt, declare state unit ‘free’ from Delhi’s control

He said Sisodia will be in Jalandhar from 13 August for a series of meetings with party members, with the party also counting on Mann as its trump card against a split.

According to Balbir, Mann, the party’s biggest crowd-puller in Punjab, will address rallies in all the districts in the coming months. The former comedian’s resignation as state president, tendered after the Majithia apology, was rejected by the AAP’s Punjab leadership Saturday.

Sources said that once the party’s position in the state was “revived” with Mann’s rallies, Kejriwal will visit the state in October.

No easy task

The AAP’s attempts to keep its flock together follow the rebellion announced by Khaira and six other MLAs at a volunteers’ convention in Bathinda last Thursday, where they declared themselves free of the party’s Delhi leadership.

Punjab is the only other state apart from Delhi where the AAP has managed to carve an important presence — in the 2017 assembly election, the AAP beat out the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), led by five-time chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, to emerge as the second-largest party in the house of 117. The AAP won 20 seats against the SAD’s 15, with the Congress sweeping the election with 77.

Containing the crisis is thus an urgent priority for the six-year-old party, whose outings in other states have been a failure thus far. The task is far from easy, though. As an eighth MLA, Jaikishan Rori, joined ranks with Khaira Monday, legislator Kanwar Sandhu (one of the ‘rebel’ MLAs) said another “three-four” were in talks with them.

Khaira has said that most AAP MLAs are under “tremendous” pressure from their voters to support the cause of autonomy for the party’s Punjab unit.

Fence-sitter MLAs like Kulwant Singh Pandori and Manjit Singh are being courted by both sides. Meanwhile, sources said that Rupinder Kaur Ruby, who had initially sided with Khaira but went back to the Delhi camp, was having second thoughts.

While MLAs Aman Arora, Kultar Sandhwan, Amarjit Singh Sandoa, Baljinder Kaur, Sarabjit Kaur Manuke,  Gurpreet Singh Meet Hayer and Harpal Singh Cheema, the new leader of the opposition, are considered to be firmly in camp Delhi, their counterparts Budhram and Harinder Singh Phoolka have managed to remain neutral.

A contest for volunteers

The two groups are also trying to outmanoeuvre each other for volunteer support. The Khaira group is said to have started collecting data on disillusioned party workers who went on to leave the AAP.

Also read: AAP Punjab unit appears headed for a split, Khaira & supporters to reject Delhi’s control

“Just overnight, almost 10,000 forms were filled,” said Khaira Monday, adding that he had given an “open invitation” to every such AAP worker to return in their support.

The stage also seems set for a face-to-face confrontation on Independence Day, which also marks the 63rd death anniversary of Karnail Singh Isru, the martyr of Goan liberation shot dead by Portuguese soldiers during a march on the state by unarmed satyagrahis in 1955.

Balbir announced Saturday that on 15 August, the party will hold a political conference in Isru’s memory at his birthplace, Isru, near Khanna in Ludhiana. Khaira said Monday that his group, along with their supporters, will gather at Isru on the day as well. “We will not be a part of their conference but we will be there,” he added.

Two days before Sisodia and Mann are scheduled to meet party leaders in Jalandhar next Monday, Khaira and his group will hold a volunteers’ meet at Garhshankar. On 26 August, the AAP will hold a political conference at Baba Bakala, while the Khaira group will hold a gathering of volunteers in Gurdaspur a day before.

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