Sukhpal Singh Khaira at a press conference in Punjab Vidhan Sabha | Getty Images
Sukhpal Singh Khaira at a press conference in Punjab Vidhan Sabha | Getty Images
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The decision comes in wake of Khaira taking on party’s state unit chief on social media. Dalit leader Harpal Cheema to replace him.

Chandigarh: The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has removed Bholath MLA Sukhpal Singh Khaira as the leader of opposition in the state assembly, and replaced him with Dalit leader Harpal Singh Cheema.

Cheema, the Dirba MLA, is the third leader of opposition anointed by the party since the new assembly was elected in January 2017.

The decision was announced by Delhi deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia, who is also in-charge of the party’s Punjab affairs, through a tweet Thursday evening.

Khaira responded to Sisodia’s tweet by criticising the party’s Delhi leadership.

“I have discharged my duty as LoP (leader of the opposition) with uttermost sincerity, dedication and fearlessness towards Punjab and Punjabis. If speaking the truth and espousing the cause of Punjab, Punjabis and Sikhs cost me LoP, I’m prepared let go 100 such positions. Those at the helm have done what Congress-SAD-BJP wanted,” he tweeted.

Khaira’s removal comes in the wake of a recent outburst against the party’s joint president in the state, Dr Balbir Singh.

In a 14-minute video message posted on his Facebook page on 20 July, Khaira accused Dr Balbir of spreading allegations that he had “gathered money” during his meetings with party workers. He also alleged that Dr Balbir was lending a sympathetic ear to those against him. Khaira further said that he had also written to Sisodia about the entire issue.

Dr Balbir had termed the matter as being internal and one that would only be discussed in party forums. He added that Khaira should not have gone public about the party’s internal matters.

AAP high command against Khaira

Khaira, who took over from senior Supreme Court advocate Harinder Singh Phoolka, had a fairly successful tenure as leader of opposition. But he ruffled quite a few feathers in the party’s Delhi leadership.

In March, a day after party chief Arvind Kejriwal tendered an unconditional apology to former revenue minister and Akali leader Bikram Singh Majithia in a defamation case, Khaira led over two dozen MLAs to protest against the move.

Khaira had then said that Kejriwal had shown “weakness” in apologising to Majithia, and along with a couple of MLAs even mooted the idea of the state unit detaching itself from the main party headquartered in Delhi. The idea, however, fell flat as Khaira could not muster the support of the required number of his party MLAs in the assembly.

Last month, he faced the central leadership’s wrath over his comments justifying the ‘Punjab Referendum 2020’, put forth by radical Sikh groups seeking a separate Khalistan nation.

Khaira said that Sikhs living in countries, which allowed such referendums, had the right to demand justice against atrocities suffered by them. After coming under fire from all quarters, Khaira met Sisodia at the latter’s residence in Delhi to “clarify” his position on the referendum.

Sisodia had then said that it had been made clear to Khaira that AAP “cannot even think” about a referendum, let alone support it.

What next?

Khaira is expected to address the media Friday. He reportedly has the support of at least 8 to 9 of the 20 AAP MLAs in the assembly. He also has the support of the two MLAs of the Lok Insaaf Party (LIP) — brothers Balwinder Bains and Simarjeet Bains.

Sources said there is a possibility of Khaira leaving AAP and joining the LIP along with some other MLAs.

The other option, of course, is to stay within the party and accept the central leadership’s verdict against him. The possibility of Khaira getting two-thirds of the AAP MLAs to break ranks with AAP and join him in a new party is thin.

For the party, removing Khaira will certainly be a setback. He was one of the most vocal critics of the ruling Congress as well as the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), the other opposition party.

A former Congressman, Khaira knew the party’s men in and out and had taken them head on over illegal mining and drug addiction. With panchayat elections due in the state in September, it remains to be seen if little-known Cheema will fit the bill.

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