Last time around, in 2015, the Aam Aadmi Party had won the Rajouri Garden seat in Delhi by a resounding margin getting 47% of the vote share. Today, as it suffered a humiliating rout — its vote share plunged to 13 per cent and its candidate Harjeet Singh lost his deposit getting barely 10,000 votes — the AAP leadership conspicuously avoided any discussion on the loss. The only comfort, some of its leaders claimed, was that to many within the party, the scale of the defeat may have been a shock but not exactly a surprise.
For, ever since party MLA Jarnail Singh had vacated this seat to take on then Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, leaders said, the party had braced itself for defeat and had even sounded out its candidate asking him to “keep his expectations low.”
Still, the shock was palpable.
As polling trends clearly pointed to a thumping victory for BJP candidate Manjinder Singh Sirsa, Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia emerged from his official residence to make a statement. “The results in the Rajouri Garden bypolls is evidently not in favour of AAP,” he said. “We were looking at the bypolls here and it is the seat vacated by our MLA Jarnail Singh. People are unhappy that he left the seat to contest in Punjab. We had spoken to the people in Rajouri Garden regarding this but it seems they were still upset about it. But we want to reassure the voters that even in future we will continue to keep our channel of communication with them open and keep working for them.”
“The work initiated during Jarnail Singh’s tenure will continue unhindered and the Delhi government will bring in more initiatives,” he added. “The results of the bypolls have no impact on the municipal polls which are being contested on entirely different issues. AAP is contesting the municipal polls with full force and will come out victorious….After winning 282 seats in Lok Sabha, the BJP lost many bypolls. We will win the MCD polls by telling people about the work done by us and we will win it handsomely.”
Sisodia’s brave face, however, hid more than it revealed. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal remained silent; senior leader Gopal Rai said that the party will work with twice the effort on MCD elections. Kumar Vishwas tweeted a not-so oblique message to the party: “Paani aankh mein bharkar laya jaa sakta hai, Ab bhi jalta shahar bachaya jaa sakta hai (Water can be fetched through tears, the burning city can still be saved.)
The loss in Rajouri Garden is being viewed by some in the party as a fallout of the less-than-expected performance in Punjab. “Had we won Punjab, there would have been a better response from people here. The loss in Punjab has shaken the faith of our voters at some level. The chips are down for the party but we cannot lose hope,” said a senior party functionary.
The party headquarters on Rouse Avenue remained deserted all day as the AAP shifted its operations for the municipal polls to another location in Central Delhi to avoid “too many prying eyes.” Sources said that the leadership had decided “not to scrutinize the Rajouri Garden bypolls any longer and take the results on its chin.”
Former MLA Jarnail Singh, who was not fielded a second time, has not only maintained a low profile since his defeat in Punjab but has also kept his distance. “It was the party’s decision to field me in Punjab against CM Parkash Singh Badal. It is time for deep and honest introspection within the party,” Jarnail told The Indian Express today. “In two years, the party had done great work in Rajouri Garden and it is possible that people were happy with my work and did not want me to go to Punjab.”
When the party contested the Punjab polls and invested its resources in the poll-bound state, the Opposition had stepped up its attack accusing AAP of “abandoning” Delhi for the pursuit of power. This perception took hold as Kejriwal, his Cabinet ministers and some MLAs spent most of their time campaigning in Punjab.
“Jarnail Singh should have refused to go but he had his own ambitions, he might have thought he would get to become a minister in Punjab…As the Delhi CM, Kejriwal should have first focused on the grave systemic failures here and spent five years setting things right. AAP did not come to reign over India,” said party dissenter and MLA from Timarpur Pankaj Pushkar.
Former Kejriwal aide Yogendra Yadav maintained that the party was on a “self-destruction mode.”
“The BJP is waging an all-out war to finish AAP…the AAP leadership itself is on a self-destruction mode and we do not know which will come first, murder or suicide,” said Yadav. “There is no doubt that the LG played a role (to undermine AAP), the Delhi Police got after every real and imagined crime of AAP legislators like no other state police. The repeated efforts by the income tax authorities to dig some dirt in AAP accounts reek of witch-hunt. But the promise of good governance was also belied completely.”
“The sole achievement of the former Rajouri Garden MLA Jarnail Singh was that he threw a shoe at an Union Minister. People are watching who you promote…Within the party, the yardstick now stands at loyalty, not merit. The MLAs need to introspect and call for a massive overhaul within the party,” said suspended Bijwasan MLA and dissenter Col. Devinder Sehrawat.
“For everything Kejriwal has just blamed Modi. There are dozens of other Chief Ministers all over the country and no one abuses the Prime Minister like this. In Delhi itself there have been other CM, Saheb Singh Verma and Sheila Dikshit, who too have worked with other parties at the Centre but no one has had so much trouble. When one starts thinking that ‘everyone else is wrong and only I am right’, there is a problem.”
In his rally in Rajouri Garden last week, as a last-ditch effort, Kejriwal had said that a vote for the BJP would ensure that work isn’t done. “AAP ke candidate ko MLA banao toh saare kaam honge. Vipaksh ke teen log hain assembly mein. Unki aise bhi nahi chalti. Vipaksh ka MLA banaoge toh kaam kam honge. (If you elect AAP candidate as MLA all your work will be done. The Opposition has just three members and they anyway have no say. If you choose someone from the Opposition fewer works will get done),” he had said.
Clearly, the voters were not impressed.