AAP’s Punjab mission runs into rough weather

Removal of convener Chhotepur sparks rebellion, Sidhu and others still elusive ahead of polls.

Written by Kanchan Vasdev | Chandigarh | Updated: September 7, 2016 3:47 pm
punjab elections, punjab poll 2017, aam aadmi party, punjab aap, sucha singh chhotepur, gurpreet ghuggi, aap convener ghuggi, aap politics, aap problems, problem within aap, politics, sukhpal singh khaira, aman arora, navjot singh sidhu, chhotepur ghuggi, sad, punjab news, indian express news, elections news Sucha Singh Chhotepur (behind microphone) finds supporters at a rally in Gurdaspur Tuesday. Express photo

UNTIL LAST month, the Aam Aadmi Party had been the party to watch in Punjab, its pitch of power strengthened with the induction of leaders from other parties. AAP inducted leaders such as Gurpreet Ghuggi, Kanwar Sandhu, Sukhpal Singh Khaira and Aman Arora, while being hopeful of getting former BJP MP Navjot Singh Sidhu too on board.

Today, AAP is faced with the prospect of a split that threatens to derail its ambitions for 2017. Since his removal as Punjab AAP convener for alleged corruption on the basis of a sting, Sucha Singh Chhotepur has been flexing his muscle and finding support from within. Chhotepur has been replaced with Ghuggi.

Five of AAP’s 13 zonal coordinators led by J S Dhaliwal of Anandpur Sahib and including those of Amritsar, Bathinda, Gurdaspur and Jalandhar served AAP an ultimatum on August 29, demanding Chhotepur’s reinstatement. A large number of volunteers turned out at an event Chhotepur held at the Golden Temple on September 3, followed by another crowd at his “Punjab Parivartan” rally in Gurdaspur Tuesday.

Besides, there have been indications that Sidhu and other leaders might prefer to float a fourth front against AAP, BJP-SAD and Congress. Last week, cricketer Sidhu’s wife Navjot Kaur Sidhu, hockey player and suspended SAD MLA Pargat Singh and independent MLA brothers Balwinder Singh and Simarjit Singh Bains held separate press conferences in Amritsar, Jalandhar and Ludhiana to indicate they might come together.

Sanjay Singh, in charge of AAP’s Punjab affairs, said he was ready to talk to the leaders who have raised the threat of a fourth front.

Asked about Chhotepur, he refused to discuss the controversy as “he is still part of the party”. During the backlash against the removal, Sanjay Singh had gone to Chhotepur’s home hoping to mend fences but sources close to the latter said he had gone too far to look back now, and that he was hurt at the way he had been treated.

Before all this, AAP had seemed to have weathered another controversy — a goof-up on the cover page of its youth manifesto in July, which showed a picture of the party’s broom symbol alongside the Golden Temple. This evoked protests from rival parties but AAP volunteers chose to ignore the blunder.

The larger controversy began when Chhotepur protested against two lists of AAP candidates. With not one of his candidates in the first list of 19, a sulking Chhotepur stayed away from the press conference in which Sanjay Singh announced the list. He skipped the announcement of the second list of 13, too, which again kept out his choices.

Known to speak his mind, Chhotepur said he would seek a review of the lists. The sting against him surfaced days later and he was removed from his post pending an inquiry.

The protest against candidates, meanwhile, has not been restricted to Chhotepur. Of the 32 nominees, 25 have faced protests from volunteers, with those in Mohali and Payal going to the extent of burning effigies of the candidates. Of the first 19 candidates, 18 have faced protests in their constituencies, the exception being H S Phoolka in Dakha, Ludhiana. Of the next 13, a prominent candidate to face protests has been Baljinder Kaur, AAP’s women’s wing president, nominated from Talwandi Sabo.

The nominations have also led to resignations. Singh Kingra, a close aide of Chhotepur, quit alleging that party leaders accepted bribes to nominate candidates. Gurdeep Singh Sandhu, coordinator in Ferozepore, protested against candidate Gurdit Singh Sekhon while Lal Singh Salhani, vice president of AAP’s SC/ST cell, protested against Mohan Singh Phallianwala.

What all this has brought to the fore is the resentment among volunteers on the ground against Delhi leaders who make the decisions, with Sanjay Singh and national organisation building head Durgesh Pathak having formed a team of observers at block level.

As if all this was not enough, a fresh audio sting has surfaced, purportedly recording Ludhiana-based AAP observer Ambrish Trikha as asking for Rs 5 lakh to set up an appointment with Pathak. The party has recalled Ambrish to Delhi and ordered a probe.

Amid the controversies, AAP made a fresh induction in former SAD leader Harmail Singh Tohra, son-in-law of veteran Akali leader Gurcharan Singh Tohra. It sparked fresh dissent, with senior AAP leader Kanwar Sandhu expressing his displeasure on Facebook. Then MP Bhagwant Mann was booked by police for allegedly misbehaving with journalists in Nawan Shahar, for which he has since apologised.

AAP insiders insist they are doing well. They cite an internal survey that “indicates an encouraging response from the people”. The party will bank on Arvind Kejriwal’s visit from September 8 to 11 to patch up with some of those who are upset.