On Wednesday, when SAD and BJP MLAs attacked Congress minister Navjot Singh Sidhu for the language he was allegedly using in the Punjab assembly, the Aam Aadmi Party alleged that Sidhu had made remarks against its MLAs too. Sidhu later denied having said anything objectionable.
During the budget session so far, AAP MLAs have made noticeable efforts to come across as a meaningful Opposition party, an unfamiliar role after ruling in Delhi. It has not been smooth: they have lost their strongest speaker and one from their alliance partner, both suspended, contradicted one another on the floor, and been largely upstaged by the more experienced SAD-BJP MLAs in targeting the government, although it is AAP that has the superior numbers.
AAP has 20 MLAs and its ally Lok Insaaf Party (LIP) has two, to the SAD-BJP’s 18. Although they did extensive homework ahead of the session, which began on June 14, they have not been as forceful as they would have liked in raising key issues.
They found themselves at a disadvantage on the first two days of the session. On June 16, Sukhpal Khaira, one of the most vocal AAP MLAs, was suspended for the rest of the session after he made a Facebook Live video on a face-off between SAD and Congress MLAs when the House had been adjourned. The previous day, LIP MLA Simarjeet Singh Bains, another strong speaker, had been suspended for the rest of the session. This was after he had taken part in a protest in the well alongside AAP MLAs.
With many of the remaining MLAs inexperienced in parliamentary procedures, they are being shepherded by Leader of the Opposition H S Phoolka, aided by seniors Kanwar Sandhu and Aman Arora. They say they avoid walkouts as far as possible. “We have been given a list of issues by people of the state who want these raised in the assembly. We only protest or conduct walkouts when we are not given a chance to speak,” said Phoolka.
One occasion when they did walk out, however, was striking in its nature. On Monday, Phoolka decided to stage a personal walkout in protest against the suspension of Khaira and Bains, yet he instructed the rest of the MLAs to stay in. The rationale was apparently that the party wanted the remaining MLAs to take on the government over important issues.
Another contradiction followed during Phoolka’s absence. Chief Minister Amarinder Singh made certain announcements, including one on a crop loan waiver. Sandhu and Arora, leading the team in Phoolka’s absence, appreciated the government’s move. This got Phoolka rushing back in, to declare that the loan waiver was partial and not as per the promise made by the chief minister. The interjection was too late, however, as AAP MLAs had already given their assent to a motion of thanks to the chief minister. Phoolka was mocked by Congress MLAs, who accused him of abandoning his MLAs.
Among AAP’s plans, one was to target Irrigation and Power Minister Rana Gurjit Singh over sand mines he reportedly owns. What set back its strategies was the suspension of Khaira, who would have led the charge. Farm loans was another key issue it wanted to take up but the Akalis have upstaged them on this so far.
Phoolka insisted that the party has done quite well so far. “On the very first day, we forced the government to include in the obituary reference the names of farmers who had committed suicide due to a loan burden. We also raised the issue of Rana Gurjit Singh and the sand mining mafia but we were not allowed to do so properly, and Bains was suspended,” he said.
He said the strategy AAP had decided on was to pit its youngest MLAs against the treasury benches during the discussion on the governor’s address. “Our MLAs have done rather well and have raised valid issues in the limited time allotted. We were given just 30 minutes to speak and seven of our MLAs utilised that time, while just two Congress took one-and-a-half hours,” he said.
About his suspension, Khaira alleged, “This was a well planned move to stop us from taking up corruption of the government as the Congress knew we were armed with irrefutable facts,” he said. Since their suspension, Khaira and Bains have sitting under the portrait of Bhagat Singh in the MLAs’ lobby while the House is in session.
Before the session, the party had held training sessions for its MLAs and appointed a research assistant for each. The speeches of two — Baljinder Kaur and Rupinder Kaur — earned them applause from the Congress too. AAP MLAs have also shown discipline in keeping their speeches brief to fit into the time limit given.