The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is struggling to keep its flock together in Punjab, the only state to send the party’s representatives to Parliament in 2014, leaving it in a very uncertain position just two months ahead of the Lok Sabha elections.
Factionalism, allegations of lack of transparency and suspensions have led to a situation where the party faces an uphill battle to retain Patiala, Fatehgarh Sahib, Faridkot and Sangrur, the four seats it won in 2014. Follow more election news here.
The party’s political graph has been dipping since the high of the 2017 Assembly elections, when it felt victory was within its grasp. However, AAP had won only 20 seats. While it had emerged as the main opposition party, disappointment along with the inevitable blame game and dissidence had followed. Amid allegations of interference from the Delhi leadership of the party, AAP had soon ceded space and momentum to the Shiromani Akali Dal, which had won only 15 seats that year.
Soon, tensions started building up. The party failed in the Gurdaspur Lok Sabha bypoll (October 2017) as well as the Shahkot Assembly bypoll (May 2018), with the party’s candidates losing their deposits.
The tipping point was AAP national convenor and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s apology to SAD leader Bikram Majithia in February 2018, tendered after Majithia slapped a defamation suit on Kejriwal for making drug smuggling allegations against him. Eight of the party’s 20 MLAs rebelled and floated a parallel party organisation.
Meanwhile, AAP’s Lok Sabha campaign had been floundering almost since the beginning. Soon after the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, two of its elected MPs — Dharamvira Gandhi from Patiala and Harvinder Singh Khalsa from Fatehgarh Sahib — had been suspended for anti-party activities. Both had challenged the national leadership of the party and accused it of not granting autonomy to regional units.
Gandhi, who had later gone on to float his Punjab Manch, recently launched the ‘Nava Punjab Party’, marking a clean break from AAP. He will now stand for re-election from Patiala from this new party.
Gandhi attributes AAP’s “success” in Punjab in 2014 to people being fed up with both the Congress and SAD-BJP combine. “In the years before 2014, Punjab was looking for change. In the 2012 Assembly polls, there was heavy voting in favour of Manpreet Badal’s People’s Party of Punjab, but that did not translate into seats. This is why AAP managed to get four LS seats in 2014 though it had no organisation in place in Punjab,” he said.
The Patiala MP says AAP has run out of steam ahead of the 2019 elections. “The party’s main planks were Swaraj, economic and political transparency, intra-party democracy, an end to the high command culture, and no politics based on religion. On all these five counts, the party has totally deviated from its stated position,” he adds, repeating his charge that the main reason for the party’s downfall is “the reluctance of the high command to allow the state units a free hand”.
Harvinder Singh Khalsa, the Fatehgarh Sahib MP who was suspended, has also distanced himself from the party. Khalsa is not expected to stand for re-election and is reportedly in touch with the BJP.
The other two AAP MPs — state party president Bhagwant Singh Mann (Sangrur) and Sadhu Singh (Faridkot) — have been given tickets for the upcoming polls.
However, Sadhu Singh will have to be prepared for a split in votes as another AAP rebel, Jaitu MLA Baldev Singh, is contesting from Faridkot.
Within the party, Mann’s Sangrur seat is being seen as the only one where the AAP has a fighting chance. Mann, who knows this only too well, has been among the first candidates to jump into campaign mode. Besides touring villages, he has been making good use of social media, with all his village meetings out on Facebook Live.
After the headstart it got over its rivals when it declared its first five Lok Sabha candidates last October, the party has struggled to put out the names of the remaining candidates.
There have been reports of the party considering a tie-up with rebel SAD leaders who have floated the SAD (Taksali), but this move too hasn’t gown down well with local leaders. “How can AAP, which swears by secularism, think of forging an alliance with a Panthic outfit like the Akali Dal Taksali? All those in Punjab committed to AAP ideology must oppose the decision of self-serving Punjab leaders who are doing this,” a leader said.
But the party dismissed the gloomy predictions. AAP MLA and Leader of Opposition Harpal Cheema said, “As far as negative comments on the party are concerned, people can say anything. But on the ground, when we go and meet people, there is a very good response for AAP. We are seeing huge gatherings in villages wherever we address gatherings.”