IN a long career that has seen him in the Akali Dal, the Congress and AAP, Sucha Singh Chhotepur has been known as a leader of independent views with a streak of activism. His rivals have mocked him for moving from party to party, yet even they say they find it hard to associate him with corruption, and are unconvinced by reports of a video that purportedly shows him accepting money.
Chhotepur, now AAP national convener, faces a possible ouster following the surfacing of the video, apparently shot by an AAP member. He agrees he accepted the money but inisists it was for party funds.
Chhotepur, 65, who once resigned as a minister from Surjit Singh Barnala’s government in protest against Operation Black Thunder to flush terrorists out of the Golden Temple, had been handpicked by Arvind Kejriwal two years ago to try and revive AAP in Punjab. Since then, however, a rift has come up between the two leaders.
A baptised Sikh and son of a farmer of Chhotepur village in Majha region, Chhotepur started his political career from Government College, Gurdaspur, in 1968. He is considered to have been a close aide of leaders such as Sant Harchand Singh Longowal and Gurcharan Singh Tohra.
His father-in-law was former SAD president Mohan Singh Tur. “Chhotepur appealed to Tur as a promising man and he got his daughter married to him,” said Rajinder Singh Badheri, president of the Chandigarh chapter of Jat Maha Sabha, who has known Chhotepur for decades.
Chhotepur and his wife, Harbhajan Kaur, have two sons, one a lawyer and the other a student. He inherited 40 acres of agricultural land but, his son Ajay Singh said, his uncle (Chhotepur’s brother) took upon himself the responsibility of running the joint family.
Chhotepur was elected the sarpanch of his village in 1975 and SAD MLA in 1985, going on to become minister for health and tourism. He won many admirers when he resigned to protest against the government for allowing police to enter the Golden Temple.
Among those who resigned with him was Captain Amarinder Singh, who is now Punjab Congress president. The bond they built remains today. Amarinder often refers to Chhotepur as an “honourable and respectable” man and said Wednesday he is a man with an unblemished career.
In 2002, Chhotepur was elected an independent legislator from Dhariwal and later elected the leader of independent legislators.
In 2009, Amarinder took Chhotepur into the Congress fold during a rally in Gurdaspur, when the two were campaigning for Partap Singh Bajwa. Bajwa won that election, with Chhotepur’s local influence seen as having contributed to the victory. In the last election, Chhotepur contested against Bajwa on an AAP ticket; the BJP’s Vinod Khanna won. It was Chhotepur’s second defeat in an LS election, the other one having been as an independent. In 2012, Chhotepur lost an assembly election against Bajwa’s wife.
Chhotepur joined AAP before the 2014 elections. AAP leaders say his oratory impressed Kejriwal who heard him for the first time in Gurdaspur. When AAP lost two assembly byelections, Kejriwal asked Chhotepur to keep the party afloat in Punjab.
AAP insiders say Chhotepur refused to be a “yes man”, leading to a rift between him and leaders closest to Kejriwal. His group is sidelined today, with the party taken over by state-in-charge Sanjay Singh and national organisation building head Durgesh Pathak. Chief of the legal cell Himmat Singh Shergill could replace Chhotepur, sources said.
The video, not shown to anyone except a few AAP leaders, has put Chhotepur on the defensive. To his defence that he accepted the packet of money for party funds, AAP leaders in the rival camp say that if he had to accept it, he should have given a receipt.
Chhotepur’s aides allege a conspiracy. And those in rival parties vouch for him. “I would be lying if I were to say Chhotepur was ever known to indulge in any kind of corruption,” said a Majha-based leader opposed to Chhotepur, requesting anonymity.
The support from Amarinder is a reflection of their personal bond. Sources close to Amarinder say Chhotepur had stood by the former during his government in Punjab, when Amarinder’s colleagues and Congress MLAs led by Rajinder Kaur Bhattal had revolted against him and demanded Bhattal be made chief minister. Bhattal had 33 MLAs with her but Chhotepur, with a team of independent MLAs, supported Amarinder.