Sameet Singh Bhullar, 29, an Amritsar-based exporter of food supplements, was set to immigrate to Australia when the Anna Hazare movement began. It gave him new hope in India, said Sameet, who stayed back, joined the movement and later became a volunteer of the Aam Aadmi Party.
Today, Sameet, a postgraduate in microbiology and food technology, is ruing his decision. With the Punjab AAP marred by factionalism, its leadership facing allegations of an autocratic style of functioning, Sameet feels cheated, just over a year after he had knocked door after door of villages in Amritsar and Ferozepur campaigning for the party in the Lok Sabha elections.
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“They promised us a party of not leaders but volunteers,” said Sameet. “But we are not consulted on anything. Why are philanthropists and activists like Dr Daljit Singh and Dr Dharamvira Gandhi being treated like this?”
Sameet is voicing the disillusionment of countless AAP volunteers who were hoping the party would provide an alternative to the Akalis and the Congress.
The July expulsion of Dr Daljit Singh, chairman of the AAP state unit’s disciplinary committee, and the suspensions earlier this week of Dr Gandhi and Harinder Singh Khalsa, two of the party’s four MPs, have shocked those who joined the party or worked for it as a mission. The MPs had been making statements against the leadership and held a rally parallel to AAP’s official one on August 29.
The AAP state unit is unmoved, and state convener Sucha Singh Chhottepur also hinted at the expulsion of Gandhi and Khalsa. “Had they agreed to toe the party line, their suspension could have been revoked. But look at the way they are still issuing statements [against Arvind Kejriwal and other top party leaders]. Do you think they have any future here?” he said.
In contrast to the view that the action against two of AAP’s most prominent faces in Punjab can only demoralise volunteers, and ultimately affect the party’s performance in the 2017 elections, Chhottepur believes their importance is being overstated.
“Nobody is bigger than the party. There are so many instances that vouch for this. Jaswant Singh, Uma Bharti, Natwar Singh, Kalyan Singh and Swaran Singh are a few examples [from other parties]. We tried to make them understand, kept quiet for a long time but they did not budge. They organised a parallel rally, creating too much indiscipline,” he said.
For his part, Gandhi, remains convinced that AAP has chosen to go the wrong way.
“The recent suspensions have only sent home the message that the senior leadership is not willing to take everybody along. Anybody who questioned the party has had to face rough weather,” said the eye surgeon, who is renowned in Punjab for his philanthropic medical practice and has continued with it alongside politics.
Unfazed about his possible expulsion, he said he “will continue to serve the people being an independent parliamentarian. I will continue to oppose the Akalis and Congress”.
Responding to Chhottepur’s allegation that he was “playing in the lap of the Congress and the Akalis”, Gandhi said “it is not I but Chhottepur who has been sitting in different laps. Once he was in Amarinder Singh’s lap, then he was in others’.”
Khalsa said he went to meet Arvind Kejriwal to discuss the issues plaguing the Punjab unit. “He was curt with me. He asked me to leave Punjab to his men,” he said.
Despite the voices of disillusionment, Chhottepur is confident. He said the party had enrolled 20 lakh members in the last few days. “I have never seen such enthusiasm. They are just looking at change. They ask me if there could be a midterm poll in Punjab. Just wait and watch what we do,” he said.
The disarray in AAP comes after leaders of the Congress, the SAD and the BJP had secretly as well as openly admitted that they see it as a threat. Only recently, an “intelligence output” claiming Kejriwal would himself contest as a CM candidate from Punjab had caused jitters to several senior leaders of the ruling and Congress parties.
Chhottepur called that report “a plant” but chose not to deny it entirely. “It is too early to say anything. If Kejriwal contests, we will win all 117 seats.”
He said AAP is doing well. “Punishing those creating indiscipline does not send any wrong message. One cannot keep everybody together. Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal could not keep his brother with him, neither his uncle Teja Singh. Has it mattered to him?”
Sameet would have told him why AAP had inspired him in the first place. “I joined AAP because it was supposed to be different from other political parties,” he said.