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Why Pahlaj Nihalani Is The Best Thing To Have Happened To AAP In Punjab

09/06/2016 4:40 PM IST | Updated 18/07/2016 9:24 PM IST
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LUDHIANA, INDIA - DECEMBER 16: Aam Aadmi Party office located at BRS Nagar, on December 16, 2015 in Ludhiana, India. Punjab will go to the Assembly polls next year. What conventionally has been a two-sided contest between BJP-SAD and Congress is now set to turn into a triangular electoral fight by entry of Aam Aadmi Party. (Photo by Pradeep Gaur/Mint via Getty Images)

Censor board chief Pahlaj Nihalani should be kicking himself, if he isn't already. By stoking a controversy with 89 cuts in Anurag Kashyap's film 'Udta Punjab' on the state's burgeoning drug problem, he has derailed the ruling Akali-BJP coalition's efforts to bury its worst kept secret.

In the process, he has given an unexpected fillip to Aam Aadmi Party's campaign for next year's assembly polls in Punjab. AAP has made drugs its main election plank and in typical style, framed deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal and his brother-in-law Bikram Manjithia as the chief villains.

Censor board chief Pahlaj Nihalani should be kicking himself, if he isn't already.

pahlaj nihalani

(Filmmakers Ashok Pandit, Anurag Kashyap and director Abhishek Chaubey at a press conference organised by The Indian Film & Television Directors Association to express solidarity with the team of Udta Punjab on June 8, 2016 in Mumbai, India. HINDUSTAN TIMES VIA GETTY IMAGES)

Nihalani played into AAP's hands with two ill-advised remarks. First, he accused AAP of paying Kashyap money for publicity. Then, he bragged, "Yes, I am a chamcha of Narendra Modi...I am proud to be a Modi chamcha."

AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal, never the one to back away from a public sparring with his rivals, pounced immediately. "Pahlaj Nihalani's statement makes it amply clear that he has stopped the film on the BJP's instructions," he tweeted while adding in another tweet that Punjab's truth should be shown to the world.

arvind kejriwal punjab

(Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal during a public rally on the occasion of Maghi Mela (festival) at Muktsar on January 14, 2016 in Bathinda, India. HINDUSTAN TIMES VIA GETTY IMAGES)

As long as the controversy remained within the boundaries of the right to freedom of creative expression, it was a battle between Bollywood and the censor board. But Nihalani has taken it into the political arena and struck a raw nerve. By dragging in the AAP, he has made the censor board's bid to sanitize 'Udta Punjab' look like a political diktat to protect the ruling establishment in the state.

AAP leaders can barely contain their glee at this unexpected bounty from the censor board chief.

AAP leaders can barely contain their glee at this unexpected bounty from the censor board chief. "It's a self goal," crowed AAP spokesperson Ashish Khaitan. "By obstructing the film, the BJP has turned it into a major issue of public discourse."

That it has happened on the eve of an important election for the BJP, although it is a junior partner to the Akali Dal in Punjab, can only add to AAP's soaring stock in the state. The newbie party which currently rules Delhi has taken Punjab's mainstream political establishment by surprise. In 2014, it shocked everyone including itself by winning four Lok Sabha seats out of the blue. Now, with state elections approaching, AAP seems to be gaining traction rapidly with young Punjab, despite a split in its ranks and few boots on the ground.

The fact that a party lead by a Haryanvi who is now the chief minister of Delhi is making waves in the Jat Sikh-dominated Punjab, speaks of the deep disillusionment with mainstream parties among the state's youth, cutting across caste and community.

While publicly dismissing the threat from AAP, both the Congress and BJP-Akali Dal hope privately that Kejriwal's party has peaked too soon.

There are still eight months left for the polls. While publicly dismissing the threat from AAP, both the Congress and BJP-Akali Dal hope privately that Kejriwal's party has peaked too soon and can only go down from here. But their actions betray a sneaking fear that like Delhi, AAP could well spring a surprise in Punjab.

censor board india

(Bollywood actors Shahid Kapoor (L) and Alia Bhatt (2L) and directors Madhu Mantena Varma (2R) and Mahesh Bhatt talk during a press conference organised by Indian Film and Television Directors Association (IFTDA) in Mumbai on 8 June, 2016. GETTY IMAGES)

In December 2013, AAP managed to stop a BJP victory in Delhi in the very first election it contested. Barely 14 months later, it swept to power in a re-election, decimating the Congress to zero and reducing the BJP to just 3 seats in the 70-member state assembly.

Last month, the Modi government created a ripple by appointing ex-cricketer Navjot Singh Sidhu to the Rajya Sabha as a nominated MP in a category reserved for non-politicians who excel in their field. This happened despite open rebellion by Sidhu's wife, Navjot Kaur who is a BJP MLA from Amritsar. BJP circles believe that she was a major reason for finance minister Arun Jaitley's shock defeat from Amritsar in the 2014 Lok Sabha election.

pahlaj nihalani

(Bollywood film producer and present Chairperson of the Central Board, Pahlaj Nihalani attends the funeral of the late Bollywood music composer and singer Aadesh Shrivastava in Mumbai on September 5, 2015. GETTY IMAGES)

Yet, the Modi government chose to reward Sidhu. BJP sources say the move was aimed at stopping the former cricketer-turned- commentator from crossing the floor to AAP which was assiduously wooing him to lead the party's campaign in Punjab. Political circles saw it as admission that the BJP-Akali combine perceives AAP as the main threat.

Nihalani's 'Udta Punjab' manoeuvre has turned the spotlight on an issue that AAP has been trying to highlight.

The Congress meanwhile is desperately trying to stay afloat in the upcoming poll battle. Star election strategist Prashant Kishore, who scripted Nitish Kumar's 2015 Bihar victory as well as Modi's 2014 win, has been roped in to help Amarinder Singh reclaim the state for the Congress. But party sources say that internal secret surveys show AAP well ahead of all at anywhere between 80 and 90 seats in the 117-member assembly.

Nihalani's 'Udta Punjab' manoeuvre has turned the spotlight on an issue that AAP has been trying to highlight.

"The 2017 election will be the first election fought on the issue of drugs," says Khaitan. "Every third family in Punjab has a drug problem. It is THE major issue, with or without 'Udta Punjab'".

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