POLITICS

How The Aam Aadmi Party Is Battling The 'Dilliwala' Tag In Punjab

A leadership tussle is behind every problem the AAP is facing in the state.

11/09/2016 7:29 AM IST | Updated 11/09/2016 8:10 AM IST
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Perhaps the allegation is true: AAP wants Punjab to be run by an outsider, none other than Arvind Kejriwal himself.

There is only one reason for the AAP's meltdown in Punjab: its reluctance to declare a chief ministerial candidate for the 2017 polls.

Dig deeper and you'll see that a leadership tussle is behind every problem the AAP is facing in the state. The party has found, to its surprise, that the suspension of its Punjab convener Sucha Singh Chhotepur has earned him more sympathy and hostility. The events leading up to the sting tell you why the sting happened. Chhotepur wasn't happy with the names announced in the first two lists released in the party, and was spreading his own tentacles in the party through workers and volunteers. Chhotepur has alleged that the lawyer who trapped him in the sting was close to two party leaders.

Chhotepur wasn't the strongest chief ministerial candidate, but certainly aspired to the role. His exit paves the way for Bhagwant Mann, the campaign committee chief. Therefore Chhotepur has been dropping hints that Mann was behind the sting. Chhotepur's stature as a leader has ironically risen after the sting, because he is seen as a victim of factionalism in the party.

Catch 22

The AAP has been in a Catch 22 situation about declaring a CM candidate. So far it felt it didn't need to. Confident that it was winning 100 of 117 seats in the state, there was no need to declare a CM candidate. If anything, declaring a CM candidate would have meant the exit of a lot of the other CM aspirants and their supporters. Despite having mesemrised voters, the party did not have any leader who could match Amarinder Singh's or Sukhbir Badal's political stature. Announcing a CM candidate would have shifted the debate from "Is AAP the answer to Punjab's woes?" to "Can this leader do it?"

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Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal talking to Sangrur MP Bhagwant Mann and state party convener Sucha Singh Chhotepur during an AAP party rally.

However, even without announcing a CM candidate, the party is facing the same problems of factionalism, resignations, and questions about the party leadership's ability run the state.

The party's inability to woo Navjot Singh Sindhu in its fold is also because it was not ready to declare him as a CM candidate. Reading between the lines Sidhu spoke in his press conference, it is clear that is what he wanted. Indeed, Sidhu had the stature to take on Amarinder Singh. But if the party had given Sidhu what he wanted, Bhagwant mann would certainly have resigned.

It is difficult to say how much this crisis is impacting the party's popularity with voters, but AAP leaders who say it is having no impact are living in a fool's paradise. The crisis is of such magnitude it will definitely make voters re-asses their choices. After all, the actual election is still five months away.

These Dilliwalas

The factional Mahabharat in the Punjab AAP constantly sees competing leaders trying to impress, deceive and cajole the party's central leadership. This central leadership is no just Arvind Kejriwal and others in Delhi, but also Sanjay Singh and Durgesh Pathak in Chandigarh.

However, even without announcing a CM candidate, the party is facing the same problems of factionalism, resignations, and questions about the party leadership's ability run the state.

As a result, every disgruntled person in the Punjab AAP starts attacking the central leadership as "outsiders" who are anti-Punjabi and even anti-Sikh. Punjabi versus Dilliwalas has now become a defining faultline of the party. This is affecting not just the party's own cohesiveness but could also potentially alienate voters who may not relish the thought of Punjab being run by a remote control Delhi. This is particularly important in Punjab where sub-regional identity is very strong. After all, Punjabi identity, with Jatt Sikh identity at its core, was behind the Khalistan movement. The local autonomy of Punjabi politics is such a strong matter that even the Congress party, infamous for its high command culture, isn't able to treat Amarinder Singh like a puppet.

After suspension from the post of state convener, Sucha Singh Chotepur said Arvind Kejriwal was anti-Sikh.

Announcing his own political front, Navjot Singh Sidhu compared the AAP to the East India Company for sending "42 Dilliwallas" and trying to win Punjab through "divide and rule". "Our slogan is Punjab will win, Punjabiyat will win and Punjabis will win," Sidhu said.

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Navjot Singh Sidhu compared the AAP to the East India Company.

In a phone conversation in January 2015, whose recording was released on social media in September last year, Bhagwant Mann is heard complaining the party was sidelining local Punjab leaders.

He is also heard saying there was no AAP magic in Punjab, and if four leaders had won Lok Sabha seats, it was due to their own charisma. Importantly, he was heard saying the party should let the Punjab unit choose their own leader instead of imposing one from above.

When 86 workers resigned together in Amritsar, they blamed the "dictatorial attitude" of the "Delhi team". This "Delhi team" refers not just to Sanjay Singh and Durgesh Pathak but also to Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha-level co-ordinators who were brought from outside and were Durgesh Pathak's eyes and ears.

Damage control

It's an artificial debate that's been cooked up, says Durgesh Pathak. But the party has clearly realized the implications of the charge and has tried to cut its losses. For one, it made Jarnail Singh co-incharge of the party's Punjab unit along with Sanjay Singh. Jarnail is also a Dilliwala, in fact an MLA in the Delhi assembly, but a Sikh. He was a journalist who famously threw a shoe at P Chidambaram in a press conference for inaction against the anti-Sikh rioters of 1984.

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Arvind Kejriwal, along other leaders at Golden Temple.

After an audio clip emerged that allegedly had one of the 13 observers asking for Rs 5 lakhs from a worker just to arrange a meeting with Durgesh Pathak, the party asked all observers to return to Delhi.

But the image has stuck, and rival parties are making most of it. Amarinder Singh, Sukhbir Singh Badal and Navjot Singh Sidhu are all asserting their son-of-the-soil credentials. Akali leaders are wearing "Proud to be Punjabi" badges. It's fast becoming an issue that's not just an internal matter of the AAP. Punjabiuat and the Sikh faith are both allegedly under threat from these Dilliwalas, if you were to believe rival parties.

Kejriwal as Punjab CM?

Once again, the AAP could stem the Punjabis versus Dilliwalas debate by announcing a CM candidate. Once it is clear that such-and-such person will be CM, it will be clear that Punjab won't be run by an outsider.

Perhaps the allegation is true: AAP wants Punjab to be run by an outsider, none other than Arvind Kejriwal himself. AAP's suspended MP Harinder Singh Khalsa and the BJP, among others, have alleged as much.

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Arvind Kejriwal along with other senior leaders of AAP during a public meeting at Gurudwara near village Bhikhiwind in dist. Tarn Taran.

"I have arrived. I will put up my tent and stay here and I will stay until I have uprooted the Badals and put them in jail," Kejriwal said in his recent Punjab trip. This is only one of many hints he has been dropping that he could himself be the CM candidate. After all, he is also learning Punjabi, is looking to rent a house in Chandigarh, hardly stays in Delhi, has made deputy CM Manish Sisodia the face of the Delhi government, and has announced he will soon takeover direct control of the Punjab unit.

Importantly, he and his party are not denying the rumours that he may himself want to be Punjab CM, neither are they giving the stock answer that the elected MLAs would choose the CM. They are saying the time will come to answer this question.

Confident that they are getting more than a two-third majority in the election, the AAP seems to think it could make anyone the CM – even a non-Jatt, non-Sikh, non-Punjabi like Arvind Kejriwal. This may be a miscalculation.

Perhaps the allegation is true: AAP wants Punjab to be run by an outsider, none other than Arvind Kejriwal himself.

It seems the AAP hasn't made up its own mind over the vexing question, and Kejriwal is testing the waters. Moving to Punjab and becoming the party's campaign face, he will test whether he will be acceptable to voters. In the ensuing confusion, however, he might end up strengthening the "outsider" image of his party.

Incidentally, the Congress party had hoped for precisely this to happen. As this publication wrote six months ago, strategist Prashant Kishor had called Amarinder Singh's first campaign "Punjab da Captain", emphasising not only that Singh was the Captain, but also that he was Captain of Team Punjab, not team Delhi.

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