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A state of decline: Can Manish Sisodia stem AAP's slide into irrelevance in Punjab

Rajeev Khanna | Updated on: 15 January 2018, 17:21 IST

Precisely one year ago, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) was threatening to walk away with electoral laurels in the Punjab Assembly polls. However, the tide turned in favour of the Congress, and AAP came a distant second in the end. Since then, internal rivalries, bickering, and the departure of workers to rival political camps has seen the party on a downhill slide. One it has failed to halt.

Initially, AAP's leadership from Delhi had decided to step into the background after allegations that the party's Punjab leadership was being sidelined had come up prior to the assembly polls last year. But last month, the leadership in Delhi decided to take charge of matters once again, appointing Delhi's deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia as the state in-charge.

With the Lok Sabha polls approaching fast, Sisodia faces an uphill task when it comes to improving or repeating the 2014 performance in Punjab, where the party had won four of the 13 seats. The party is looking to get its affairs in order once again in the state, where there is still enough space for a third alternative to the Congress and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) combine.

A plan of action

At a meeting of the top leaders of Punjab held on Friday, AAP's state unit chief Bhagwant Mann announced that a drive would soon be launched to strengthen the party at the booth level. It was conveyed that Sisodia would soon undertake a series of one-to-one meetings with local leaders, right from MLAs to organisational functionaries.

Mann laid emphasis on strengthening the linkages that take a voter to the booth. He also underlined that the party would be launching a special drive to ensure that the morale of the party workers is restored, with local leaders who have deserted the party being brought back into the fold.

Leader of opposition in the state assembly Sukhpal Khaira said that pending work with regard to streamlining the organisational structure would be completed soon, and farmer-centric programmes would be initiated.

The party is now looking forward to a decent performance in the forthcoming Ludhiana Municipal Corporation polls, amid a fast-shrinking presence in the state.

Declining fortunes

Having been given a free hand to run the party affairs in Punjab, the state unit could not deliver in the last one year. There has also been friction between the Punjab and Delhi leadership of the party. Recently, the Punjab leadership expressed its displeasure at the choice of Rajya Sabha nominees made by the Delhi leadership. As such, it has been a long time since Delhi Chief Minister and party chief Arvind Kejriwal made a trip to Punjab to interact with the party leaders and cadres in the state.

However, with the Lok Sabha polls looming, the Delhi leadership has decided to take charge of affairs once again. In the last three years, AAP has largely remained a divided house in Punjab, with even leaders who had contested both the Lok Sabha and assembly polls on its ticket deserting the party.

In the recently concluded municipal corporation polls in Jalandhar, Amritsar, and Patiala, the party could field candidates in only 149 of 225 wards, failing to win even a single seat. The party fared poorly even in some of the wards that fell in the assembly constituencies being represented by AAP MLAs. The main opposition party giving such a dismal performance is a matter of major concern

Jakhar polled 4,99,752 votes against just 23,579 for the AAP candidate.

Ironically, it was the SAD-BJP combine that came up with a comparatively better performance, both in the local polls as well as the recent Gurdaspur Lok Sabha bypoll.

In the local body polls, the ruling Congress emerged victorious in 20 of the 29 municipal councils and nagar panchayats, with its candidates winning in 267 of 414 wards. The SAD won in 37, BJP 15 and independents emerged victorious in 94 wards. AAP, meanwhile, could only manage a solitary victory in Bholath, Kapurthala, the constituency represented by Khaira.

Prior to this AAP had come up with a pathetic performance in the Gurdaspur Lok Sabha bypoll that was won by Sunil Jakhar of the Congress. The seat had fallen vacant following the death of actor-turned-politician Vinod Khanna of the BJP. Jakhar had defeated BJP’s Swaran Salaria by a huge margin of 1.93 lakh votes. Jakhar polled 4,99,752 votes against Salaria's 3,06,533 votes. The AAP candidate, Major General (Retired) Suresh Khajuria, could poll only 23,579 votes and lost his deposit. In the 2014 polls, AAP candidate Sucha Singh Chhotepur had got around 1.80 lakh votes. This huge drop in votes was received as a big embarrassment for the party.

Amid such a scenario, the party needs to put its house in order at the earliest. It needs to boost the morale of its cadres and take up some people-centric campaigns at the earliest if it wants to come up with a decent showing in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. With the people still angry with the SAD-BJP combine, and their disillusionment growing with the Captain Amarinder Singh-led Congress regime, there is still a window of opportunity available for the party. How best it can use this opportunity remains to be seen.

First published: 15 January 2018, 17:17 IST