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Sweep Stakes: AAP emerges as a serious contender in Punjab assembly polls

Rajeev Khanna | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 5:15 IST

The presence

  • AAP made its electoral debut in Punjab in the 2014 general elections, winning a surprising four seats
  • Since then, its cadres have been quietly working in the state in a decentralised manner

The war of words

  • When prominent Congress leaders joined AAP, state Cong chief Amarinder Singh mocked the party
  • CM Parkash Singh Badal and son Sukhbir have also been verbally attacking AAP

More in the story

  • Can AAP match the organisational might of the Akalis and Congress?
  • The problems that threaten to derail AAP\'s campaign

For years, Punjab has seen direct electoral contests between the Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) and the Congress. But with assembly elections just about a year away, the state seems to have made space for a third force to emerge, in the form of the Aam Aadmi Party.

The general elections of 2014 saw the party make a stellar debut in the state. Its four MPs broke the SAD-BJP and Congress monopoly, which came as a surprise, especially since the party failed to get off the mark in its home state, Delhi. The winners were Bhagwant Mann from Sangrur, Harinder Singh Khalsa from Fatehgarh Sahib, Sadhu Singh from Faridkot and Dr Dharam Vira Gandhi from the Congress stronghold of Patiala.

Read: Will Rahul's padyatra save Punjab Congress before 2017 elections?

Now, AAP has become a talking point not just among the public, but also finds mention in the speeches of top Akali and Congress leaders.

Working quietly

The biggest question is if the AAP is organisationally ready to take on the mighty Akalis and Congress. Party cadres have been quietly working in the state in a decentralised manner, which has led observers to wonder if it has proper infrastructure in place.

But certain recent developments have shown that it's ready. The issues it's raising are people-centric and socio-economic in nature, and have been ignored in the decade-old regime of Parkash Singh Badal.

AAP leader Durgesh Pathak says: "We are approaching the people on burning issues concerning their very survival. We are talking about their suffering. There is a major issue of unemployment in the state, which has led to tremendous frustration and dejection among the youth, who have eventually taken to drugs. The issue of drug smuggling is another major concern in the state.

AAP made its Punjab debut in the 2014 general elections, and won four Lok Sabha seats

"We are also talking about the collapse of agriculture in the state. The vocation that used to be the state's backbone is no more profitable for the farmers and has left them in debt."

It's not just agriculture - industry too is suffering, and that has given rise to unemployment and underemployment, says Pathak. He adds that there is also massive 'police goondaraj', which is harassing people at the behest of the mighty.

"There was no change when the Congress was voted out and the Akalis were voted in. Instead, there is a complete collapse of governance and law and order. People now see a hope in Arvind Kejriwal and his party," Pathak claims.

Interestingly, AAP cadres claim that the traditional voters of alternate forces like the Left parties and also the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) have shifted towards it. They say that traditional Left voters (7%) and Dalits (25%) voted for AAP in the general elections.

But Pathak points out: "Our vote percentage was close to 40, which means that voters from other segments also voted for us."

Junkyard for deadwood

It's obvious that the party wants to capitalise on the disillusionment of the voters with the SAD and the Congress.

There is an open war of words between the three parties. The Congress appears to be the most rattled, with some of its prominent leaders like Sukhpal Singh Khaira, Lt Col CD Kambhoj and Aman Arora, along with several others, leaving to join AAP ranks. Some lesser known Akali leaders have also joined the party.

Read more- Heads up: Is Arvind Kejriwal primed to be the next CM of Punjab?

Punjab Congress president Captain Amarinder Singh has described the leaders joining AAP as those who have been rejected by people, and are now trying to seek 'political asylum' elsewhere in the false hope of being accepted there.

"The way our rejected leaders are being received in the AAP, the party is turning out to be a junkyard for the deadwood in the Congress party," Amarinder said.

AAP core committee member Sanjay Singh hit back, saying: "Yes, it is the junkyard of honest and efficient deadwood of the Congress, which has been sidelined."

The Akali leadership has also been hitting out at AAP at regular intervals. While Prakash Singh Badal recently termed the party as a 'mirage that had failed on all fronts', deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal had gone to the extent of calling it a 'fraud'.

Cong leaders like Sukhpal Singh Khaira, Lt Col CD Kambhoj and Aman Arora have recently joined AAP

On Monday, 11 January, AAP received another shot in the arm when former IAS officer Jasbir Singh Bir joined its ranks. Bir has been a prominent bureaucrat who, as commissioner in Patiala, had taken on the government over the Badal family's transport business. He had quit service in 2010, alleging persecution.

"It is not the rule of law here, but law of the ruler. I understand the agony of the common man. I was approached both by the Congress as well as the BJP in the past, but I declined their offers. I see hope in AAP addressing the concerns of a common man," he said after joining the party.

Internal discord

AAP is likely to contest all 117 seats, which means it can offer tickets to people from all quarters with political aspirations.

But it's not as though it doesn't have its own set of problems There's still no clarity over who its CM candidate will be. Sanjay Singh said: "We will announce the name in the days to come. It will be a Punjabi face, and will not be an imported candidate from any other party. We are here to carry out politics of love and faith, and do not want to dwell on the issue of the candidate being a Sikh or a non-Sikh."

The party is also facing infighting, with two of its four parliamentarians, Gandhi and Khalsa, being suspended on disciplinary grounds. They have been opposing the party regularly, and have even raised their voice against the move to induct politicians from the other parties into the AAP fold.

Two of its four MPs, Gandhi and Khalsa, have been suspended by the party on disciplinary grounds

Khalsa reportedly said: "A party like AAP, which promised a paradigm shift in politics, should have been very choosy in picking up leaders from other parties, as only good people should have been inducted. But now they are getting scum from other parties, including those from controversial political families. All are being welcomed, irrespective of their past record."

However, Pathak insisted that all the leaders inducted in the party were clean.

On the issue of containing discontent, Sanjay Singh said they remain a part of the AAP. "The only issue is that they have to maintain party discipline. You cannot have them running parallel programmes to those of the party," he said.

All eyes are now on the proposed Maghi Mela rally of the party in Muktsar on 14 January, which is to be addressed by Delhi Chief Minister and party supremo Arvind Kejriwal.

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First published: 12 January 2016, 5:54 IST