Waiting for AAP

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AAP appears to be on a roll in Punjab despite allegations of sexual misconduct against its cadres, splits and public spats. The Akalis are fighting back by every means, fair and foul. Missing here is the Congress. Anushi Gupta writes

“OUR entire cotton crop was ruined. The insecticide was fake, it burnt our entire crop. We are a wreck now”

- Harcharan Singh Sodhi, Faridpur

“There is no money in the market. No deal has been struck in past three months”

- Gagan Singh Bagga, Car &

Property dealer, Moga

Two statements that are a broad indicator of the state of affairs in today’s Punjab, ruled by the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and BJP combine for the last 10 years. People are full of anger against the Akalis. The main opposition Congress is leaving no stone unturned trying to cash in on public anger. It’s campaign is headed by former chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh. But it’s the enfant terrible Aam Aadmi Party which is hogging the limelight.

AAP surprised everybody in January this year when it’s Maghi Mela rally in Muktsar Sahib drew twice the crowds of Congress and SAD rallies put together. It was felt that AAP was going to sweep the Punjab Assembly elections the way it did in Delhi - winning 67 of 70 seats. Speaking at the rally AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal had declared that his party was targeting to win all 117 seats in Punjab.

“SAD and Congress both have ruled Punjab in turns. Both have been proved to be thoroughly inefficient and corrupt. SAD had turned an entire generation into drug addicts,” Kejriwal claimed, summing up the prevailing mood in the state. An opinion poll conducted by a Hindi news channel in January-February this year too had given 91-100 seats to AAP.

But that was the only high point for AAP in Punjab this year. The party has been gripped by factionalism and its top leaders face serious charges including taking money from prospective candidate in lieu of party ticket and seeking sexual favours from women aspirants.

It’s state chief Suchcha Singh Chhotepur was caught on tape demanding Rs. one lakh from a ticket aspirant. He was summarily sacked. Then seven of 13 district presidents resigned from the party in support of Chhotepur. It triggered a debate that AAP was bringing people from outside Punjab to lord over the locals (insiders versus outsiders).

AAP’s year-old government in Delhi was also casting a sinister shadow over the Punjab unit. A senior minister Sandeep Kumar was ensnared in a video sleeping with some woman other than his wife. He was summarily removed from the Cabinet and even his primary membership was suspended. As if this was not enough, an AAP party legislator from Delhi Devendra Sehrawat accused his own party leadership of seeking sexual favours from women seeking to contest on AAP’s banner.

It appeared as if AAP’s dream of ruling Punjab lay in ruins. A moribund SAD had started showing some upward movement and so had Congress advised by the well-known pollster Prashant Kishore. Even Navjot Singh Siddhu, who was readying to join AAP after quitting BJP, distanced himself from the party after bad mouthing Kejriwal.

Political experts had started writing AAP’s political obituary in Punjab. There were warnings that AAP had ejected itself out of the power game with the electoral fight reduced to SAD vs Congress.

But that was only in the media. The ground reality is vastly different. When this writer visited Punjab in September, AAP was not down and out but present everywhere, thriving and kicking.

At AAP’s rally in Bagha Purana village on a Sunday afternoon, there were at least five lakh farmers in attendance, waiting for Kejriwal to address them. They had come despite Punjab chief minister Prakash Singh Badal’s best efforts to thwart it. He had ordered all government buses to stop operations on Sunday. His son Sukhbir, the deputy chief minister, had ordered all private bus operators not to rent out their vehicles for the AAP rally. After all with over 350 buses owned by him, he is the biggest transporter in the state. But to no avail.

Kejriwal was supposed to address the crowd at 4 pm but people had started trooping in from 11 am itself. By noon, the rally ground had turned into a village fair. AAP leader Sanjay Singh, who is in charge of the party in Punjab waxed eloquent about the hardships people faced in reaching the rally grounds. “They are coming on their own in trucks, tractor-trolleys and school buses. Some started as early as 4 am from their houses without even having breakfast. That is the kind of anger they have against Badal Government. Such restrictions are fuelling it further.”

People from only 5 districts of the Malwa region had been invited for the rally. You can imagine how it would have been if people from all over the state had trooped in. The crowd would have spilled right up to Moga, Singh said.

But why is AAP popular? Hasn’t the Navjot Sidhu episode hurt it’s chances? Hasn’t Sandeep Kumar muddied its image? Haven’t Sehrawat’s allegation stuck to it? Or else Chhotepur and his cohorts’ rebellion would certainly have sullied its chances. If nothing had affected AAP, at least the outsider-insider campaign would have turned local Sikhs against it.

But people were still in awe of the party, splits, bickering, videos notwithstanding. During the Maghi Mela rally in January when Arvind had asked me to describe the political atmosphere in Punjab, my answer was, “it’s conducive to AAP but the challenge is how you will sustain the momentum for the next one year.”

Here I was back in Punjab after eight months and AAP was equally popular. I asked Sanjay Singh the reason. His answer, Now the people of Punjab have begun to understand the difference between a canard and news. A bunch of college going girls when quizzed about the impact of AAP legislator Sandeep Kumar’s sex CD, said: “We know these murky things come out here in every election. We don’t know the truth. But, we don’t believe it either. Rather we are waiting for more such skeletons in the form if CDs.”

No statement should be taken at face value. It should always be backed by ground reality check. The first district in Punjab when you enter from Haryana is Patiala. It’s the home district of Captain Amarinder Singh yet he is a Lok Sabha MP from Amritsar, not Patiala. His wife Parneet Kaur has been successfully contesting the seat from 1999 onwards. Except in 2014 when she lost it AAP’s Dr Dharmavira Gandhi by a very narrow margin. Gandhi, a very popular physician, too has rebelled against the AAP to join Yogendra Yadav’s Swaraj Abhiyan.

The Congress should still be popular in the area but on the ground the party is largely missing. People say, both SAD and Congress have been tried and tested time and again and failed every time. The people’s lot hasn’t changed, which is why they are betting on AAP this time. One would also assume that AAP would be pitted against the Congress, this is the Captain’s home district.

But the ground reality is AAP is fighting SAD not Congress. Plagued by factionalism, dissension, desertions and paralysed by inaction, Congress is a distant third here. This held true - though in varying degrees - in other districts of Punjab as well. Sharanjit Kaur, an undergraduate student of political science said: “Why are allegations against AAP being levelled on the eve of elections? ”

Most surprising is the neutralisation of Chhotepur’s rebellion. A comedian Gurpreet Ghuggi has replaced Chhotepur. All Chhotepur supporters have been replaced. If he had an impact, at least it’s not visible now.

The Akalis on the other hand, have started to claw back. Chief Minister Badal and son Sukhbir, have launched a three pronged strategy. First, they are showering government largesse on the poor. Second, they are trying to influence the gurudwaras and deras as Punjab is a religious place. Third, they have launched an all out attack on AAP. That’s why, the party which had been written off, is suddenly seen as fighting back. People still believe the Akalis could pull a rabbit out of the hat at the last moment. It’s not for nothing that they have been ruling the state for past 10 years. It’s another matter that people, are not happy with their performance. Some are so angry they are calling the Badals “the Curse of Punjab”. Yet, they are afraid to come out openly against them.

Govind Goyal, a chemist in Moga, said: “Most businessmen and service class people fear reprisals from the Badals if they go against them. Just wait for the the election schedule and you will see a change. Because, then Election Commission would run the government, not SAD.”

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