Like William Shakespeare’s early play The Comedy of Errors, touted as one of the most farcical comedies, the Aam Aadmi Party — which until last month had been the party to watch — has rendered itself as a party of comedians! Gurpreet Ghuggi, well-known comedian-turned-politician, has been made its convener and Bhagwant Mann, comedian-turned-MP, has become the poster boy for Punjab, that goes to polls in early 2017.
AAP’s pitch for power had strengthened with the induction of former resident editor, Indian Express and Hindustan Times Kanwar Sandhu, Congress leaders, Sukhpal Singh Khaira and Aman Arora, while hopes hinged on former BJP MP Navjot Singh Sidhu coming on board. Today, AAP is not only left with comedian-turned-leaders (with due respect to Arvind Kejriwal, national convener and Delhi Chief Minister who is also known for his antics) at the helm of affairs but it faces an imminent split that threatens to derail its ambitions for the forthcoming election in Punjab.
The party is amidst a political upheaval following removal of Punjab AAP convener Sucha Singh Chhotepur on the basis of a sting into his corrupt deals. Ever since, Chhotepur has been up in arms against the AAP leadership and fomenting a revolt within the Punjab unit and outside. Five of AAP’s 13 zonal coordinators belonging to the politically sensitive districts of Amritsar, Bathinda, Gurdaspur and Jalandhar had served an ultimatum on AAP demanding immediate reinstatement of Chhotepur as AAP convener in Punjab. The later assembly of AAP volunteers at Golden Temple in Amritsar on 3 September reposed full faith in the ousted leader. Support for Chhotepur got further momentum at a ‘Punjab Parivartan’ rally organised in Gurdaspur, which was nothing short of a revolt against the leadership of Kejriwal.
Besides being plagued by charges of corruption, AAP made a goof-up on the cover page of its manifesto, showing a picture of the party’s broom in the backdrop of the Golden Temple. This irked the community and evoked strong protests. However, the mother of all controversies ensued when Chhotepur protested against two lists of AAP candidates for the elections slated in February 2017. Not finding his chosen candidates in the first list released by the party, Chhotepur boycotted the event where party leader Sanjay Singh announced the names. The last nail in the coffin was the announcement of 13 more names which again did not have a single candidate of his choice. The protest against candidates has actually not only been restricted to Chhotepur but out of 32 nominees, 25 have faced protests from different volunteers to the extent of burning effigies of the candidates, including Baljinder Kaur, AAP’s women’s wing president, nominated from Talwandi Sabo.
As if all this were not enough, an audio sting surfaced on social media. Hardip Singh Kingra, who quit AAP after not getting the ticket from Faridkot, showed a sting clip in which a person allegedly close to Durgesh Pathak (AAP’s national executive member) demanded Rs 5 lakh from a volunteer for fixing a meeting with him.Kingra also accused Sanjay Singh of pocketing Rs 5 lakh out of Rs 30 lakh collected from volunteers during the Maghi Mela early this year. Pathak and Singh are observer and Punjab in-charge for AAP respectively.
Later, in a video uploaded on social media, Kejriwal commented, “I am sad that a number of leaders of my party have been found involved in corruption or moral turpitude. It is not acceptable. AAP was not founded to protect such persons. If tomorrow Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia or anyone else, including me, is found indulging in corruption, he will face immediate removal.”
Masses may be willing to experiment with AAP, but whims and fancies of its leaders have to resonate with the general public. Also, both its tenets — graft-free governance and volunteer-centred decisions — seem to be under attack
Amid the controversies, AAP made a major faux pas by inducting Harmail Singh Tohra, son-in-law of veteran Shiromani Akali Dal leader Gurcharan Singh Tohra. It sparked fresh dissent, with Kanwar Sandhu expressing his displeasure on Facebook. Little doubt that the party is not only facing a split but is staring at rebellion at several places where it has declared candidates. The party is also undergoing a leadership crisis. Till now it has failed to find a Sikh leader of stature to be its face in Punjab, which has traditionally been run by Sikh chief ministers. Kejriwal’s reported efforts to bring former Rajya Sabha MP Navjot Singh Sidhu to AAP fold did not work. The bitter cricketer-turned-politician, then went a step further and announced his own Awaaz-e-Punjab front, taking Kejriwal head-on.
The party’s popular face in Punjab, Bhagwant Mann, too has proved to be a liability as he first got into trouble for making a video of Parliament functioning and more recently was booked for insulting mediapersons during a rally at Bassi Pathana in Fatehgarh Sahib. Not only that, the indecisiveness on AAP’s part in not projecting a CM face is also going against the party. The delay has led the Opposition to claim that Kejriwal himself is eyeing the top position, giving the Opposition a slogan on a platter to reject Delhi CM, being an outsider.
Faced with such a situation, at a make or break rally, Arvind Kejriwal rolled out the party’s farmers’ manifesto at Baghapurana in Moga on 11 September. The large crowds that this rally attracted might help the party check the slide in its fortunes. If the aim of the rally was to mobilise crowds for a “show of strength” to bring the party back in the game, then the purpose has partly been met. The 31-point ‘Kisan Manifesto’ — promising to make farmers debt free by December 2018, re-enacting Sir Chhotu Ram Act of 1934 (Moneylenders’ Debt) under which the sum of interest payable would not be allowed to exceed the principal amount, full implementation of Swaminathan Commission Report on crop pricing by December 2020 — seems to be a desperate attempt to woo farmers, who account for a majority of voters.
The party has painfully discovered that masses may be willing to experiment with it, but whims and fancies of its leaders have to resonate with the people. Today, the party that rose like phoenix on the slogan of corruption-free governance and being run by volunteers, finds both its tenets under attack. To again quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it’s like “that one may smile and smile and be a villain”. The Aam Aadmi Party has to act fast to live up to the expectations that it had aroused amongst common people before it is too late!