Understanding of Punjab's unique history and the precarious relationship it has shared with New Delhi in yesteryears, is crucial for anyone hoping to govern the state. Yet, the way the Aam Aadmi Party’s Punjab unit unraveled over the last five years — despite registering an impressive debut in state — shows that leaders from outside the state often overlook this key aspect in their efforts to win elections.
Less than 40 percent of the state practices Hinduism and sectarian politics remains a key plot. Aside from Bhim Sen Sachar in the 1950's, the state has not had a single non-Sikh chief minister in all these years. Present chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh is related to Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar) supremo and former IPS Officer Simranjit Singh Mann, who's party had, at one point, advocated the formation of a separate Khalistan. And despite Amarinder's affiliation with the Congress — a party whose first family was once up in arms against Sikhs — he enjoys the privilege and substantial support in state because he is a Sikh, has a history of fighting for the rights of the people, and is also a veteran soldier.
Today, even though the two big national parties align themselves with regional parties here, history is proof that Sikh interests are paramount and Sikh faces most reliable. And AAP failed to build a loyal voter base and a credible Sikh leadership in the state, after it managed to make a small impact in past elections.
In 2014, in the thick of the Modi wave, AAP had won 4 Lok Sabha seats in the state. This time, three new parties have entered the political battlefield. While Punjabi Ekta Party (PEP) and Nava Punjab Party (NPP) have come about due to the internal friction in AAP, the Shiromani Akali Dal (Taksali) is a result of the growing distances between Shiromani Akali Dal’s (SAD) senior leadership and party president Sukhbir Badal. None of the parties are willing to align with AAP, which won 20 seats in the Vidhan Sabha elections of 2017.
In that election, AAP's medico-turned-politician Dharam Vira Gandhi, trounced Union minister Preneet Kaur from her bastion (Patiala). Today, Gandhi has formed his own party – NPP. After AAP shunted out Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav, Gandhi was expelled for alleged 'anti-party activities'. He was part of the same camp and was present at the duo's press conference which they held after their expulsion.
Gandhi told Firstpost that AAP had sent 60 observers to Punjab in 2015 and its plan was to spread its Delhi-style governance to Punjab without factoring in local concerns or taking inputs from local leaders. In the upcoming Lok Sabha elections, Gandhi's party has joined the Punjab Democratic Alliance (PDA), along with Communist Party of India (CPI), the Revolutionary Marxist Party of India (RMPI Palsa Group), Punjabi Ekta Party (PEP), Lok Insaaf Party (LIP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). They have together announced candidates from the Patiala, Khadoor Sahib, Faridkot, Fatehgarh Sahib, Anandpur Sahib, Hoshiarpur and Jalandhar seats.
"AAP failed to understand the sentiments of the locals. The party put a picture of The Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple) on its manifesto. Had it trusted its local leaders instead of giving into the autocracy of Kejriwal, things would have played out different," said Gandhi as he reflected on the state of AAP's Punjab unit after leaders like Harinder Singh Khalsa and Late Dr Daljit Singh (Padma Shri) joined other parties. Khalsa joined BJP after being suspended from AAP, while Singh had quit AAP to join the Congress.
"The people of Punjab wanted to give another party a chance. They looked at the party with hope," said Sukhpal Singh Khaira, who was elected on an AAP ticket from Bholath Assembly seat but later quit the party to form the Punjab Ekta Party. Khaira added that the attempt to ally with the Congress has damaged the AAP's image as an anti-corruption, anti-dynasty force.
Another reason for the growing disenchantment with Kejriwal is his apology to former Akali minister Bikram Singh Majithia. In the peak of his 2017 campaign, the Delhi chief minister had accused Majithia of being hand-in-glove with the drug traders. Majithia not only rubbished these charges but slapped a defamation case against Kejriwal, AAP leaders Sanjay Singh and Ashish Khaitan alleging that they tried to malign his family name by levelling false, baseless and malicious allegations.
The meek surrender to a leader the AAP was rallying against didn’t go down well with the people. The Lok Insaf Party (LIP), which was AAP’s ally in the state, walked out of the alliance in the wake of Kejriwal's apology.
Former AAP convener in Punjab, Sucha Singh Chhotepur, who was expelled from the party after a video clip showed him accepting bribe for assigning constituencies to party candidates ahead of the 2017 Assembly elections, blames Kejriwal's alleged attempt to root himself at the power seat in Punjab, and the lack of autonomy within the party's Punjab unit. Chhotepur said that the people of Punjab can take the advice of an "outsider" but they won't accept him as their leader.
"Delhi's deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia had made it clear in a press conference in Pathankot that Kejriwal will lead the state if the party comes to power and that didn't go down well with the people of Punjab," he stated adding that it was Sisodia's 'sycophancy' that cost him the trust of the locals. Kejriwal who hails from Haryana, neither is a Sikh nor does he have even a working knowledge of the local Punjabi dialect.
AAP should have acted more cautiously and taken a cue from the past as this 'unacceptance' of 'outsiders' among Punjab's voters is not a recent phenomenon. There's historic context to the sectarianism in Punjab and it reflects in the way politics plays out in the state.
In the 1980's, when insurgency was at its peak, then president of the Shiromani Akali Dal, Harchand Singh Longowal was assassinated by radical Sikhs for signing a peace accord with Rajiv Gandhi. Longowal had agreed to sign the memorandum only after Rajiv ordered the release of Akali prisoners and had taken measures to ease the state's economic woes by establishing the rail coach factory that was to employ at least 20,000 skilled workers. Yet, an agreement with New Delhi was unacceptable to the Sikh extremists.
The collision course of the Punjabi revolutionaries with the Congress government embittered the relationship between the centre and the state of Punjab to such an extent that the locals remained sceptical towards national leaders for years on end. AAP was on its way to make a positive intervention to the existing electoral compulsions but the failure of its leadership to sense the people's nerve got in the way.
When asked to comment, sources within AAP say that the party is striving to regain the trust of the local leadership and that it will stick to its good governance model, which it says it has proved in neighbouring National Capital Territory of Delhi.
The true test of federalism lies wherever a heightened sense of ethnic identity dominates. Tools of effective political communication and a strong cadre on ground can balance the two sides of governance – one in the power corridors of Delhi and the other in doabs far away from it. AAP missed the chance the first time, it remains to be seen whether the voters will offer it a second opportunity.
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Updated Date: Apr 05, 2019 15:39:21 IST