Punjab: What the Congress and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) couldn’t do in four years, Arvind Kejriwal accomplished with a single stroke of the pen. By tendering a written apology to Bikram Singh Majithia, a former SAD minister who he described as a ‘drug lord’ during the Assembly elections, Kejriwal has effectively demolished the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Punjab.
The AAP emerged as a formidable Opposition party during last year's Assembly polls. But it’s now heading towards a split with the party’s Members of Parliament and Assembly divided over the apology. Majithia filed a defamation case against Kejriwal in 2016 after several AAP leaders alleged that the SAD leader was involved in the drug trade. Most AAP leaders in Punjab believe Kejriwal should have fought the defamation case to its logical end.
Bhagwant Mann, an AAP Member of Parliament, resigned as state party president, saying he was shocked to learn that his leader had apologised to Majithia. “I am resigning as president of AAP Punjab. But my fight against the drug mafia and all kinds of corruption in Punjab will continue as an aam aadmi of Punjab,” he said.
HS Phoolka, MLA from Dakha in Ludhiana and a senior lawyer, tweeted, “In the best interest of (Punjab), my suggestion to AAP MLAs: Demand autonomy, not a separate party. AAP Punjab should function as a regional party with an alliance with national AAP. In Punjab matters, total independence and on national issues, go by national leadership.”
In best interest of Pb, my suggestion to Pb AAP MLAs- demand autonomy, not a separate party.AAP Punjab should function as a Regional party with a alliance with national https://t.co/4uzQ9yQPVx Punjab matters,total independence & on national issues, go by National leadership.
— H S Phoolka (@hsphoolka) March 17, 2018
But the demand for a separate party in the state is not new. After the debacle in last year’s Assembly polls, when AAP won only 20 of the 117 seats in the House, a similar demand was made. In December, former journalist and Khrar AAP MLA Kanwar Sandhu sent a letter to Kejriwal saying, “There is a need for state units of AAP being autonomous, with their own members, structure, funding, constitution, manifesto etc for Vidhan Sabha and local-body polls. The advantage of the distinct nature of national and state entities of the party would be that while their fortunes are not limited, they would gain from each other, but not suffer on each other’s account.”
Sources inside the party confirmed that at least 13 MLAs from the camps of Leader of the Opposition, Sukhpal Singh Khaira, and Kanwar Sandhu were ready to quit the party and float a regional entity. In fact, 18 out of the party’s 20 MLAs met soon after the apology to discuss a split.
AAP’s only ally in Punjab, the Lok Insaaf Party, which has 2 Assembly seats, severed its ties with AAP after Kejriwal’s apology. LIP MLA Simarjit Singh Bains called Kejriwal a traitor and said that he had betrayed the people of Punjab. “Kejriwal has committed a fraud on Punjabis as he'd promised that he would never bow down before Majithia,” said Bains.
To salvage the situation, AAP leadership convened a meeting with Punjab leaders in New Delhi on 18 March. Invitations were sent to all state MLAs but most of them refused to attend, saying the Delhi leadership should instead come to Chandigarh. Aman Arora, MLA from Sunam, resigned as party state co-president and said, “While autonomy was already being discussed, some of the MLAs are discussing separation.”
Even political experts and commentators have now started talking about a Third Front other than AAP in Punjab. Eminent economist and political commentator Sardara Singh Johl wrote on Facebook, “If democracy in Punjab is to survive there must emerge a Punjab-based, strong, third alternative political front. AAP has almost lost its ground. At least fifty selfless, honest and credible persons who are not interested in contesting elections themselves may join to form a new political front to provide a third alternative.”
Jatinder Singh, assistant professor of political science, Punjabi University, Patiala, said the apology by Kejriwal may not have improved Majithia’s image but has certainly destroyed the image of the AAP. “Kejriwal's image, which was already facing trouble, has been further dented due to the apology. Punjab leadership must be thinking of parting ways from the main unit of AAP due the circumstances that have emerged after the apology,” said Singh.
After winning four out of Punjab’s 13 parliamentary seats in 2014 and 20 out of 117 seats in the 2017 Assembly polls, AAP won just one out of 95 seats in Ludhiana Municipal Corporation, the state’s largest, in polls held on 24 February. The Congress bagged 62 seats. AAP couldn’t win a single seat in municipal corporation polls held in Amritsar, Jalandhar and Patiala in December.
During the Assembly election campaign, both AAP and Congress made the drug trade in Punjab a major issue. While AAP secured 20 seats, Congress bagged a whopping 77 seats. Upbeat over the apology, Majithia said Kejriwal’s apology affirmed that smear politics would never succeed. “It is indeed a historical moment that a sitting chief minister has submitted a written apology in court withdrawing all statements he made against me besides regretting the damage caused to my esteem as well as hurt caused to my family, friends and well-wishers”, he added.
Arjun Sharma is a Ludhiana-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters
Updated Date: Mar 19, 2018 16:38 PM