With the Assembly Election around the corner, it has become a cause for concern for the Aam Aadmi Party with only 11 out of its 20 MLAs now remaining with them. Many are of the view that the party supremo’s strategy to distribute freebies may also fail to do poll magic.
Five AAP MLAs have joined the Congress in the last five months. Four more rebel MLAs have quit the party. With the departure of members, AAP's Delhi leadership has taken over the Punjab front. AAP's national convener and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal have visited the state seven times in two months. There is discomfort among Punjab leaders with the top brass and Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia, Punjab in-charge Jarnail Singh and co-in-charge Raghav Chadha taking over in Punjab.
AAP's strategy is to enter the fray without a chief ministerial face, while the leaders of Punjab want party supremo Kejriwal to declare the chief ministerial face before the elections. For this, AAP's Punjab unit president and Sangrur MP Bhagwant Mann put pressure on Kejriwal through his supporters. Mann has been waiting to be declared the face of the party for long, but the party has not yet taken any decision on this issue even as the elections are approaching. Even though the party is calling it a strategy, AAP MLAs joining Congress one after the other have increased the pressure on the party high command.
On this 'tactic' of Kejriwal, former AAP's Punjab unit convener Sucha Singh Chhotepur who recently joined Shiromani Akali Dal, told Outlook, "Kejriwal himself wants to become the Chief Minister of Punjab, so he does not declare any leader from Punjab as the CM face of the party.
Angered by this attitude of Kejriwal, many other big leaders of AAP are ready to leave the party. At the time of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, as fast as the Aam Aadmi Party came up in Punjab, its vote share had fallen at the same trend in seven years. The Aam Aadmi Party, which sent four MPs from Punjab to the Lok Sabha with a vote share of 24 per cent in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, was considered close to power in Punjab in the 2017 assembly elections.
But AAP, which secured 23.72 per cent votes, remained in the opposition role with 20 MLAs because just before the elections, Bhagwant Singh Mann, Sukhpal Khaira and Sucha Singh Chhotepur faction had a tough time presenting their claim for the chief minister's post. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, AAP's vote share fell to 7.46 per cent and MPs also came down from four to only one due to breakaway leaders from the party.
Political analysts believe that the way the exodus of MLAs from AAP continues, it is not a big deal that AAP's condition in the 2022 assembly elections may be worse off than the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The biggest challenge of the party is not to have a big face worthy of a chief minister as compared to other parties.
Suspended AAP’s MLA and former journalist Kanwar Sandhu, who refused to contest the next election on Aam Aadmi Party ticket, says,
“The politics of Punjab is different from Delhi. The people of Punjab will never accept an outsider as the Chief Minister. That's why Arvind Kejriwal has so far proved unsuccessful in taking any big leader along with him. According to Sandhu, Kejriwal does not want any other leader to emerge in front of him in his party. This is the reason why all his companions like Kumar Vishwas, Ashutosh, Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav went away from him one by one. Now the same situation has come to Punjab also. That's why the MLAs have started abandoning him."
Claiming that AAP's position in Punjab is strong, leader of Opposition in the Assembly Harpal Singh Cheema said, "Kejriwal has instilled hope among the people of the state by promising to present the Delhi model in Punjab. 300 units of free electricity with 24-hour supply, Rs 1,000 per month allowance to women aged 18 years and above and announcement of welfare schemes for farmers have strengthened the party's position.” According to Cheema, because of the party's strong position in Punjab, the number of contenders has started increasing here. At the right time, the party will declare a strong CM face.
But victory still seems far away. AAP, which came into the role of opposition with 20 MLAs in the 2017 assembly elections, has become the third party after the Shiromani Akali Dal by the time the next election comes.
With the MLAs leaving the party just before the elections, AAP's path in the 2022 assembly elections may become difficult. The party has given 10 of the 11 remaining MLAs a chance to contest from their old seat. Among them, Leader of Opposition in the Assembly Harpal Singh Cheema from Dibra, Sarabjit Kaur Manuke from Jagraon, Jaikishan Rodi from Garhshankar, Manjit Bilaspur from Nihal Singh Wala, Kultar Singh Sandhwan from Kotkapura, Baljinder Kaur from Talwandi Sabo, Budhram from Budhlada, Aman Arora from Sunam, Gurmeet Singh has been fielded from Barnala and Kulwant Pandori from Mahilkalan.
To overcome the crisis that has emerged in the party, Kejriwal has taken an aggressive approach. He is making 'guaranteed promises' to the people of Punjab in exchange for votes. Kejriwal says, “I give a guarantee to the people of Punjab of what will be provided if the Aam Aadmi Party forms the government in the 2022 assembly elections. These include 24-hour supply with 300 units of free electricity, health services and education on the lines of Delhi, Rs 1.000 per month allowance to women aged 18 and above, freedom from inspector raj to business community and corruption-free government. "
On the announcement of a Rs 1.000 per month allowance for women, Punjab Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi has raised questions. On this, AAP's Punjab co-in-charge Raghav Chadda said, "Chief Minister feared that the state's treasury would be looted with this help to women of the state, should tell the women about the loot of sand doesn't it matter to the government because the loot of sand continues under the protection of Channi?” According to Chadda, Channi had said that the sand mafia should not come to me, I am not the chief minister of the sand mafia. But as soon as he became the Chief Minister, Channi reneged on his promise and joined hands with the sand mafia.
Chadda alleges that the sand mafia is illegally mining 800 to 1000 trucks of sand every day from Jindapur village of Chamkaur Sahib assembly constituency of Channi. The Chief Minister lies that the whole of Punjab gets sand at the rate of Rs 5 per cubic foot. Due to the sand mafia, even today people have to buy sand at the rate of Rs.25 to Rs.25 a foot. Raghav said “by eliminating illegal sand mining worth Rs 20,000 crore annually in Punjab, Aam Aadmi Party will give an allowance of Rs 1000, free education and medical services to women ''.
In the current situation, AAP is finding it difficult to get a chance to fulfil these promises. Its crisis is not only that nine MLAs have left the party, but the real problem is not getting winning faces and not having a candidate worthy of representation for the post of chief minister. In the seats where the sitting MLAs have left the party may give tough fights to the candidates of AAP, the situation will also be critical. In such a situation, how much AAP's broom can wipe out Congress, Shiromani Akali Dal-BSP alliance and Punjab Lok Congress-BJP-Taksali Akali alliance, will be clear only by the third week of March 2022.