Assembly Elections 2017: The AAP’s Mistakes in Punjab

Bhagwant Mann, Arvind Kejriwal and Sucha Singh Chhotepur (left to right) pay obeisance at the Golden Temple earlier this year. The AAP’s campaign has been hampered by its failure to project a credible Sikh leader ahead of the election. gurpreet singh / hindustan times / getty images
11 March, 2017

At close to 3.30 pm, vote tallies on most news channels put the Indian National Congress as having won 63 seats in the Punjab assembly—four ahead of the 59-seat majority required to form the government in the state. The Aam Aadmi Party, which had hoped to break ground as a national-level party with a win in Punjab, has reportedly won less than 25 seats. The Congress was last in power in the state between 2002 and 2007, following which the Shiromani Akali Dal, led by the Badal family, ruled Punjab for 10 years. In his January 2017 cover story, “Under a Cloud,” Hartosh Singh Bal reported on the issues facing the state and why Punjab was searching for an alternative to the Badals. In the following excerpt from the story, he discusses the issues with the AAP’s organisation in the state and where it was faltering.

IN THE 2014 LOK SABHA ELECTIONS, Punjab, ground down under the Badals, often forced to side with the Congress for lack of an alternative, suddenly saw new hope in the Aam Aadmi Party. Though the AAP registered a disappointing performance nationally, winning no seats at all in any other states, it won four of Punjab’s 13 Lok Sabha seats.

The turbulence within the AAP at the national level, most notably the removal of the party’s senior members Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav, has also affected the organisation in Punjab. In the months after the Lok Sabha election, three of its MPs—Patiala’s Dharamvir Gandhi, a well-respected and admired figure, Fatehgarh’s Harinder Singh Khalsa and Faridkot’s Sadhu Singh, all of whom had close ties to Bhushan and Yadav—drifted away from the central organisation. (Ahead of the assembly election, Gandhi floated a new group that announced candidates of its own.) The fact that three of its four MPs in the state ceased to be closely aligned with the party should have served as a warning for the AAP, but it papered over the problem after registering a massive victory in the 2015 Delhi assembly election.

The euphoria of the Delhi victory, and the party’s persistent promise to fight corruption, drove the growth of the AAP in Punjab. But in the months that followed, the organisation eventually took on contours that are common to almost every regional party in India, coming to centre on a personality cult around one charismatic figure—that of Arvind Kejriwal. The problem with such an arrangement, as most regional parties have learnt, is that it damages a party’s ability to expand across states.

This became apparent in the AAP’s selection of its Punjab leader. There were some obvious claimants to the position. Among them was HS Phoolka, an indefatigable lawyer who has almost single-handedly kept alive the quest for justice for the victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh massacres, and who had come close to winning the Ludhiana Lok Sabha seat in 2014. Another strong contender was the comedian Bhagwant Mann, who is presently the MP from Sangrur. Mann would have been an obvious choice on the basis of his popularity, but the persistent, if so-far unsubstantiated, allegations that he has repeatedly appeared drunk in public scuttled his chances. Phoolka, then, who commands respect across the board, should have been an easy choice, but his ascent seems to have been thwarted by internal opposition from men such as Mann, and Kejriwal’s by-now evident wariness of anyone who is not completely subservient to him.

Instead, Kejriwal selected Sucha Singh Chhotepur, a man who seemed upright, but did not have a particularly strong public presence or a clearly articulated set of political beliefs—a pattern seen in the AAP chief’s party appointments in Delhi, too. Chhotepur, who has, over the years, fought Punjab assembly elections as an Akali, an independent and as a Congressman, set about building an organisation of volunteers, buoyed by the momentum of the Delhi win. The party’s central leadership in the capital began to focus closely on Punjab, seeing it as a potential site for another win. In a move that caused some consternation among the state leadership, Kejriwal appointed a young organiser named Durgesh Pathak to report back to him about the party’s affairs in Punjab.

According to a newspaper profile of him, Pathak hails from Gorakhpur and gave up his Indian Administrative Service ambitions to join the Anna Hazare movement, which eventually led to the formation of the AAP. The banner image of his Twitter account is a photograph of Che Guevara, leaning back, cigar in mouth, reading Goethe. His Twitter bio reads: “A simple man, who wants to live in a society where justice prevails….if not, I will fight for it till my end…” Pathak earned Kejriwal’s confidence by handling a part of his Lok Sabha campaign in Varanasi, and was then put in charge of 35 Delhi assembly constituencies in the party’s 2015 campaign. When Kejriwal checked in for a ten-day vipassana session in Dharamshala recently, Pathak was the only person to accompany him.

When I spoke to Pathak on the phone, he told me he had entered Punjab on Kejriwal’s direct instructions. “After the Delhi elections I had gone back home for a month and a half to take care of some personal business when Arvind called,” he said. “‘Our next target is Punjab,’ he told me. I went there to gather feedback on the party’s position in the state. Over the next 50 days, I spoke to some 9,000 volunteers, and went to more than 500 villages to prepare a detailed report. I found that there was no organisational setup, no monitoring of party activities, no campaign design and no command system. If we got these in place, we stood a good chance.”

The state unit was reorganised and 13 zonal coordinators, one for each Lok Sabha constituency, and 39 sector-level coordinators, were sent from Delhi to Punjab asa beginning towards building a robust and extensive organisation,” Pathak said. The party in Punjab has since been virtually run by its Delhi leaders, through a chain of command culminating in Pathak. But as he went about setting up a structure, he came into conflict with the local unit, led by Chhotepur.

When we spoke, however, Pathak denied that he had clashed with the state leadership, and claimed that his role was similar to that of the out-of-state observers that the Congress appoints to its state units. But many AAP leaders in Punjab began to feel that their party was even more centralised in Delhi than the Congress. The conflict turned ugly after allegations surfaced about Chhotepur taking money without accounting for it, and the party released a video as evidence that he had done so. He was sacked. Speaking to the Indian Express soon after, Chhotepur alleged that he had been set up because of divisions within the party’s state unit, and that the rift “started five months ago when I told Delhi that Durgesh was a power block. He was given absolute power.”

These events did more damage to the AAP in Punjab than anything that had preceded them. Volunteers who had come to the party with Chhotepur left en masse. And though many were replaced, the word they carried to the state’s people hurt the AAP, and gave it a reputation as a party that did not trust Punjabis to run its own state unit.

When I asked Pathak about this reputation, he dismissed it as a result of motivated propaganda. As for the question of a leader in the state, he said the party would take a call at the appropriate time. A few senior leaders of the AAP told me that they were constrained in making this appointment because the party lacked a Sikh face acceptable across Punjab. This explanation did not withstand scrutiny. If he had been projected well in advance, Phoolka could have credibly led the party through its campaign. Another possible candidate that the AAP proved unwilling to deal with was Manpreet Badal, Sukhbir’s cousin and a former finance minister in the Akali government, who had taken on the Badals on principle and parted ways with the family in 2010.

The party was similarly reluctant to negotiate with the former cricketer turned television personality and politician Navjot Sidhu after he left the BJP in September. Unable to reach an agreement directly with the AAP, Sidhu formed a front that included Pargat Singh, a former Indian hockey captain, and opened negotiations with both the AAP and the Congress—a move that cost him significant goodwill and made him appear like an opportunist. When I met Pargat Singh over dinner in Jalandhar while the negotiations were still underway, he told me, “The trouble with the AAP is that they want us”—Sidhu and him—“to trust them, and leave our future in their hands, while they will not trust us with anything. We have suggested that at least there should be a coordination committee to run the party in the state where we have a say. We have even told them you can even have a majority of your people from Delhi, but they just don’t seem to be listening.” The negotiations eventually broke down, and Sidhu and Pargat joined hands with the Congress.

The sentiment that the AAP in Punjab was being run from Delhi was something I heard echoed across the state, including by those in the running for election tickets. Among those who stated this sentiment was Major Singh, an old acquaintance of mine, whom I knew from the late 1990s, when we were journalists together in Jalandhar. Major had dabbled in Naxalism in the 1970s, and had gone on to become one of Punjab’s best-known journalists. He is personally acquainted with every major Punjabi politician, and has travelled to each part of the state many times over, accumulating a wealth of contacts in almost every large village. Major joined the AAP in June, a move announced with some fanfare at a press conference.

When I met Major at the Jalandhar Press Club, of which he is now president, he told me that he had joined the AAP on being assured that he would be given a ticket. He seemed sure that the party would deliver on its promise. Though I was sceptical even then, I did not voice my doubts. I was more interested in knowing whether the party had made use of Major’s extensive knowledge of the state. “No one has ever asked me for my assessment,” he told me. “The leaders from Delhi seem to think they know more about the state than we do. Everything is top-down, and the people they have placed on top don’t know Punjab.” Over the next few weeks, as the party announced its candidates for the election, Major realised that he was not on the list. When I spoke to him on the phone after this, he had much more to say about what was wrong with the AAP in Punjab—but perhaps what was most revealing was his earlier criticism, while he thought he was still in favour.

The AAP’s dependence on its Delhi leadership is not just a problem of public perception—it also has led to the party floundering in unfamiliar waters during the campaign. It was cornered at the time of the release of its youth manifesto in July, when the party superimposed its symbol, the broom, over a picture of the Golden Temple. Rivals projected this oversight as an insult to Sikhs. The party had to turn for help to Phoolka, who apologised and paid obeisance at the shrine. Kejriwal, too, did the same, some weeks later.

The AAP has since been careful to avoid touching on Sikh religious issues. When I asked Pathak about this, he said, “People will vote for us because of governance, to harness people’s anger against Badal. As far as we are concerned, political people should deal with politics, religious people should deal with religion.” But observers of the state’s politics know that this is a distinction that has little meaning in Punjab. From the dispute over the Sutlej-Yamuna link canal, or the SYL canal, to the symbolism of the “heritage walkway” outside the Golden Temple, the interplay of religion and politics is intrinsic to Punjab.

The Akalis and the Congress’s leader in the state, Amarinder Singh, know how to exploit this interplay. Ostensibly, the SYL canal issue is one of governance, and centres on Punjab’s opposition to a canal that would carry to Haryana a significant share of the river water that flows through Punjab. But the Sikh population in the state is predominantly rural, while the Hindu population is largely urban. As a result, the issue of water predominantly affects Sikhs. Thus, for several decades, right from the years of militancy up to the present, the Akalis have used water issues as a way to mobilise their supporters. This mobilisation is accompanied by symbolism and slogans that derive directly from Sikhism, including the ubiquitous cry of “jo bole so nihal, sat sri akal”—which roughly translates as “blessed is the person who says ‘god is the truth.’” Since the AAP views the SYL issue as merely one of governance, it cannot draw on the power of such symbolism. This was apparent at a 12 November event at Kapoori village to protest the canal’s planned construction, at which the party could gather only a scant crowd of a few hundred.

In this scenario, with people eager to unseat the government in power and a new party failing to live up to the hope people had vested in it, I found that some voters were, wearily, once again considering the Congress as an alternative. I stopped covering the party in Punjab on a daily basis at the turn of the millennium, but, more than 15 years later, the same faces still dot the organisation, and the same problems afflict it. Amarinder is older, but his intolerance of internal opposition, and his inability to get on with anyone within the party, is unchanged. He is surrounded by a coterie of media managers, who have been with him for decades, and earned him notoriety when he was chief minister by acting as informal power brokers. Yet, even though many of the Congress’s faults in Punjab have much to do with Amarinder personally, the people of the state are tolerant of his failings, as they are of Badal’s.

Amarinder is a kind of anti-Badal, and exudes arrogance rather than humility—more in keeping with the typical idea of a leader in Punjab. In 2004, after the Supreme Court asked the central government to construct the SYL canal, Amarinder, as chief minister, defied the Congress high command and convened an overnight session of the Punjab assembly to pass the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act, 2004, which abolished the state’s water-sharing agreements. The state then halted the canal’s construction. (In November this year, the Supreme Court struck down this law, declaring it unconstitutional.) The AAP has attempted to corner Amarinder over this issue by releasing copies of an advertisement from 1982, in which Amarinder welcomed Indira Gandhi to the state to inaugurate the SYL canal project—but the attack did not have much of an impact.

Amarinder has also spoken his mind freely on larger issues facing the Congress. He has gone on record to say that he does not think Rahul Gandhi is ready to take over the party—though he subsequently reversed this stand. Where Badal is an indefatigable campaigner, Amarinder is slow to start his day and prefers to wind up early. And, in contrast to the soft-spoken Badal, Amarinder is intemperate. In the 2014 Lok Sabha campaign, he took on Majithia aggressively, calling him the “head of an army of goons.” The strategy helped him defeat Arun Jaitley in Amritsar.

But it was this same intemperate streak that voters rejected when they re-elected Badal chief minister in 2012. The Congress actually won the popular vote that year, but lost several closely fought constituencies, and saw the Akali Dal edge it out in the seat count. The explanation that circulated at the time, which had some substance to it, was that in many cases, candidates close to Congress leaders that Amarinder perceived as a threat lost by small margins because he—and thus the state organisation—did not extend wholehearted support to their campaigns. Much the same story is playing out this time around, as Amarinder fights to deny tickets to those he sees as close to any of his perceived rivals in the party. This has forced the party high command to step in and ensure that Amarinder doesn’t take over the ticket-distribution process. The intervention indicates that the Congress realises how important this election is: defeat here would virtually signal an end to it being the natural challenger in the state to the BJP-Akali Dal combine, while victory could set it on a slow, if improbable, path to national recovery.

This extract has been condensed.