On 30 March 2017, I reached the residence of Sukhpal Singh Khaira, a spokesperson of the Aam Aadmi Party and the member of legislative assembly from Bholath, in Punjab. Upon entering the premises, I spotted a group of young men collected under a gazebo, engaged in an animated conversation. Inside the house, I could hear the strains of a kirtan playing in the background. The first session of the new assembly had just concluded a day before, but as Khaira walked in, he seemed to be in a rush.
The AAP’s performance in the recently-concluded assembly elections has been far from satisfactory. While the party had claimed, during its campaign, that it would win at least 100 of the 117 seats in Punjab, it finished with only 20, trailing far behind the Congress, which won with a clear majority of 77 seats and formed the government in the state. In the aftermath of the party’s loss, several among the AAP’s senior members in Punjab voiced their frustration with the party’s Delhi-based central leadership. During an introspection meeting that was called by the AAP’s Punjab unit in Jalandhar on 20 March 2017, many candidates reportedly said that party’s leadership had neglected to assess the “real nature of Punjabi voters.” The bulk of this resentment, which is felt among both the supporters of the party as well as its members, appears to have been directed at Sanjay Singh, the AAP Punjab’s affairs-in-charge, and Durgesh Pathak, the head of the party’s organisation building team. When I asked Khaira for his assessment of the AAP’s performance in Punjab, he was candid. “While the leadership in Delhi believes that EVM tampering is to blame,” he said, referring to the party’s claim that the electronic voting machines had been rigged, “I feel that the party leadership did not try to understand the history and culture of Punjab. They assumed that what worked in Delhi would also work in Punjab.”
Khaira elaborated on the complexities of the state and said, “Punjab is a close-knit society where politics revolves around personalities.” “Our decision to not announce a credible alternative to Captain Amarinder Singh [the Congress’ leader in the state and now, the chief minister of Punjab] let us down,” he continued. “The people of Punjab felt that the party might bring in an outsider as the state chief minister.” Khaira believed that when the party “started applying the Delhi-model in Punjab, it failed.” He said, “Ticket allocation also went haywire. Meritorious people were left out. Over-interference of the Delhi leadership in Punjab also went against us.” According to him, the party’s supporters realised that leaders such as him, HS Phoolka, Bhagwant Mann and Gurpreet Ghuggi “had no say in the matter.” Khaira said, “When political decisions are not taken on merit and with transparency, it starts affecting the party’s graph.”
This is not the first time that the AAP has been criticised for its functioning in Punjab. In the run-up to the elections, the party was surrounded by several controversies, among which were the allegations that Sucha Singh Chhotepur, the former convenor of the AAP’s Punjab unit, had been removed from the AAP because of his conflicts with Durgesh Pathak. According to a report by Gurpreet Singh Nibber in the Hindustan Times, after the elections, the AAP’s NRI supporters from New Jersey wrote a letter to Arvind Kejriwal, the party’s national convenor. The letter stated that Sanjay Singh and Pathak “ran Punjab not with will of partnership but with [sic] discriminating attitude towards the volunteers and local leaders.” “Their ill-will and unacceptable demeanour has led to demoralisation in the cadre and we reject their leadership,” it continued. Nibber noted that “the NRIs had also been criticising ouster of Sucha Singh Chhotepur, terming it as ‘political ambush,’” besides raising suspicions about the management of funds.
I asked Khaira for his thoughts on the fact that many people, particularly the AAP’s NRI supporters, felt that the party’s decision to pit politicians such as Himmat Singh Shergill, Bhagwant Mann and Jarnail Singh against bigwigs from the Shiromani Akali Dal was a deliberate ploy. “This was a decision taken by people in Delhi. We were not taken into confidence. If they had taken our input, we might have advised them better,” he said.