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.”