"We behaved like the Akalis and Congress”: AAP MLA Sukhpal Singh Khaira on the Party’s Defeat in Punjab

Aam Aadmi Party leaders Sukhpal Khaira, Sanjay Singh, Gurpreet Ghuggi, Sucha Singh Chhotepur and Bhagwant Maan during a rally near YPS Chowk on the Chandigarh-Mohali border. Khaira, a spokesperson of the AAP and the member of legislative assembly from Bholath, believes that the party's leadership did not try to understand the history and culture of Punjab. Credits: Gurminder Singh/Hindustan Times/Getty Images
02 April, 2017

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.

I also asked Khaira how the AAP would ensure that it remained a relevant opposition party in the Punjab assembly. He delivered his answer with practiced ease: “Though we are the main opposition party, we must remember that we are not the only players. We still have to work relentlessly as an alternative to the traditional parties. To retain our position as the main opposition and to keep our graph up with the public, we will need to work honestly and take decisions on merit.”

Khaira believed that the electorate’s anger with the Akali Dal, which was in power until the assembly elections, would not last longer than a year. “We have local elections coming up, zila parishad elections and then 2019 parliamentary elections,” he said. “We need to put our house in order and frame issues relevant to Punjab if we want to succeed. We need to start afresh and re-structure our party.” Khaira told me that AAP’s “USP,” or unique selling point, “is that we are a different party, but we behaved like the Akalis and Congress. If we had kept that difference, we could have fared better.”

Speaking about the dispute between Punjab and Haryana over the Sutlej-Yamuna Link canal, Khaira said that he agreed with the suggestion that Punjab be paid royalty for its water resources. He did not comment on whether the AAP’s leadership in Delhi would take the lead on this issue. He said, “We as representatives have to take responsibility for the welfare of our own state. We will side with the [state] government on SYL issue. Punjab has no water to spare. If a proper policy was undertaken while signing water treaties, Punjab wouldn’t have been under debt.”

In December 2015, Khaira had defected from the Congress to join the AAP. I asked him whether this was a decision he now regretted. He was quick to respond. “I don’t repent leaving it. I worked very hard for nearly two decades for the Congress. I was among the very few people who took on the Akalis.” He continued, “Much of the Congress leadership worked hand-in-glove with the Akalis. Many needed favours of one or the other kind, such as for transport permits or their industrial houses.”

Khaira expressed his dissatisfaction with the manner in which Amarinder Singh ran the party. He said, “Captain Amarinder Singh, after losing each time, would go into seclusion or travel to the hills for four years, only to return in the fifth year, pressurise the party to make him party president and the chief-minister candidate. Rahul Gandhi is a good human being. However, he only knows one or two leaders from each state. He also didn’t make good his promise to bring younger generation of politicians to the fore.” According to Khaira, “All my hard work for the party was not given the merit it deserved.” In the meanwhile, he said, the AAP had emerged on the political scene. Khaira said that his NRI supporters had insisted he join the AAP. Since the party’s policies were in line with his style of working, he did.

I asked Khaira whether he would consider joining the Congress if Amarinder Singh were to ask him to return.  He was evasive. “It’s a hypothetical question,” he said.