The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has set the ball rolling in Punjab by announcing its first candidate, noted Supreme Court lawyer HS Phooka from Ludhiana. Though the popularity of Arvind Kejriwal's fledgling party has taken a hit after his 49-day stint in power at Delhi, the AAP's decision to contest all 13 parliamentary seats in Punjab is giving its main political parties the jitters.
The ruling Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP combine is watching every move of the AAP closely, right from its efforts to build an organisational structure in villages, cities and towns to those signing up as volunteers or applying for party tickets. The state's intelligence machinery is working overtime to keep tabs on disgruntled leaders not just in the ruling party but also the Congress who may go the AAP way.
Though the SAD says the AAP is following its social welfare agenda, it is precisely fearing that the party would give it a run for its money on populism. Phoolka's candidature has also queered the pitch for the Akali Dal's bid to project itself as the custodian of the Panthic agenda. SAD president Sukhbir Badal may even bet on a Hindu face from Ludhiana to polarise Sikh and Hindu votes. As for the Congress, it is already weighing options other than Manish Tewari, who may opt for a safer haven to escape a high-stakes triangular contest.
But on the face of it, the SAD is dismissive of the AAP as a threat. Party spokesman Daljeet Singh Cheema says, "Kejriwal's philosophy worked in Delhi as he promised voters waiver of power and water bills. The SAD is already giving free power in Punjab and footing a huge food subsidy bill on atta and dal.
They have fielded Phoolka from Ludhiana, saying that he has fought for justice to Sikh riot-hit families. The SAD and the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) have been waging a long battle for justice to these families, including hiring lawyers for them and representing them before various commissions of inquiry. What new is the AAP offering to Punjab? Their common man and justice agenda seems to be a copy of ours."
Wiser from its experience in Delhi, the Congress does not dismiss the AAP outrightly but says how the factor plays out in Punjab is yet to be seen. The party is meanwhile hunting for allies and negotiating a poll deal with all state opposition parties, including the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), People's Party of Punjab (PPP), the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM).
According to sources, the Congress is willing to concede more ground to BSP supremo Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh for a better bargain in Punjab to swing the Dalit votes in its favour.
But it concedes that the AAP factor will see all parties dumping tainted candidates. Punjab Congress spokesman Raman Subramanyam says, "All parties will try to field clean, accessible candidates.
In that case, how will the AAP's candidate be better than ours? It is a party without grassroots cadre and no track record of governance.
Punjab has moved ahead of considerations based on caste and religion. By fielding Phoolka from Ludhiana, who is one of the highly-paid lawyers of Delhi and doing no charity by fighting cases of riot-hit families, they will have to answer for all the 30,000 Hindus killed in Punjab during the days of militancy."
Drawing a parallel with Manpreet Badal-led PPP, he says lofty ideals don't sell in Punjab. "Manpreet put up great rallies but could not muster any seat in the 2012 assembly polls.
The AAP has betrayed its supporters by para-dropping candidates and not walking the talk on direct democracy - the selection of the common man for the ticket by the common man. The Congress has yet to announce its candidates in Punjab and the situation will change once that happens," Subramanyam adds.
AAP:Not always possible to allow common man to select candidates
The AAP is finding it difficult to walk the talk. The party was forced to make some changes in its constitution following practical problems over the selection of candidates. "We want selection to be a democratic process but it is not possible to always do so. So, the national executive has been given the power to nominate candidates. For instance, if there is just one applicant from a particular seat, he or she cannot be given the ticket just because they are the only claimant," AAP's Punjab spokesman Naveen Jairath said.