Politics and religion make a volatile mix in Punjab. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) apparently lost sight of this time-tested underpinning of complex matrix of the poll-bound state. Unveiling its ‘youth manifesto’ — first in a series for different sections of voters —was meant to make a head start in its campaign a good six months ahead of the assembly polls. Delhi chief minister and AAP supremo Arvind Kejriwal chose Amritsar — the seat of religious symbolism — as the starting point for his three-day political outing.
But, things didn’t follow the script and have unexpectedly turned awry for the AAP that now finds itself embroiled in political and legal mess of its own making. Its political gambit to steal a march on rivals has backfired.
Kejriwal landed in Punjab in the midst of a high-voltage row over one of his MLAs, Naresh Yadav, in the crosshairs of the Quran-burning incident in Muslim-dominated Malerkotla town on June 24. Police booked Yadav after the key accused named him as an inciter for sacrilege. Kejriwal aggressively fended off the charges against his legislator, accusing the Badal government of a political frame-up. If the Yadav episode wasn’t embarrassing enough, the AAP fumbled by allegedly committing a double blasphemy — printing a Golden Temple image alongside its poll symbol, broom, on the manifesto cover and equating the document with holy books, including Guru Granth Sahib, revered as a living guru by the Sikhs. It has started a storm that is unlikely to blow over too soon.
For the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal, the AAP’s stunning indiscretion came as a godsend to turn the screws on the rookie party that has been most vitriolic in its attack on the Badal clan. Though the AAP leaders, quick to realise the potential damage, apologised publicly , political damage-control didn’t stop the legal consequences. The Amritsar police moved swiftly on lodging an FIR against Ashish Khetan, a leading figure in the AAP’s Mission Punjab, for hurting religious sentiments on the complaint of a Sikh leader known for his proximity to the Akalis.
As if on a cue, other frontal Sikh bodies, chiefly the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), Sant Samaj, and Damdami Taksal, joined the chorus against the Kejriwal outfit. Much to the AAP’s discomfiture, the sensitive issue has escalated rapidly, as both the Akalis and the Congress have rejected Khetan’s apology — a part of their political strategy to dent the Kejriwal outfit, widely seen as a serious challenger in the Punjab poll sweepstakes. Not to be left behind, the BJP, too, is readying a barrage of blasphemy complaints against the AAP.
Clearly, the AAP has not only scored a self-goal but also handed a potent artillery to its rivals, who are in a mood to exploit its misstep to the hilt. Worse, the manifesto fiasco has given credence to the Akali refrain that the AAP is party of “outsiders”. Deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal rubbed it in on Wednesday, saying the AAP leaders are clueless on the historical and cultural ethos of Punjab.
While the AAP battles the political and legal fallout, its troubles may have just started.
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