Till two months ago, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) was on a roll and seen an alternative to the Congress and the Akali-BJP combine in Punjab. Party chief Arvind Kejriwal gave the AAP a headstart by sounding the poll bugle at the Maghi Mela in January. But a series of missteps, for which the AAP has itself to blame, has put a spanner in its poll momentum.
The latest setback has come in an unceremonious removal of Punjab convener Sucha Singh Chhotepur, who found himself trapped by a clandestine sting operation in which he is seen taking a cash packet with the party’s authority to accept donations.
The Chhotepur episode couldn’t have come at a worse time for the rookie party that has lately been rocked by the youth manifesto fiasco and Sangrur MP Bhagwant Mann’s Lok Sabha security video row. As if these miseries were not embarrassing enough, the AAP’s much-anticipated gambit to rope in firebrand Navjot Singh Sidhu, who resigned as BJP’s Rajya Sabha member last month, has almost come unstuck.
Given the top AAP leaders’ tough stand and Chhotepur’s blistering attack on Arvind Kejriwal, his expulsion is a mere formality. But the bitter face-off is sure to inflict a collateral damage on the party five months before Punjab goes to the polls.
Chhotepur’s next political destination is still uncertain. But, what is clear is that the maverick politician will not only walk away with his band of AAP followers, he will ambush the party more viciously than its chief political rivals – Congress, Akalis and BJP.
For once, the action against Chhotepur has exposed the Punjabi versus outsiders faultline dogging the AAP. It has lent credence to a deepening perception - aggressively amplified by the opposition – that all levers of Punjab AAP are controlled by its leaders from Delhi and Uttar Pradesh.
Now, an embattled Chhotepur has gone hammer and tongs, dubbing his removal as a defame-and-dump conspiracy against the Punjabi AAP leaders – an issue that may potentially dent Kejriwal’s poll sweepstakes.
LOSING SIKH FACE
A prominent Sikh face of the AAP in Punjab, Chhotepur has been active in state politics for three decades. Despite his limited political appeal and support base, he was in the first crop of Punjab leaders to jump onto the AAP bandwagon after the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. With an Akali background, Chhotepur stood out in the AAP that has a dearth of local faces who really matter.
By axing Chhotepur, the AAP would try and take a high moral ground, pitching itself as a party with zero-tolerance to corruption. That, however, wouldn’t be without the risk of creating another splinter faction. It would add to a burgeoning list of Punjab leaders who have fallen out with AAP.
OPPONENTS SMELL OPPORTUNITY
The latest bout of bad blood comes at a time when AAP’s strategy to be first off the block by declaring 32 of the 117 candidates for the 2017 Punjab elections has been marred by rumblings of dissent among its supporters. A set of volunteers from Majha have broken away to form the AAP Volunteers Federation and joined hands with a front-in-the-making under suspended Patiala AAP MP Dharamvira Gandhi. Such convulsions hardly bode well for a party which derives its core strength from volunteers.
The string of controversies in the AAP has dimmed its sheen while lending its opponents enough ammunition. An escalating war of words in the AAP is music to the ears of its rivals. Both the Akalis and the Congress, who see the Kejriwal outfit as their common foe, will do all that it takes to exploit the AAP self-inflicted stumbles.
Below: Chhotepur’s press conference as broadcast by him on Facebook (most of the conversation is in Punjabi or Hindi)