HT special | Lost since the loss, AAP seeks structure and strategy
It’s been four months since Aam Aadmi Party snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Where does it stand now, in the House and outside?punjab Updated: Jul 14, 2017 09:05 IST
The trio in question was the then leader of opposition HS Phoolka, journalist-turned-MLA Kanwar Sandhu, and AAP state co-president Aman Arora. The agenda was to go and meet AAP MLAs who were injured in a scuffle with ward-and-watch staff of the assembly after they were suspended from the House by the speaker on the penultimate day of the budget session last month.
So, are they indeed mixed up? “No. That’s not true. Naivety cost us dear, and the clever Akali Dal stole the show,” accepted an AAP leader who holds a key position in the state. He did not want to be named for fear of reprimand by the top leadership of the party, which once declared victory for itself with 100 of 117 seats but had to settle for 20 as Congress won a decisive mandate.
Anyhow, the rookie party was seen hobnobbing with the SAD, a party that it had reduced to third position in the polls, during the eight-day session.
LEADING TO CONFUSION
There was noise by the AAP MLAs and some posturing too, but the party lacked strategy. The 16 greenhorn MLAs looked towards the four relatively senior members, who were busy competing with each other.
Phoolka, who has since resigned as leader of opposition, was giving orders on impulse, asking MLAs to follow him for walkouts. Sukhpal Khaira — who had submitted resignation as chief whip after Bhagwant Mann became state chief, only for the party to not accept it — was a lone ranger. Kanwar Sandhu was more interested in
- STRENGTH: Party retains a clean image and has made sincere sounds
- WEAKNESS: Not a party with history; greenhorn MLAs and inexperienced leadership
- OPPORTUNITY: Can be natural poll choice as Cong readies for post-Amarinder scenario, SAD struggles for trust
- THREAT: Infighting leading to loss of credibility, morale; the more it looks like a traditional party, the more vulnerable it gets
“Seeing how the House functioned and how we, the AAP MLAs, were thrashed, I wonder if this is how we can discuss matters,” asked Sarabjit Kaur Manuke, deputy leader of the AAP legislature group, about the House mess. “We expected the assembly will talk about people’s issues,” she told HT.
She was one of the MLAs injured when marshals removed AAP members from the assembly. She was also at the centre when SAD patriarch and former chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, who remained absent during the session otherwise, reached the hospital to meet her, and got clicked beside her.
Amid the confusion, the LIP with its two MLAs — Balwinder Singh Bains and Simarjeet Singh Bains — appears to be stealing the thunder. Khaira worked in tandem with them, even matching colour of turbans (by design or otherwise) with Simarjeet when they protested outside the assembly.
It was the AAP that fought for LIP’s getting prime seats in the House, but the Bains brothers have made it clear they are an independent identity. The latest is their decision to side with the BJP on Presidential candidate Ram Nath Kovind, even as the AAP has been fighting the BJP.
WHAT’S THE AGENDA?
“The AAP did not understand the multicultural complexities of Punjab,” commented Pramod Kumar, director of Institute for Development and Communication. “It failed to provide an alternative, people’s agenda during its poll campaign and also during the first full-fledged session.”
For example, he said, when the turbans of their MLAs were tossed, “they made what was a by-product of issues as the main issue, and allowed the Akalis to join them”.
Khaira did raise the issue of minister Rana Gurjit Singh’s “former employees” getting sand mine contracts. It was only bolstered somewhat by ally Lok Insaaf Party (LIP) that has the Bains brothers as two MLAs.
Phoolka differed with this analysis, “Our MLAs competed very well with experienced MLAs of other parties. We have shown our competence.”
Arora too insisted that the party raised “people-centric issues of sacrilege, schools fleecing students, benami auction of sand-mining sites, holes in the budget proposals, the GST, the smartphone promise by Congress, unemployment, shortcomings in the transport policy, conflict of interest, and the still-intact halqa in-charge system”. The list sounds impressive, but the reality looks different, particularly on the ground outside the House.
“We are active on the ground too,” he claimed.
The session ended three weeks ago, on June 23. Sharper political minds could have planned a rally or two of farm labourers after CM Capt Amarinder Singh missed to mention them in the farm debt waiver proposal. The Congress has since announced that farm labourers’ debt will be covered. But the opposition cannot claim credit for that.
Also, the party lacks a clear stand on the Sutlej-Yamuna Link (SYL) canal.
For four months after the poll results were out on March 11, the AAP worked like a non-entity, indulging in infighting for key posts, blaming “outsiders” Sanjay Singh and Durgesh Pathak for the defeat. No one from the central leadership showed up. Now, the party is waiting for a structure to start working on the ground again.
One of its leaders explained, “There is no dearth of talent in the party, and Punjab is always ripe ground for issues. Our MLAs are smart and have strong organisational skills. The challenge is to give them exposure and channelise their strengths.”
What makes things tougher is that the national unit has its own challenges. Chief among them is whether or not to fight the Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat state polls.
In Punjab, it is faced with the decision to pick a new legislature group leader. Phoolka said he resigned because he had been barred by the Delhi Bar Council from legal practice as long as he held the opposition leader’s post, an office of profit. He wanted to continue fighting cases of the victim of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots cases, he said.
But a miffed AAP leader said, “Everything was settled with the party and legislative structure. Section of society — Hindu, Jat, and Dalit — were adjusted on different posts. But now a race has begun.”
Phoolka told HT, “We have a number of experienced leaders to take over as leader of opposition.And we will be back in action on the ground once the party structure is ready.”
MANN’S MANN KI BAAT?
Another question that’s rattling many is: Where is Bhagwant Mann? Ever since he forced his way to becoming the state unit president on May 9, Mann is lying low, uncharacteristic of the MP who was the central figure of the AAP’s poll campaign. He did show up on three occasions during the Vidhan Sabha session to join MLAs at sit-in protests, but he was expected to guide the party. His role was limited to photo-ops.
He told HT, “We were successful in raising peoples’ voice in the House. Once we have a structure in place, we will be active on the ground.”
The party has started the process to build up the structure, with a state-level body divided into five zones – three for Malwa and one each for Doaba and Majha — besides district-, block-, and booth-level units. “We plan to adjust about 50,000 volunteers at different levels as presidents and general secretaries,” said a leader. This is unlike what the AAP claimed to be; and it started when the post of convener was renamed as ‘president’.
With the party now deciding to contest all forthcoming polls, beginning with municipal elections expected this year, it remains to be seen how it sets itself apart. In that, there’s an important role for Mann, to build new structures and units. Those units may well decide the party’s future.