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AAP in Punjab is proving to be its own worst enemy

The reasons for the Punjab AAP leaders’ outrage are not difficult to fathom. Arvind Kejriwal’s volte face is a blow to a party that had built its entire anti-Akali narrative on the drug issue

opinion Updated: Mar 19, 2018 12:54 IST
Ramesh Vinayak
Ramesh Vinayak
Hindustan Times
Punjab AAP and Lok Insaf legislators holding a press conference to chalk out their strategy after Arvind Kejriwal tendered an apology to Bikram Singh Majithia, Chandigarh, March 16, 2018 (Keshav Singh/HT)

The politics of no-holds-barred tirades has its limits. This is a hard lesson that Arvind Kejriwal has learnt by tendering an unqualified apology to Akali leader Bikram Singh Majithia for the Aam Aadmi Party levelling drug allegations against him in the run-up to 2017 assembly polls in Punjab. For this, the AAP leader was left facing the legal heat in an Amritsar court.

A dramatic retraction now – the result of backroom negotiations — may have got him off the defamation hook, but it has sparked a rebellion in AAP’s Punjab unit that Kejriwal could scarcely have bargained for. In protest, a livid Bhagwant Mann, Sangrur MP and the party’s sole voice in the Lok Sabha, quit as state AAP chief, as did his deputy, Aman Arora.

In a direct and unprecedented challenge to Kejriwal’s authority, the front-ranking AAP state leaders lost no time in speaking out against him. “Meek surrender”, “blunder” and “ betrayal of the people of Punjab” were some of the sulphurous epithets used by them after Kejriwal apologised to Majhitia.

A day after the apology, the firebrand leader of the opposition, Sukhpal Singh Khaira, rallied 18 of 20 AAP MLAs in Chandigarh in a defiant show of strength that stopped just short of declaring a break-up.

This could mean a split in the Punjab AAP with a majority of MLAs breaking away to float a new outfit. Clearly,the party’s Delhi-based crisis managers will need all their tact and persuasion to stave off what is turning out to its worst crisis in Punjab where it had made a stunning debut in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.

On Sunday, of the 20 party MLAs, only 10 turned up for the meeting held at Delhi deputy CM Manish Sisodia’s residence. For the time being it can be said that a major crisis has been averted.

The reasons for the Punjab AAP leaders’ outrage are not difficult to fathom. Kejriwal’s volte face is a blow to a party that had built its entire anti-Akali narrative on the drug issue. It was on this that it had positioned itself as a third alternative in Punjab’s traditional bipolar politics.

Choosing allegations over agenda, slander over substance, the AAP had directed its venom against Majithia, without producing any tangible proof. Such was the bluster that Kejriwal had even fixed a date by which the AAP government would put the Akali leader behind bars.

The Akali leader had slapped a string of defamation suits against AAP leaders in the past two years. Kejriwal’s capitulation underscores the pitfalls of AAP’s trademark hit-and-run tactics against its rivals which invariably result in defamation cases against him.

But the legal reprieve may not be without political cost. In Punjab, his action has chipped away at the equity that AAP had earned at the cost of the Akalis. It has also triggered once again the local versus outsider issue.The latest spat, however, has openly pitted senior Punjab leaders against Kejriwal himself. There are signs of a widening schism which may hurt the party’s base that is limited only to the pockets of Malwa region. Predictably, Kejriwal’s apology has come as a booster for the Akalis, who, though pushed to the third slot in the last polls, are aggressively holding rallies against the Amarinder Singh government. AAP is really proving to be its own worst enemy.

First Published: Mar 19, 2018 12:08 IST