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Khaira’s firing to trigger fresh turmoil in AAP

MLA Sukhpal Singh Khaira’s removal is being widely seen as the party leadership’s move to assert its authority in the faction-ridden state unit

punjab Updated: Jul 27, 2018 10:24 IST
Navneet Sharma
Navneet Sharma
Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
Khaira,firing,turmoil
Delhi CM and AAP national convener Arvind Kejriwal with party MLA Sukhpal Singh Khaira at a rally in Gurdaspur district before 2017 assembly polls. (Ravi Kumar/HT)

The sacking of firebrand Bholath MLA Sukhpal Singh Khaira by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) from the post of leader of opposition in Punjab assembly appears set to throw the party into fresh turmoil.

His removal is being widely seen as the party leadership’s move to assert its authority in the faction-ridden state unit that has hurtled from crisis to crisis, but two-time legislator Khaira is not known to take things lying down. He instantly set the tone with his tweet after the news of his removal broke by terming it fallout of speaking the truth and espousing the cause of Punjab, Punjabis and Sikhs. He further said that those at the helm did what the Congress, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), rivals of the AAP in Punjab, wanted. He clearly appears to be preparing the pitch for another day.

RUN-INS WITH CENTRAL, STATE LEADERS

The response is characteristic of Khaira’s adversarial style of politics that he has often demonstrated in his no-holds-barred attacks on the Congress and the SAD as leader of opposition in the past one year. It did make him the voice of the AAP on all major issues in the state in the past one year and won support of several party MLAs and one-time alliance partner Lok Insaaf Party (LIP).

At the same time, his frequent run-ins with the party’s central and state leadership, particularly his open defiance after Delhi chief minister and national convener Arvind Kejriwal’s apology to Akali leader Bikram Singh Majithia in March in a drug charge-related defamation case, rubbed many the wrong way. While there was no love lost between him and former state chief and Sangrur MP Bhagwant Mann, as he often ventured into the state unit leadership’ domain, Khaira went public against the incumbent state co-president Dr Balbir Singh last week, demanding action for “hatching a conspiracy” for his removal, and then called a meeting of MLAs on the matter.

“It was only a matter of time after the March 16 meeting of MLAs (after Kejriwal’s apology to Majithia) in which some of them had even talked of splitting the party in the state. Khaira failed to read the signals and remained on the offensive. The high command had made its mind a few weeks ago. And Tuesday’s meeting was apparently the last straw,” said a party leader, requesting anonymity.

His successor, Harpal Singh Cheema, is not just a close confidant of Mann, but also keeps a low profile. His appointment is being seen as the party’s tilt towards Mann, arguably its most popular face in the state, before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

STINT MARKED BY CONTROVERSIES

Besides the standoff over Kejriwal’s apology, Khaira had a series of ups and downs during his one-year tenure. Before he could even make his first appearance in the assembly as the leader of opposition, there was a controversy regarding his alleged dealings with a drug smuggler, providing ammunition to the Congress and the SAD against him. He was again in the eye of the storm when he lost his cool in the House on November 20, and hit out at chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh, using intemperate language and taking swipes at his private life.

Last month, his purported statement on “Referendum 2020”, a movement initiated by US-based advocacy group Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) for a separate Sikh state, again landed the party in a mess, reviving memories of its alleged dalliance with radicals in the run-up to the assembly polls last year.

As Balbir was trying to put the organisational set-up in order with the backing of the central leaders, this fresh controversy arose, prompting the leadership to step in. Not many party MLAs, including those who are always by his side, have spoken out in his favour so far. While Khaira may appear to be in a corner, just the way it happened in the Congress (his erstwhile party) at one stage, he is definitely not out, and is not going to sit quiet.

AAP heavels: Fierce and frequent
  • April 2017: After the Punjab assembly poll results, daggers were out with several AAP leaders blaming the central leadership for not naming a CM candidate and thus leading to a performance much below expectations. Sanjay Singh and Durgesh Pathak, in-charges of state unit affairs, quit posts.
  • June: Leader of opposition HS Phoolka, whose performance seen as lacklustre by some MLAs, steps down, saying he needed to time to fight the 1984 anti-Sikh riot cases
  • July: Sukhpal Singh Khaira, the only party MLA with previous legislative experience (as Congress MLA), appointed new leader of opposition in Punjab assembly
  • November: Khaira in the dock for alleged dealings with a convicted drug smuggler; loses cool in state assembly over an audio clip row, uses intemperate language and takes swipes at CM’s private life; AAP leaders apologise
  • December: Delhi deputy CM Manish Sisodia made in-charge of Punjab to put the house in order
  • March 2018: Party boss Arvind Kejriwal apologises to SAD’s Bikram Singh Majithia to settle a drug allegation-related defamation case; state unit chief Bhagwant Mann and co-chief Aman Arora quit; threat of split looms as half the MLAs, including Khaira, don’t show up for Kejriwal’s meeting in Delhi
  • June: Khaira’s purported statement in favour of ‘Referendum 2020’ propagated by Sikh radicals puts the party in an awkward position, besides giving ammunition to political adversaries; Kejriwal does not meet him in Delhi
  • July: Khaira alleges a plot in AAP to oust him from the post of opposition leader, hits out at state unit co-president Dr Balbir Singh for reportedly alleging that he (Khaira) had taken cash from party workers at a function; within days, party replaces Khaira with Harpal Cheema

First Published: Jul 27, 2018 10:24 IST