Shahkot defeat: Reluctant leaders, voter intimidation did AAP in, says Balbir Singh
But the ignominy suffered in the bypoll for Shahkot — the party’s vote share slid from 31% to 1.5% as Congress wrested the seat from Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) — has shocked many in the party as it went from being a respectable third to losing its deposit.Updated: Jun 02, 2018 10:31 IST
Just 15 months ago, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), seen by many as a potent force in Punjab, fell short of expectations in the assembly polls. Though it emerged as the principal opposition party, nothing has gone right for the party since, owing to incessant infighting and electoral reverses.
But the ignominy suffered in the bypoll for Shahkot — the party’s vote share slid from 31% to 1.5% as Congress wrested the seat from Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) — has shocked many in the party as it went from being a respectable third to losing its deposit. HT spoke to AAP state co-president Dr Balbir Singh, who is now effectively tasked with running the party in Punjab, about the debacle and the future strategy.
The severity of the AAP’s Shahkot defeat left many shocked. What went wrong?
It is a severe loss. There are many reasons behind it. There were some weaknesses from our side, and our opponents also used their resources to the fullest. On polling day, their MLAs were going around with their men and having a free run. I went to 172 booths, and even people from Ludhiana were casting the votes of NRIs there!
Can you be more specific?
There was laxity on the part of EC (Election Commission). There was no CRPF or any other central forces at most booths. Voter intimidation was at its peak. There was subversion of democracy. Thousands of liquor bottles from a Congress leader’s factory were seized. Akalis had not lost this seat even when there was a wave against them. On the other hand, our local leaders, those who we trusted, deserted the party. We will introspect and work to strengthen the organisation at the grassroots.
Your party’s big guns, such as former state unit chief Bhagwant Mann and leader of opposition Sukhpal Khaira, were missing from the campaign on most days. Why?
Yes, they came late. The reluctance shown by some leaders should not have been there. When the party decided to field its candidate, these leaders should have played a bigger role than they did. All party leaders at all levels needed to give their best. The AAP will rectify these things and make a strong comeback. It will rise like a phoenix. We did not distribute liquor or money, but focused on local issues such as lack of hospital, college, roads and clean drinking water. We will continue issue-based politics.
Mann, Khaira and some other leaders were against contesting the bypoll. In hindsight, don’t you think they were right?
I think that would have been worse. Whoever has voted for us, whatever their number, 1,800 or 1,900, the party wanted to give them a choice. If we don’t contest, we won’t know our weaknesses or where we stand. The results can vary from time to time. Leaders who are trying to distance themselves and hold the central leadership responsible need to do introspection about their own efforts in Shahkot as well as to strengthen the party in the past one year.
What will be your election strategy in future?
In my view, we should contest all the elections, including panchayat polls. We cannot stay away from elections for the fear of losing. Congress and SAD have been ruling for long. They have done things for people, made sarpanches and given grants. Their core votebank is 20-25% each. AAP has to fight for the remaining 50% swing vote. We will have to be amid people, take up their issues and try harder next time.
Khaira and some others have been stressing the need for autonomy for the state unit. What is your view?
I do not know what they mean by autonomy. The Lok Sabha bypoll in Gurdaspur was led by Khaira, and the state unit selected the candidate. This time, five zonal presidents and I shortlisted the candidate after consulting volunteers. Khaira was present in the meeting in which the candidate was finalised. Autonomy does not mean that the party will be handed over to them. This cannot happen. AAP is a national party. And we, in the state unit, have working autonomy.