AAP gets ‘outsider’ tag in battle of perceptions

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Arvind Kejriwal at Golden Temple in Amritsar.The ouster of Succha Singh Chhottepur, the most acceptable Sikh face of AAP, was an implosion waiting to happen. The increasing control of AAP convenor Arvind Kejriwal’s Delhi appointees over the Punjab unit headed by Chhottepur had already put the latter on a collision course with his party. AAP took steps to ensure it remained a controlled implosion and even “implicated” its own state convenor in a sting in which he was “caught” accepting a “bribe” of 2 lakh, besides recording a purported acceptance of guilt in the office of Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia.

But the best of plans can go awry and Chhottepur has not only gone down in a blaze of glory but also painted the entire top AAP leadership as “anti-Sikh and anti-Punjabi”. If one were to use AAP’s own barometer of the social media, the party is taking a beating like never before. Something which the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) had been trying to do for months — paint the fight for 2017 elections as one between Punjabis versus outsiders — Chhottepur has done in a matter of days.

Chhottepur, a wily politician who has been a member of the Shiromani Committee (which manages Sikh gurdwaras) for 17 years besides being a minister in the Surjit Singh Barnala government, has impeccable Sikh credentials, having resigned from the ministry when the police was sent into the Darbar Sahab to mop up militants. He was helped by two strategic blunders made by AAP. One was an immature statement by Ashish Khetan during the launch of the party’s youth manifesto in Amritsar that it was akin to the Sri Guru Granth Sahab, the holy book of the Sikhs which is respected as a “Guru”. The second was publishing the image of the party’s symbol — the broom — along with that of the Harmandar Sahab (Golden Temple).

Even as these two transgressions were fresh in the minds of the people, Chhottepur added a third. In a master political move during his last press conference as state convenor, he said Kejriwal had asked him what would have happened if he had been thrown out of the Sikh panth (religion). The background was a conversation in which Kejriwal told Chhottepur that he should have admitted that he had seen the copy of the youth manifesto which had the objectionable picture of the broom and the Golden Temple together. Chhottepur used this purported conversation to good effect to paint AAP as a party which did not care about the sensitivities of the Sikh community. It did not help AAP that there was no counter narrative.

In this manner, the issue of Chhottepur’s alleged corruption scandal in which he was accused of accepting 2 lakh as bribe, which he admitted to having received as a party fund, has taken a back seat. What is being talked about is why Kejriwal does not trust Punjabi leaders and why leaders from Uttar Pradesh and Delhi, including Sanjay Singh and Durgesh Pathak, have an iron grip over the party. The common thesis being propounded is that this is being done to ensure the ascension of Kejriwal as chief minister of Punjab. Any prominent Sikh leader in the fray will spoil the AAP convenor’s applecart, according to the grapevine. Prominent AAP leader and former Congressman Sukhpal Khaira has not helped matters by coming out with a press statement saying the party should believe in Punjabis and give them more responsibilities so that they feel it is their own party.

AAP has fallen back by giving prominence to Sangrur MP Bhagwant Mann but he is hardly the person who can give a pro-Sikh image to AAP. Mann has been in the news recently for all the wrong reasons, including a complaint filed against him by an estranged party colleague that he always comes drunk to parliament and that the stench emanating from him is unbearable.

AAP has fought back by giving prominence to Bhagwant Mann, but he may not project the pro-Sikh image the party requires. It is unclear why Navjot Sidhu was cold-shouldered

How has all this affected politics in Punjab? For one, AAP — which seemed to be sitting pretty and banking on a wave to bring it to power — is suddenly floundering for the first time. Inversely, the Congress is set to gain because there was a general perception that its campaign was just not picking up, never mind the efforts of its strategist Prashant Kishor. The Congress may even get Chhottepur and his supporters in its kitty, though there is an equal chance of Chhottepur forming a fourth block by reining in all the disgruntled AAP elements. But one thing is sure: desertions from the Congress may stem. Inversely, SAD is a silent gainer. The more the fronts, the better it is for the Akalis. They also gain if the Congress is strengthened because then the anti-incumbency vote will be divided between the two opposition parties, giving them a good chance of returning to power. Also, the emergence of the Sikh factor will help the SAD the most because it is the face of Sikh politics in Punjab.

AAP will have to go in for a reorientation in strategy if it is to achieve the same high ground which had ensured its victory in four of the 13 Lok Sabha constituencies and a representative share of 44 of the 117 assembly constituencies. This reorientation could include giving more share to Punjabis in the decision-making process in Punjab. AAP has a huge amount of hardliners in the Sikh community who have traditionally always supported the Congress due to their hatred for the mainline Akali party, the SAD. These hardliners are also feeling uncomfortable in the present environment and there is danger of them going back to the Congress fold.

Assuring Punjabis that one amongst them will be chosen to lead the state if the party returns to power is also important. It could also include relooking into the reasons why the party closed its door to leaders like former Amritsar MP Navjot Singh Sidhu who would have been a natural contender for the chief minister’s position had he been welcomed into the party. It will also have to do away with the culture under which senior leaders from Punjab have to say “Sir” to greenhorn youngsters like Durgesh Pathak. And finally it will have to understand the psychology of the Sikhs, who will strike back if they feel outsiders are lording it over them as well or are not being sensitive to religious and social values of the community.

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