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Why AAP must win Punjab

By Aditi Phadnis
July 19, 2016 09:11 IST
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The party desperately needs another state where, unfettered by the Centre, it can fly its flag, says Aditi Phadnis.

It was a blazing hot day in May. The Punjab unit of the Aam Aadmi Party resolved to gherao the residence of Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal on the issue of farmer suicides and an alleged Rs 12,000-crore wheat scam.

As many as 50,000 AAP volunteers were to reach Badal’s residence in Chandigarh’s Sector 2 for a sit-in. Massive arrangements were made, with the police out in full riot gear.

The crowds reached his home. Badal had cancelled all engagements for the day and was waiting for the procession, which stopped at the barrier.

A delegation led by AAP leaders, including Sanjay Singh and Bhagwant Maan, MP, advanced to meet Badal in a vehicle provided by the state government. Badal stepped out of his home, folded his hands and said it was lunch time. If his guests would not eat lunch, he could not eat either: Why not come inside, away from the hot sun, and discuss everything peacefully over roti (meal)? A group of AAP volunteers made as if to go inside with him. If the police had any ideas about a lathi-charge or arrest, they abandoned those. The AAP was expecting to be bundled into buses and put in jail. This did not happen.

The overall judgment was that victimhood had again eluded the AAP. A day later, Badal roared: “(The)AAP’s politics is betrayal of the people of Punjab on river waters. They follow politics of fraud, deception and cheap stunts.”

In the past few weeks, the AAP has been buffeted by a series of setbacks even as the party looks for new frontiers to conquer, like Goa and Gujarat which will go for elections early next year and later next year, respectively. The Supreme Court has, in an order two weeks ago, left no room for negotiation on the elected city government’s powers.

A few months earlier, Delhi CM and AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal hosted a group of journalists to lunch. He was asked what the party was thinking about in Punjab. He spoke without emphasis, almost nonchalantly, about the party’s growth there.

“I can predict that what we did in Delhi, we are going to do in Punjab. We are working quietly, almost silently. People who are fed up of the compromises and the corruption of established parties are flocking to us. Soon, even before the Akali Dal and the Congress realise it, we will have dug out their roots, hollowing them from the inside. Nothing will be left, except the superstructure. And, that will crumble because the people at the booth level who belonged to them once will be working for us,” he said.

While that might be true of Punjab, in Delhi, the Narendra Modi-led central government is adopting the tactics of a jujitsu warrior: Topple your opponent by using his own weight. While Kejriwal continues to tangle with the lieutenant governor, the Centre is using its powers with intelligence and shrewdness, hitting the AAP where it hurts most.

Half a dozen scams have broken out in Delhi over the past six months, involving AAP ministers and MLAs in charges of bribery, corruption and misuse of power. This has made AAP stagger and struggle to recover momentum.

Instead of launching administrative innovations and new ideas, on which hope it was elected, the party has gone into defensive dharna and demonstrations. This kind of politics has its place but is deeply frustrating for Delhi’s middle classes, which wanted order to return to Delhi’s administration

‘I, for one, am much disappointed in (sic) Kejriwal. He fooled me for sure. I was a strong supporter and I contributed to his campaign from my hard-earned pension money. However, he has proved to be like any other self-seeking politician. His basic obsession is to be seen on the same level as Modiji. Although he does not even remotely come anywhere near the PM in any facet of personality or performance. I will certainly NOT VOTE for him any more. People with similar views are increasing daily,’ wrote Squadron Leader S N Dutt (retd) in an e-mail.

On the other hand, in the recent by-elections for the city’s three municipal corporations, the AAP won five seats out of 13 on turf that has been the borough of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Sceptics do ask why the AAP won only five, as nine of these 13 seats were vacated by those who are now AAP MLAs. And, there is the issue of declining vote percentage.

Yet, there is no doubt that because of schemes like local health clinics, water availability and lower power costs, the underclass in Delhi is still a major votary of AAP. What’s confusing is the scams, of which there are many.

Does that mean the government in Delhi is only fire-fighting? No. The cabinet meets regularly and decisions get to be taken. The odd-even vehicle plying decision was one such and it served the auto-driver constituency of the AAP perfectly.

The problem is that there is a ruling structure that permits the government in Delhi to take decisions and actually implement these at a pace three times slower than other state governments. Kejriwal has tried to circumvent that by bypassing procedures and passing resolutions in the legislative assembly, where he has 67 MLAs out of 70.

However, the law recognises a different route: By which a cabinet decision needs to first be cleared by the L-G, then by the Union Home Ministry if it has financial ramifications, and then be rolled out before the assembly. The law is on the side of the L-G and the MHA.

As the government’s efficacy is being questioned continually, there is a political twist to everything Kejriwal does. The proposal to hold a referendum a la Brexit was one such. It is an utterly impractical solution, with no legal backing -- Britain had something to exit. What can Delhi exit? But, it could work politically.

The AAP desperately needs another state where, unfettered by the Centre, it can fly its flag. After 18 months in power in Delhi, it needs to show it is a party of many fine and creative minds, dedicated to improving the quality of life, not only another agitationist gang of rabble-rousers.

IMAGE: Delhi Chief Minister and AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal with party leader and MP Bhagwant Mann and deputy CM Manish Sisodia during a rally. Photograph: Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters

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Aditi Phadnis
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