In a move fraught with far reaching ramifications for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal is being pressurised by some of his supporters to shift to Punjab if the AAP secures a clean majority in the Assembly elections next year. Kejriwal has indicated to those close to him that he would not be averse to the idea, but would take the final decision after the election results. The AAP is clearly emerging as the main challenger to Punjab’s Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party government, which has been in power for the past nine and a half years and is therefore facing a strong anti incumbency factor.
Sources said that the issue of Kejriwal going to Punjab has been discussed at the highest level in the party and continues to be a matter of great concern, since it would entail making substantial changes in the present set up. Kejriwal’s willingness also implies that in the event he takes the plunge in Punjab, post election, his deputy Manish Sisodia would automatically be his successor. In any case, Sisodia has virtually been functioning as the Chief Minister, providing ample time to Kejriwal to focus on the political scenario and instead concentrate on expanding the organisational network in other states.
The party is doing extremely well in Goa and as a consequence could pose problems for both the BJP and the Congress next year. Similarly, in Gujarat, the AAP has made deep inroads and the BJP’s primary apprehension is to prevent any kind of a tie up between the AAP and Hardik Patel, who has a substantial following amongst the youth in general and the Patidar community in particular.
According to sources, Kejriwal has done considerable homework so far as Punjab is concerned and is fairly confident that his party would secure not less than 70 seats in the 117-member Assembly. He has been regularly meeting the common people in the state and has been repeatedly reminded that he should under no circumstances accept traditional politicians in the AAP’s fold if he hopes to win the elections. He has also studied in detail the controversial Anandpur Saheb resolution and the contentious issue of the Sutlej Yamuna Link Canal. He has also familiarised himself with the possible repercussions if the demand for having Chandigarh as the sole capital of Punjab is raised once again.
It is due to his obvious inclination to be the CM in Punjab that the party has been slow at reaching out to Navjot Singh Sidhu, the iconic cricketer turned politician and television personality, who is on the verge of severing his links with the BJP on whose ticket he was elected from Amritsar for the period between 2004 and 2014. Sidhu too has been in no hurry to cross over to AAP since he has not received any categorical assurance regarding his role. AAP sources have confirmed that Sidhu would not be the Chief Ministerial face of the party and at best would be assigned the task of campaigning for the party nominees in various parts of Punjab.
The resistance against Sidhu has emanated from Bhagwant Singh Mann, the MP from Sangrur and Sucha Singh Chottepur, the convener of AAP. H.S. Phoolka, who happens to be extremely close to Kejriwal, has also opposed Sidhu’s projection. He would not have done so had he not been aware of the proposal to send Kejriwal to Punjab. Curiously, the AAP leadership has tried to club Sidhu’s entry into AAP with another outstanding sportsman and former hockey legend, Pargat Singh, MLA from Jallandhar, who is under suspension from the Akali Dal. For anyone who has been following Punjab politics closely, Sidhu is a match winner and if he is included in the AAP’s efforts, he can make a lot of difference. Therefore, it would not be politically wise if Sidhu is spurned by AAP and forced to look for alternative options.
Meanwhile, Kejriwal’s belief that his going to Punjab would be the best course for his party following the outcome is causing great anxiety amongst his many supporters. However, no one is in any position to directly tell him the ramifications, though it is evident that once he moves out from the national capital, the media spotlight on him would diminish and thus hamper his bigger political ambitions of playing a larger role in national politics in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The most immediate fallout of such a decision would be that it would impair and hurt the prospects of AAP in the Delhi Municipal Corporation elections next year. His opponents, but naturally, would take him to task for deserting the people of Delhi, who had elected him for a full five-year term and given him an unprecedented mandate in the 2015 Assembly elections, where AAP secured 67 out of 70 seats and in the process polled more than 50% of total votes cast.
However, the more important issue would be the fears about his acceptance as a Chief Minister in Punjab, which in its long history has shown a pronounced preference for electing a Jat Sikh to the august office. The only non Jat Sikhs to have occupied the position have been Gopi Chand Bhargava, Bhim Sen Sachar and Comrade Ram Kishen, besides Giani Zail Singh, who was a Ramgarhia (a carpenter community), but ruled the state successfully for five years due to his in-depth knowledge of Sikh religion. Prior to Parkash Singh Badal, the late Pratap Singh Kairon, described by many as the architect of modern Punjab, was the longest serving Chief Minister. Kairon was assassinated in February, 1965 at the Rasoi village, 18 miles from Delhi, plunging the state into a phase of instability. Comrade Ram Kishen, who was the Punjab CM at the time, lasted about two years, but once Punjab was re-organised in November, 1966, following the creation of Haryana and Himachal Pradesh out of its territory, there was a total change in the political discourse.
Thus, it is a matter of both speculation and interest how Kejriwal would be able to overcome a strong challenge from the powerful Jat Sikh lobby. Non Sikh bureaucrats, who have served in the state, have their own share of stories to narrate. Most of them made their mark only after they came to the Centre, since local politics prevented them from exhibiting their full potential. The examples include Jammu and Kashmir Governor N.N. Vohra, who later turned out to be one of the most competent bureaucrats in the country. Similarly, Tejinder Khanna, former Lt Governor of Delhi, K.P. Kutty Nair, former principal secretary to Dr Manmohan Singh, S.L. Kapoor, former Commerce Secretary and N.N. Khanna excelled during their stints in New Delhi.
It is crystal clear that in case Kejirwal succumbs to the pressure from a section of his supporters and agrees to go to Punjab, the biggest hurdle would be that he would have to get elected to the Assembly. This would be a tough task, given that his opponents would indulge in vicious propaganda referring to his Haryana roots and claim that a Haryanvi was attempting to usurp the state. This would be a dangerous development due to the high voltage animosity and rivalry between the two states with a large agrarian economy.
Kejriwal is heading to a centre in Nagpur for his Vipaasana next week. It is likely that his ten-day stay there may help him in clearing all doubts in his mind about shifting base to Punjab. If, however, he remains adamant on the matter, no one in the AAP would be able to sway his decision.