Chandigarh, May 4 : The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) had emerged a dark horse in Punjab in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, winning four seats and stunning rivals with its performance in the nine other seats. But it’s a different story this time.
The infighting-ridden party is struggling to save its sinking ship with several leaders either quitting or being suspended in the last four years.
AAP’s four prominent rebels — sitting Patiala MP Dharamvira Gandhi, former Leader of Opposition Sukhpal Khaira, MLA Baldev Singh and Punjabi singer-turned-politician Jassi Jasraj — are contesting Patiala, Bathinda, Faridkot and Sangrur Lok Sabha seats as the Punjab Democratic Alliance (PDA) candidates.
Except Bathinda, the AAP had won the other three seats in 2014 with a vote share of 24.4 per cent.
The PDA, a six-party coalition, was formed by Sukhpal Singh Khaira, who led the rebellion against AAP national convener Arvind Kejriwal after being removed from the post of Leader of Opposition in Punjab Assembly.
They aim to defeat the AAP, which is contesting all 13 seats with a mix of youth, experienced and trusted hands, and emerge as the third alternative in the state.
The trouble began when two AAP MPs, cardiologist Gandhi (Patiala) and Harinder Singh Khalsa (Fatehgarh Sahib), were suspended from the party in May 2015 for “anti-party activities”.
Likewise, the AAP removed its then state unit chief Sucha Singh Chhotepur, who played a crucial role in strengthening the party’s base in the state, on flimsy bribery charges in August 2016.
In the February 2017 Assembly elections, the AAP finished second as the main opposition party with 20 legislators in the Congress-ruled 117-member Assembly. Of the 20, eight have defected till date.
The latest dissident MLA to quit the AAP is Amarjit Singh Sandoya. He joined the Congress on Saturday and alleged he was feeling disenchanted due to the top AAP leadership’s high-handed approach towards Punjab.
Welcoming Sandoya into the Congress-fold, Chief Minister Amarinder Singh said the Congress had got a major boost due to exodus in opposition parties in the state.
Suspended AAP legislator Kanwar Sandhu said, “In this election, the AAP is a low key player in the state and is not getting the response it got in the 2014 and 2017 polls. At that time people were looking for a change. Now they are upset with the infighting in the AAP”.
Countering it, AAP legislator Aman Arora said the “silent voters” were still with the party. “The Congress and the Akali Dal have got together to damage the AAP and they succeeded to some extent. But still we have a huge base of silent voters, particularly in the rural areas,” he said.
The Congress too has faced rebellion. Congress Rajya Sabha member Shamsher Singh Dullo’s wife quit the party and has been fielded by the AAP from the Fatehgarh Sahib (reserved) Lok Sabha seat.
However, AAP nominees are facing opposition from their own party dissidents.
In Sangrur, state AAP chief and comedian Bhagwant Mann is facing popular singer and party rebel Jassi Jasraj. In Patiala, Neena Mittal is facing AAP rebel MP Dharamvira Gandhi who had defeated three-time MP Preneet Kaur, wife of Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, by over 20,000 votes in 2014. Kaur is also in the fray.
in Faridkot, dissident AAP legislator Baldev Singh is taking on outgoing party MP Sadhu Singh as the Punjab Ekta Party candidate.
This time, rich Punjabi non-resident Indians (NRIs) too are conspicuos by their absence as the AAP supporters. In 2014 general elections, many NRIs came out openly by offering cash but also campaigning with people to support the AAP. In the 2017 Assembly polls, many NRIs had campaigned for AAP Sangrur MP Bhagwant Mann.
This time they have switched their loyalties and are backing Mann’s Congress opponent Kewal Singh Dhillon and are campaigning for him, riding an air-conditioned bus called the ‘NRI Express’.
Karamjit Singh Dhaliwal, who runs gas stations in New York, said, “In 2014 and 2017 elections, we campaigned for AAP candidates. Now the AAP has drifted away from its ideology of ‘Swaraj’, so we decided not to support it”.
Countering dissidence and defection within the party, Mann, AAP’s only hope to retain his seat, issued an emotional video message to party cadres. In his message, he accused rebel leader Khaira of being an agent of both the Congress and the Akali Dal and for engineering defections of AAP legislators to the Congress.
Punjab will vote on May 19.