The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) had emerged as a dark horse in Punjab in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, winning four parliamentary seats while its performance in the remaining nine seats left its rivals stumped, but it is a different story this time round.
The infighting-ridden party is now struggling to save its sinking ship with several leaders either quitting or being suspended in the last four years.
The result: AAP’s four prominent rebels — sitting Patiala Member of Parliament Dharamvira Gandhi, former Leader of Opposition Sukhpal Khaira, legislator Baldev Singh and popular Punjabi singer-turned-politician Jassi Jasraj — are contesting from Patiala, Bathinda, Faridkot and Sangrur Lok Sabha seats, respectively.
Except Bathinda, the AAP had won the other three seats in the 2014 parliamentary polls with a vote share of 24.4 per cent.
Now all four prominent AAP dissidents are in the fray for the six-party coalition — the Punjab Democratic Alliance — formed by firebrand leader Khaira, who led the rebellion against AAP national convener Arvind Kejriwal after being removed from the post of Leader of Opposition in the state assembly.
Their aim is to defeat the AAP, which is contesting on all 13 seats with a mix of youth, experienced and trusted hands, and emerge as the third alternative in the state.
The trouble within the AAP began when two of its MPs, cardiologist Gandhi (Patiala) and Harinder Singh Khalsa (Fatehgarh Sahib), were suspended from the party in May 2015 for “anti-party activities”.
Khalsa has the highest fund utilisation among state lawmakers under the Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADS).
Likewise, the AAP ousted 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 legislators, seven have defected till date.
The latest dissident is legislator Nazar Singh Manshahia, who joined the ruling Congress after quitting the AAP a few days ago.
“The AAP had lost the narrative in Punjab, with no positive agenda or ideology to guide it. Manshahia’s joining would further strengthen the Congress,” Chief Minister Amarinder Singh said.
AAP suspended legislator Kanwar Sandhu said, “In this election, the AAP is a very low key player in the state and they are not getting the public response they got in the 2014 and 2017 polls. At that time people were looking for a change and now they are upset with the infighting in the party”.
Countering them, a confident AAP legislator Aman Arora said the “silent voters” are still with the party.
“The Congress and the Akali Dal 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 belts,” he said.
The Congress too faced rebellion. The wife of Congress Rajya Sabha member Shamsher Singh Dullo left the party and was named a candidate from Fatehgarh Sahib (reserved) Lok Sabha seat by AAP.
Interestingly in these polls, AAP nominees are facing opposition from their own dissidents.
In a starry affair in Sangrur, state AAP chief and comedian Bhagwant Mann is facing popular singer and AAP rebel Jassi Jasraj.
The AAP fielded moneybag Neena Mittal from Patiala where she faces AAP rebel Gandhi, who had defeated three-time former MP Preneet Kaur, the wife of the chief minister, by over 20,000 votes in 2014. Kaur is again in the fray this time.
Dissident AAP legislator Baldev Singh has been pitted against AAP’s outgoing MP Sadhu Singh from Faridkot. Baldev is contesting polls as the candidate of Khaira’s Punjab Ekta Party.
This time Non-Resident Indian (NRI) Punjabis gave a noticeable miss to the AAP.
Many NRIs in the 2014 Lok Sabha election came out openly by offering not only cash-rich wallets but also pleading with people to support the AAP candidates.
In the 2017 Assembly election, many NRIs had campaigned for AAP Sangrur MP Bhagwant Mann. This time they switched loyalties and are backing his Congress opponent Kewal Singh Dhillon.
Riding in an air-conditioned bus called the ‘NRI Express’, they are campaigning for Dhillon.
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 from its ideology of ‘Swaraj’, so we decided not to support it”.
Countering dissidence and defection within the party, actor-comedian 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.