With barely five months left for Punjab Assembly elections, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which has been claiming to be a serious contender for power in the state, is finding itself on the throes of a serious crisis that is threatening to lead to a split.
The party, which has been proclaiming zero tolerance for corruption, has sacked its senior-most leader in the state and Punjab AAP convenor, Sucha Singh Chhotepur, on exactly those grounds. This followed a purported sting operation by one of the party leaders which showed Chhotepur accepting a cash amount of Rs 2 lakh.
While political rivals of the leader within the party claim that he had accepted cash in lieu of a party ticket, Chhotepur has asserted the money was for party funds and there was no quid pro quo.
The flare-up, a result of the tension brewing between the "outsiders" - also called "dilliwale" - and 'locals' - leaders from Punjab - has left the party's rivals delighted.
Congress, which was finding itself going downhill, has suddenly found hope, and its state chief Captain Amarinder Singh lost little time in inviting Chhotepur to the Congress fold. Akalis, too, are backslapping each other and declaring that the AAP bubble has burst sooner than expected.
Chhotepur, a former Akali minister, who has assiduously built AAP in Punjab over the last two years, evidently enjoys support of party leaders at the grassroots level.
When he addressed a press conference to deny corruption charges, at least six of the 13 zonal incharges were present to back him. Party leaders from various districts came out with statements to support him and demanded that charges against Chotepur be dropped. They also locked down offices in a couple of districts and there were reports of rival factions clashing at some places.
|Chhotepur, a former Akali minister, has assiduously built AAP in Punjab over the last two years.|
Chhotepur has also upped the ante by declaring that he shall be forced to announce his future plans, which include quitting the party, if he was not given a clean chit. He declared his intention to organise a show of strength in Amritsar this Saturday (September 3).
His disclosure at the press conference, that AAP had no treasurer and he had been collecting funds to run the party, has cast a shadow on the party's claims of transparency.
But his most serious charge was against party supremo Arvind Kejriwal. He said Kejriwal had rebuked him for distancing himself from the faux pas relating to the cover page of the party's youth manifesto, which had a picture of the Golden Temple along with the party symbol "jhadu" (broom).
Kejriwal, according to Chhotepur, had told him that he should have owned responsibility. Chhotepur, who had resigned as a minister to protest entry of armed forces in Golden Temple during Operation Black Thunder, said he was shocked as he would have been ostracised from the Sikh community, which was not acceptable to him at any cost.
His remarks were seen as a direct attack against Kejriwal and cast a shadow on the party for its ignorance of Sikh tenets and religious beliefs. Akalis, as well as the Congress, had earlier been declaring AAP to be an "anti-panth" party.
It also bolstered the criticism that AAP was a party of "outsiders", dubbed as "topiwalas", by Shiromani Akali Dal chief Sukhbir Singh Badal, who were directed by "dilliwallas".
Even as Chhotepur's disclosures pleased the Akalis and Congress leaders, some of AAP's own leaders, like Sukhpal Singh Khaira and former journalist Kanwar Sandhu, expressed reservations on the action against Chhotepur even before a committee set up to probe allegations against him had begun its inquiry.
The differences between Chhotepur and the "dilliwallas", represented by Durgesh Pathak, Sanjay Singh and Ashish Khaitan, who have been made incharge of tickets distribution, had been simmering for some time. Chhotepur was conspicuous by his absence at both the press conferences organised to announce the list of candiates.
He and his supporters had alleged that those given tickets were not deserving and had been given tickets for extraneous reasons. Indeed, 27 of the 32 who were given AAP tickets, are facing opposition from party cadres in their respective constituencies. Chhotepur and other state leaders are also demanding a say in the selection of candidates.
The state unit of AAP has been hurtling from one controversy to another. Of the four party MPs, two had rebelled last year and have not been attending party meetings or rallies. The two, Dr Dharamvir Gandhi and Harinder Singh Khalsa, continue to remain with AAP as their resignation would lead to their disqualification from Lok Sabha.
However they openly criticise the party and its leaders. Another MP, Bhagwant Mann, has been accused of being a drunk. He was recently embroiled in a controversy regarding filming the entry to Parliament building and is facing an inquiry by a committee set up by the Speaker.
Incidentally, nine of the 13 AAP candidates who had contested the 2014 Lok Sabha elections are either estranged or stand expelled by the party. These include two of the four MPs.
The party's indecision over the entry of cricketer-turned-politician, Navjot Singh Sidhu, has also generated criticism. The party lacked a credible "Sikh face" as its chief ministerial candidate and Sidhu could have filled the bill. However, a section of party, including Kejriwal, appear to be against his demand for projection as chief ministerial candidate. Sidhu is also reported to have sought a ticket for his wife, but under the party's rules, two members from the same family cannot contest elections.
Evidently taken aback by the support for Chhotepur and the growing resentment against the "outsiders", the party leadership is now trying to mend fences with him. Punjab affairs incharge, Sanjay Singh, even went to Chotepur's house to placate him but does not seem to have succeeded in doing so.
Time appears to be running out for the party which had declared that it was winning at least 100 of the 117 Assembly seats in the state. It shall have to put it house in order if it intends to remain a serious contender.