The recent landslide victory of the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the Punjab Assembly elections has rekindled the party’s hopes in Haryana.
AAP’s victorious run found resonance in the Haryana Assembly when an MLA of the ruling BJP-JJP alliance cautioned Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar that AAP’s juggernaut may find its footprints in the state if they all did not join together to make a formidable force.
Narnaund MLA Ram Kumar Gautam from Jannayak Janta Party (JJP), an ally of BJP, called Delhi Chief Minister Kejriwal a ‘baniya’ (referred to the caste of merchants), which invited the ire of many MLAs who demanded an apology from him.
With disgruntled leaders from different political parties, including the ruling BJP, making a beeline to join AAP, the party, which secured less than NOTA votes (0.48%) in the 2019 Haryana Assembly election, is looking to rebuild its base in the Jat land.
The resentment against the BJP over the year-long farmers’ agitation and unemployment, besides the infighting within Congress, much like in Punjab, gives AAP a formidable ground to gain in Haryana.
Besides Haryana, AAP offices in Himachal Pradesh and Jammu, which usually wore a deserted look until recently, are witnessing a surge in political opportunists, looking to jump ship and cash in on AAP’s success run.
Sushil Gupta, Rajya Sabha MP and Haryana state in-charge for AAP, expressed confidence in the party’s prospects with many former ministers, MLAs from BJP, Congress and other parties having lined up to seek membership of the party.
“Over a dozen ex-MLAs and ex-Ministers have already joined the party from Gurugram to Kurukshetra region and names of equal numbers are under consideration. The party will not entertain any leader with blemishes of corruption and criminal record of serious nature,” Gupta added.
MLA Umesh Aggarwal (BJP), Balbir Singh Saini, ex-minister from Kurushetra, are among the notable ones. While Balbir Singh said that he had quit the saffron party during the farm agitation, Aggarwal’s entry into AAP came as a no-surprise as it is believed that he jumped ship to make good his tainted image (booked for forging court records). He, however, said he quit BJP as the party had deserted some of its leaders in the state.
“BJP failed to safeguard the interest of the farming community and I joined AAP as it is the only party that can transform the state,” Saini said. On incumbent Chief Minister ML Khattar, Saini who was MLA from Pehowa constituency, said that the BJP government is more corrupt than the Congress.
The party is also trying to rope in former Union steel minister and prominent Jat leader Birender Singh into its fold. Gupta said Singh was a good friend and he was not happy with the BJP. “It’s up to him to join the party whenever he wants if he desires so.”
Besides, the buzz is back on whether whistleblower bureaucrat Ashok Khemka will join AAP. Khemka, the 1991-batch IAS officer, who has faced 54 transfers in his 30-year long bureaucratic career, was a senior to Kejriwal in IIT-Kharagpur in the 1980s.
While he had stayed away from entering electoral politics, AAP cadres now believe the Punjab elections will change his stance.
But Gupta denied Khemka was joining the party and sources close to Khemka said that he would not be interested in becoming an MLA. But, may make the jump for something bigger, such as a Rajya Sabha MP post or the post of political advisor to the party chief.
AAP’s history with Haryana
Kejriwal’s connection with Haryana is well known, as he was born in Hisar and his extended family still lives in nearby Siwani town. The 2011 India Against Corruption movement in Ram Lila Maidan had impacted the remotest areas of Haryana.
But though the party has been active in electoral politics since 2014 in Haryana, contesting both Assembly and Parliament elections, it failed to make a mark in the state as it did not put up a strong local face.
The AAP made Naveen Jaihind, a close confidant of Kejriwal and the ex-husband of Swati Maliwal, chairperson of the Delhi Commission for Women, the party face in the state. But Jaihind has failed to build the party at the block levels for several years now.
AAP contested both the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha polls and its candidates lost security deposits in the seats contested. Post this, the party remained disconnected from the ground realities. Soon after, the party replaced Jaihind and brought in Gupta to head the state.
That said, AAP now plans to contest the upcoming panchayat and municipal polls, before going all out for the 2024 Assembly and Lok Sabha elections. It did struggle during its membership drive last year and found it hard to convince that it can prove to be an alternative in a caste-riddled state.
The divided house
Prof Sampat Singh, a senior BJP leader and former finance minister, who once was a close confidant of Devi Lal, feels that the AAP victory in Punjab will have an impact on Haryana politics. But he also cautioned that it’s premature to say anything now as the party has a long way to go before making an impact.
However, factors like the BJP’s anti-incumbency and the Congress’s divided house may work to the advantage of AAP. The highest unemployment rate, paper leak cases and job scams are real issues, and the opposition Congress with 31 MLAs in the 90-members Assembly, failed to put the ruling BJP-JJP under pressure and make its presence count.
In 2019, the incumbent BJP bagged 40 seats, Congress 31 and the newly created JJP led by Dushyant Chautala 10 seats. While a split in Chautala’s family led to the decimation of the regional Indian National Lok Dal, once the strongest regional party in state, its members defected to BJP and the Jat votes were cornered by the JJP, which won 10 seats. Though the JJP fought on an anti-BJP stance, it joined with the BJP to help it form the government.
Roping in spent forces
JJP founder and father of Dushyant Chautala, Deputy Chief Minister Ajay Chautala, however, remains unfazed by the AAP’s success. AAP is roping in those ex-MLAs who are spent forces and have no connection with masses, he said.
Haryana, in the last two decades, has gone with the wind of the Lok Sabha results, as the state elections follow immediately after the Lok Sabha polls.
The Congress is divided between former CM Bhupinder Singh Hooda loyalists versus the rest. “Mudslinging is already known as two Congress former ministers demanded action against G-23 leaders including Hooda for working against the Congress party,” Jaihind said.
He said AAP can fill the vacuum created by the Congress, and that the BJP’s style of politics has not gone down well with Haryanvis.
Subhash Batra, senior Congress leader and ex-home minister, said that ex-CM Hooda is deliberately soft on the ruling BJP due to a number of CBI cases on him. “If the state Congress does not mend its ways, it would scatter like cards in the next assembly polls as it did in Punjab,” he added.
Poll experts believe that Punjab AAP’s two-year performance before 2024 and the party’s performance in Himachal Pradesh will decide how the voters of Haryana get swayed.
Meanwhile, the BJP’s state president Om Prakash Dhankar said the party has a tight grip on voters and it has shown this by winning four of the five state assembly polls. “The BJP remains in election mode and thus remains in the public all the time. There is no worry of anti-incumbency of two terms as the Modi-Yogi alliance has shown that it can be transcended in other states,” Dhankar added.