Even if it was the Aam Aadmi Party’s absolute intent to do so, it couldn’t have made itself and, more importantly, its newly minted chief minister, Punjab’s Bhagwant Mann, look as bad. L’affaire Bagga which played out all through Friday (May 6) has come as a sad testament of the AAP embracing the very political tactics it had vigorously promised to abolish while seeking a vote for change in Punjab just months ago.
Friday began with a team of Punjab police arresting Delhi BJP member Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga from his Delhi residence on a complaint about his alleged incendiary and threatening tweets against chief minister Arvind Kejriwal. The day ended with the Delhi police ‘rescuing’ Bagga — after a showdown between the Punjab police and their counterparts from Haryana and Delhi in Haryana’s Kurukshetra — and bringing him back to the national capital.
What good the raucous political slugfest over Bagga achieved for the AAP or its governments in Delhi and Punjab is hard to decipher. The Punjab police, already under fire for growing lawlessness in the state and its inability to pre-empt and prevent the communal clashes that broke out in Patiala last week, now have to face the added ignominy of being accused of acting like “Kejriwal’s personal militia” that has been let loose against the Delhi CM’s critics.
In contrast, Bagga seems to have emerged as the immediate beneficiary of this drama. Until 24 hours earlier, Bagga was a man often lampooned for his fatuous defence of the BJP and his decade-long experiments with manifestly publicity-seeking idiosyncrasies. In a day’s time, Bagga is now a ‘leader’ who several eminences from the BJP have come forward to defend.
Whether the Punjab police’s investigation against Bagga eventually ends in a legal setback for the BJP leader is still premature to say. But, in the present, the cacophonous drama over his arrest has exposed glaring chinks in the AAP’s claims of being different from the legacy political parties Kejriwal loves to deride.
As reported by The Federal earlier, among the first announcements that Mann made after taking oath as Punjab’s chief minister, on March 16, was that his government and the state’s police would no longer indulge in political vendetta. It didn’t take long for Mann’s claim to be exposed as nothing more than tall rhetoric.
Bagga’s arrest — the merits of the case against him, or the lack of them, notwithstanding — is not the first instance of the Punjab police going after critics of Kejriwal. Soon after Mann took over as the chief minister, the Punjab police came knocking at the doors of Kejriwal’s former aide and AAP co-founder Kumar Vishwas.
Vishwas was accused of making defamatory statements against Kejriwal in the last lap of the Punjab Assembly election campaign. Similar charges were also slapped on Alka Lamba, a former AAP MLA from Delhi’s Chandni Chowk who had returned to the Congress after a bitter falling out with Kejriwal.
While the Punjab and Haryana High Court had stayed the arrest of Vishwas, the FIR against Lamba had given the Punjab Congress a chance to launch an offensive against the AAP. Several Congress leaders had accompanied Lamba to the police station when she responded to the summons.
To the AAP’s relief, the Congress failed to turn Punjab police’s action against Lamba into a headline-grabbing media circus. This could variously be attributed to the general inertia typical of the Grand Old Party or the fact that the Congress, pushed to the fringe of Delhi’s electoral politics since Kejriwal’s rise to power in 2015 and out of power at the Centre since 2014, has no power over the Delhi police.
In contrast to the Congress’s ephemeral protests over the hounding of Lamba, the BJP, as is its wont, is determined to milk Bagga’s arrest to the maximum. It not only pressed the Delhi police, which reports to the Amit Shah-run Union home ministry and not Kejriwal’s Delhi government, into action to secure Bagga’s “rescue” but also got the police in Haryana, also BJP-ruled, to blockade the Punjab police team in Kurukshetra.
Given the BJP’s mastery of using any and all situations for political brinkmanship, it is difficult to imagine the choice of Kurukshetra, a town known among Hindus as the site of the mythical Mahabharata war, to deploy Haryana police for the battle over Bagga was pure coincidence.
The BJP’s spin-doctors, including many in the media, were put into service immediately to flood social media platforms and news channels with reports of how the Punjab police had arrested Bagga without a warrant and not allowed him time to even wear his turban before being frisked away (clearly not true as Bagga can be seen in a turban while being ferried back by the Delhi police from Kurukshetra). Bagga’s elderly parents were also promptly available to give bytes to sundry media outfits with his father accusing the Punjab police team of roughing him up for merely asking who they were and where they were taking his son.
Through the entire day’s fracas, it was conveniently forgotten that just days back the police from BJP-ruled Assam had travelled all the way to Palanpur in Gujarat to arrest independent MLA (now Congress member) Jignesh Mevani for posting an “objectionable tweet” against Narendra Modi.
Through the day’s drama, it was AAP that was painted as the villain. It also escaped none that while the AAP leaders from Delhi – party MLA Saurabh Bhardwaj and others – made furious attempts to justify the Punjab police’s action, neither Mann nor his cabinet ministers spoke out on the controversy that was spiralling out of control and damaging their reputation the most.
The AAP’s political rivals in Punjab had a field day targeting Mann with the now oft-hurled accusation of surrendering the state’s government to his party boss in Delhi and of giving Kejriwal, who as the Delhi CM has no police force reporting to him, a free pass to use Punjab police for carrying out his political vendetta.
The BJP is unlikely to let the political storm over Bagga’s arrest die down anytime soon. Mann’s silence on the issue will only make matters worse for him for it can either be construed as a sign of helplessness against Kejriwal’s whims or his tacit approval for leasing out Punjab’s police to the Delhi CM.
Either way; this isn’t the change Punjab voted for.