AAP rally, Arvind Kejriwal, BJP
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As Congress warms up to AAP, tensions soar in its Delhi, Punjab units

Ajay Maken in Delhi and Partap Singh Bajwa in Punjab caution national leadership against any tie-up with AAP

With its efforts to forge a united opposition ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections at stake, is the Congress willing to sink its steadily depleting ranks into further morass in Delhi and Punjab? The question gained currency within the party after Shaktisinh Gohil, the Congress in-charge for Delhi, expressed solidarity with Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal who, on Sunday (April 16) became the latest Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader to be grilled by the CBI in the Delhi excise policy case.

Gohil’s statement marked a major departure from the stance the Congress had, so far, adopted vis-a-vis the AAP leadership’s alleged complicity in the case. The Congress units in Delhi and Punjab – the two states where the Grand Old Party has been decimated by the AAP – have been unequivocal in demands for a thorough investigation into the AAP leadership’s role in the “excise scam”.

Just a month ago, Supriya Shrinate, the Congress social media wing chief, had asserted that her party was the “original complainant” in the case while demanding that “there should be an investigation” against Kejriwal & Co since “the allegations are serious”.

The Federal Exclusive | Mission 2024: Opposition’s concrete plans for federal front as Congress, AAP bend

The Congress change of heart towards the AAP, an outfit that Congress leaders have repeatedly dubbed as “B Team of the BJP”, comes in the backdrop of a renascent reconciliation bid between the two parties at the national level even as their leaders in Delhi and Punjab continue to aggressively attack each other.

Trust deficit

Sources in both parties confirmed to The Federal that “an attempt to reduce the trust deficit” between the AAP and Congress leaderships in order to explore the “possibility of an electoral alliance” for the 2024 general elections had begun well before Kejriwal called up Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge on Saturday (April 15) evening to seek his support after being summoned by the CBI for questioning in the excise case.

Though Kharge, unlike other opposition outfit leaders such as the RJD’s Manoj Jha, did not issue a public statement in Kejriwal’s support, sources say Gohil’s expression of solidarity with the Delhi chief minister was indicative of a thaw in the acrimonious relations that the two parties shared until recently.

Also read: The Navjot Sidhu riddle Congress needs to tackle in troubled Punjab

Signs of unease among senior leaders in the Delhi and Punjab units of the Congress over this effort towards a rapprochement were clear even before Gohil laid out what he declared was the “national line of our party”. Former Delhi Congress chief Ajay Maken and Partap Singh Bajwa, the Congress’s leader of the opposition in the Punjab Assembly, both cautioned their national leadership against any understanding with the AAP.

In what seemed like a coordinated attempt at building pressure on the party high command to desist from extending any sort of support to the AAP, Maken and Bajwa took to Twitter on April 16 and April 17 respectively to vent their ire at Kejriwal and his party.

Maken’s grouse

Maken asserted that “Kejriwal and his associates, who face serious corruption charges, should not be shown any sympathy or support” and implored his party colleagues to “recognise that the money gained through corrupt means by Kejriwal has been used against the Congress in several states including Punjab, Goa, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Delhi”.

The former Union minister, once a close aide of former Congress president Rahul Gandhi, also appealed to senior advocates from the Congress to “refrain from representing Kejriwal or his government in court” – a clear reference to Congress steering committee member Abhishek Manu Singhvi, who has been offering legal counsel to the AAP leadership in various cases, including the excise policy and money laundering cases against Kejriwal and his jailed aides, Manish Sisodia and Satyendar Jain.

A day after Maken’s outburst, Bajwa struck a similar chord, stating that “Arvind Kejriwal deserves no mercy when it comes down to his make-believe fight against corruption”. The Punjab Congress veteran, another key aide of Rahul, asserted that “AAP is the B team of the BJP and it is proving (this) right in every election”.

Gohil tried to downplay the remarks of Maken and Bajwa by implying that the views were borne out of compulsions of local-level politics in Delhi and Punjab where the Congress was pitted against the AAP. “In Congress, we believe in internal democracy and one has the freedom to air an individual point of view… Here, the Central agencies are being misused and we have been opposing misuse of Central agencies wherever it is done. Being the in-charge of Delhi, I have told the leaders from Delhi that we are fighting against misuse of Central agencies, we will continue to fight and wherever an opposition leader is being harassed by central agencies, we will stand with that opposition leader,” Gohil said.

Congress view

Some Congress leaders The Federal spoke to said Gohil’s statement could merely be a “courtesy reciprocal gesture” towards Kejriwal since AAP leaders Sanjay Singh and Raghav Chaddha were among the first opposition leaders to condemn Rahul Gandhi’s conviction by the Surat CJM court last month in a criminal defamation case and his subsequent disqualification from the Lok Sabha.

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However, leaders close to Kharge and Rahul said Gohil’s assertion that the “national line” of the party was to stand in support of Kejriwal and the AAP in the excise case was instructive of a larger political strategy, at the core of which were the ongoing efforts to build a united opposition front against the BJP for the Lok Sabha elections.

“You don’t change the stated position of your party on an important issue only as a reciprocal gesture; obviously some high-level discussion would have gone into it,” a senior Congress office bearer told The Federal.

The Federal had reported last week that during the recent discussions Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar and his deputy Tejashwi Yadav had with the Congress leadership and later with Arvind Kejriwal on efforts to forge a federal opposition front of like-minded parties against the BJP, the possibility of a Congress-AAP alliance specific to Delhi and Punjab for the Lok Sabha polls was also discussed.

Rahul’s role

Rahul, as The Federal had first reported, had told Nitish, who has taken a key role in the alliance talks with opposition parties that do not just yet wish to be seen directly communicating with the Congress, that he was “willing to overlook concerns of our state units” if an alliance with AAP, based on mutual respect and common vision, could be struck for the 2024 polls.

Kejriwal too is learnt to have told Nitish that he was even willing to concede a greater share of Lok Sabha seats to the Congress in Delhi – where the Grand Old Party has been unable to win a single assembly seat since 2015 – since the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha results had shown that the Delhi electorate tends to vote more favourably for the Congress than the AAP in the national election as compared to the assembly election.

Also read: Defamation case: AAP backs Rahul, alleges plot against non-BJP leaders

Such an offer from Kejriwal, who has never hid his own prime ministerial ambitions and has repeatedly pitted his AAP as the “real alternative” to the BJP as opposed to the Congress, may sound too good to be true for the Congress and, thus, make it tempting for the GOP to explore a pre-poll alliance with the Delhi chief minister. However, it also runs a palpable risk of plunging the Congress into intense hara-kiri at the state-level; further deepening its crisis of attrition while offering no real guarantee that the unity talks will eventually lead to a concrete alliance.

“How do you trust anything that Kejriwal says? He has built his political career and the AAP by abusing the Congress and its leadership… can we forget the role his India Against Corruption movement played in destabilising the UPA government and besmirching the Congress’s reputation and credibility? Even while asking for the Congress support, he has not said that the AAP will not enter the election battle in Rajasthan or Madhya Pradesh later this year where we are in a direct contest with the BJP… Today, because he is facing the heat from the CBI, because Sisodia is in jail, he wants us to speak in his favour but what is the guarantee that he will not stab us in the back as we move closer to the Lok Sabha polls,” a senior Delhi Congress leader said.

Punjab Congress

Similar inhibitions came from leaders of the Punjab Congress too. “If the Congress enters into any pact with the AAP, it will be a bigger political blunder than even our decision of changing chief ministers six months before the (2022) Punjab polls… How will we justify this to our workers when we are, on a daily basis, raising issues of the incompetence and corruption of the Bhagwant Mann government,” a veteran Punjab Congress MLA said.

A Congress MP from Punjab added: “Within a year of losing political ground to the AAP, we are seeing signs of a reversal and the Jalandhar Lok Sabha by-election (due next month) will prove this despite the fact that a large number of our leaders have been poached by the BJP while the AAP is also trying to break away our leaders… In such a scenario, if the central leadership decides to warm up to the AAP, will it not confuse our cadre and the voters… we will be handing over the election to the Akalis or worse, to the BJP, which has not been able to penetrate Punjab, because people are already frustrated with the poor performance of the Mann government.”

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