What next for Kejriwal and AAP?

After its humiliating defeat in Punjab, Goa and now in Delhi, the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) faces a tough challenge ahead to reclaim the lost glory.

Several questions – from whether AAP would tweak its go-alone strategy to will it bring back old AAP hands who left them – arise as the party stares at a possible challenge to the leadership, including Kejriwal.

Though one cannot write AAP’s obituary yet, the recent Rajouri Garden bypoll where its candidate lost his deposit in a sitting seat and the civic poll results indicate that the AAP has squandered its hard-earned political capital based on people-centric politics in less than five years of its formation. The latest drubbing comes two months after its ambition of winning Punjab and Goa Assembly elections took a beating.

The AAP leadership is putting up a brave face by singing the “EVM manipulation” tune for the humiliating defeat but the one question that is troubling the party is the strategy it should adopt to win back the confidence of Delhi voters, who have have already given ample indication to AAP to shed its confrontational politics.

Another demon the AAP, once a middle-class darling, has to fight is its image of leaving the Delhi battle field for greener pastures like Punjab where the party discreetly floated the idea of Kejriwal becoming Chief Minister or fielding Rajouri Garden MLA Jarnail Singh there after making him resign here.

It is also to be seen whether AAP is now willing to do business with other opposition parties. AAP may not be willing to work with Congress but may be ready for a fight alongside the third front parties like the Left, Janata Dal (United) or Trinamool Congress. Kejriwal has already hinted that he wants an alliance of “good people” to fight the BJP when he met CPI(M) Polit Bureau member and Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan here last week.

The initial reactions from the AAP leadership appeared to be of stubbornness but the next step of Kejriwal and AAP is keenly watched. It would determine the course AAP, once a middle-class darling, would take to reinvent itself.

The poor show in civic polls in Delhi, where the party was born in November 26, 2012 following a more than one year stunning anti-corruption agitation, has ignited murmurs of dissent in the party already though top leadership is pinning the blame on “manipulation” of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs).

AAP’s Lok Sabha MP Bhagwant Singh Mann, the party’s Chief Ministerial candidate in Punjab, did not mince words when he questioned the poll strategy and blaming the EVMs for its defeat in Punjab. Others are silent now but it is to be seen how Kejriwal stems the dissent in the party amid AAP leaders claiming that BJP is trying to woo its MLAs. Already one of the MLAs have resigned and joined the party.

(An edited version appeared in Deccan Herald’s website on Apr 26, 2017)

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Delhi civic polls crucial for AAP, Cong, BJP

Next Sunday (Apr 23), Delhiites will once again queue-up in front of polling booths. This time, they will be choosing 272 councillors in three civic bodies — East, South and North Delhi municipal corporations. All the three principal political players in the capital — AAP, BJP and Congress — are sharpening their knives for a fight-to-finish and cement their place of prominence. The civic election also comes at a crucial time in national politics when BJP is on an ascendance while opposition parties appear to be in disarray.

If BJP is sensing victory in all the three corporations riding on its resounding bypoll win in Rajouri Garden last week, Congress and AAP are not willing to concede it that easily. Will it be a “sweep” for BJP, the main opposition in Delhi, or a “comeback” for a decimated Congress or a “rout” for ruling AAP in the capital? Will the results be a boost to the opposition benches and uplift its morale to take on the Narendra Modi-led regime? Only the counting of votes on April 26 will reveal what is in Delhiites’ minds.

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For Arvind Kejriwal-led AAP, it will be an opportunity to prove that the electoral victory in the past two Assembly elections were not a one-off incident while for BJP and Congress, which once ruled the capital, the question is of resurgence. BJP had won just four seats out of 70 in the 2015 Assembly polls while Congress lost all it contested, even the bypoll earlier this month.

The AAP believes that it will win the three municipal bodies on Kejriwal government’s performance and anti-incumbency against BJP, which is currently ruling the three corporations. But the Rajouri Garden results where its candidate was relegated to third position and forfeiting deposit has come as wake-up call for the party. The result, even some in AAP believe, is possibly a holding of mirror to the party’s confrontationist politics.

But AAP leaders say the going has never been easy for them with the Modi-led Centre and BJP always putting spanner in its efforts to develop Delhi. It accuses the BJP of playing dirty politics as one of MLAs resigning and joining the saffron party. The party, which rode to power on anti-corruption plank, faces allegation of nepotism and graft with recently publicised Shunglu Committee finding irregularities in decisions taken by it. Its leaders and MLAs are facing a host of cases investigated by CBI while it is on a collision course with the Lieutenant Governor, whom they accuse of obstructing its work. Reports also suggest there is widespread discontentment among MLAs on the functioning of Kejriwal and AAP. For AAP, other challenges will be from friend-turned-foe Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav’s Swaraj Abhiyan and JD(U). Though they may not be big players, they can be irritant to the AAP by clinching some votes from its base.

Though it is battling the negative image, AAP has not left the battle ground. It is putting up a brave face despite the Rajouri Garden drubbing. Its political think tanks are working overnight to woo voters. Whether its promise of abolition of property tax hit a chord with voters could be known only after counting, it did have an effect on BJP with its manifesto promising no tax proposals in the next five years.

If Kejriwal drives AAP bandwagon, BJP is trying to leverage on the recent Assembly results, particularly the Uttar Pradesh win. The bypoll victory is a morale booster for the party, which is facing anti-incumbency in three corporations. The saffron party is experimenting with new faces. BJP chief Amit Shah has not left the election management to local leaders and his decision not to give tickets to sitting councillors did touch a raw nerve but the party has managed to nip any rebellion in the bud.

The saffron party is also fielding top leaders in the campaign. For BJP, it is not distinguishing civic polls with state or general elections. All elections are fought to win. The recent victories in Mumbai and Odisha civic polls have enthused the cadre and a win now, they believe, would be a stepping stone to the next Assembly elections. They also have to be battle ready as the Election Commission is yet to decide on the petition to disqualify 21 AAP MLAs on office of profit charges.

The biggest challenge is for Congress, as a victory or at least an impressive show is needed for the party to regain its confidence in the capital and sent a positive signal to its workers that all has not been lost after the electoral setback in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Congress is batting on a difficult pitch but hopes are high this time after they smell a return to the Delhi mainstream. They have won five of the 10 wards in bypolls last year while AAP could win three and BJP two.

Congress did dramatically improve its vote share in Rajouri Garden though it lost to BJP. But the silver lining for Congress was that it managed to get the better of AAP. It has fielded its central leaders from P Chidambaram to Jairam Ramesh to campaign and prepare a vision document for the city that addresses chronic civic issues. However, Delhi Congress chief Ajay Maken’s style of functioning has become a bone of contention among senior leaders in the capital like former Minister A K Walia who came out in the open against him for ignoring his choices.

Whatever the political outcome and its consequences, Delhiites would expect better civic amenities from the victorious team. Sanitation is one big issue that is yet to be seeing a resolution. Big talks are there but nothing happens. The BJP has been ruling the civic body for past two terms while Congress and AAP have been at the helm of state government during this period. Routinely, they pass the buck. What Delhiites need is not shifting responsibility but a responsive civic body that deals with their basic needs.

(An edited version  appeared in Deccan Herald’s Panorama section on Apr 19, 2017)

AAP jolted in Delhi’s Rajouri Garden

The Aam Aadmi Party was in for a rude jolt on Thursday (Apr 13)when it lost its sitting seat in Delhi to BJP in an Assembly bypoll, that too by losing deposit, just before a crucial civic polls in the capital.

BJP’s Manjinder Singh Sirsa won the Rajouri Garden seat by a margin of 14,652 with Congress’ Meenakshi Chandela, a sitting councillor from the area, came second pushing AAP’s Harjeet Singh to the third.

AAP could clock only 10,243 votes, which is less than one-sixth of the votes polled to secure deposit, compared to 2015 elections when it got 54,916 votes and won the seat.

In a quick reaction, AAP senior leader and Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia said the results showed that there is “need to revisit people connect”.

With this, BJP’s number in the Assembly has risen to four in a House of 70. One seat is vacant as an AAP MLA resigned and joined BJP recently. Congress has no MLAs in the current Assembly.

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The bypoll was necessitated after AAP’s sitting MLA Jarnail Singh resigned to contest against the then Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal in Lumbi in the Assembly elections there recently. Singh lost to Badal.

Sisodia said it appeared that people were unhappy with Jarnail Singh’s decision to go to punjab and contest election.

BJP is upbeat as it is continuing its winning streak in the recent Assembly elections while Congress could be relieved that it is back in business after the inglorious defeat with no seats in the Assembly which it ruled for 15 years till 2013.

The Congress is a bit upset but not unhappy as they believe that they are back in the political game in the national capital.

The results will give more trouble for AAP as it is in the midst of another electoral war against BJP and Congress to wrest control of three municipal corporations in Delhi where the polls is scheduled for April 23. Losing a sitting seat would put pressure on the leadership, including Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, and their electoral strategy to make Jarnail resign and contest Punjab polls.

Jarnail had won in 2013 and 2015 polls and in the last polls, he pipped Sirsa. An initial analysis of votes showed that those who supported AAP in 2013 and 2015 elections did not come out to vote, apparently in anger over the resignation of the sitting MLA. Around 45% voted in this seat this time while it was 72.12% in 2015.

Sirsa, who belongs to NDA ally Akali Dal and contested in BJP symbol, and Chandela had contested in the 2015 too but lost to Jarnail, who rose to limelight after he threw a shoe at the then Union Minister P Chidambaram at a press conference in protest against Congress giving seats to anti-Sikh riots case accused.

This time, Sirsa emerged winner with 40,602 votes while Chandela, who got 14,167 votes in the previous polls, improved her position to 25,950 votes.

(An edited version appeared in Deccan Herald’s web edition on Apr 13, 2017)

TMC’s tightrope walking in times of CBI probes

Trinamool Congress’ walkout just before a crucial vote on Finance Bill in Rajya Sabha has set tongues wagging even as party leaders insist that it is a message to Congress over its proximity to the Left parties.

The Trinamool MPs, who had amendments in their names to be moved in the Finance Bill on Tuesday, did not wait for their turn to press for the amendments and walked out amidst the voting was on.

While a section in the opposition sought to read it as Trinamool’s efforts to cosy up to the BJP following the Supreme Court directing a CBI probe into Narada sting operation, its leaders point out to its uneasiness over Congress cosying up to the CPI(M)-led Left Front in West Bengal.

Trinamool Congress sources said they intended to sent a message to the Congress during the voting that they cannot take the party for granted in the name of Opposition unity.

The Mamata Banerjee-led party, which was in the forefront of demonetisation protests, was upset with Congress over its protests on Narada sting operation and its warm relationship with the Left.

The Congress floor managers in the Rajya Sabha had approached Trinamool Congress leaders to vote in favour of amendments moved by Opposition. However, surprised Congress leaders are trying to find fault with the Trinamool Congress, saying the party is in a bind over the CBI probes against its leaders and that was why it walked out.

Trinamool sources rubbish the claim, saying it was clear that their walk out would not have saved the government. “Everyone knew that Trinamool walkout will not save the government from embarrassment. We knew that our walkout will not affect the Opposition game plan. Then, why did that? We had a plan. We wanted to send a message to Congress,” a senior elader said.

Like Congress, CPI(M) also has refused to buy this argument. CPI(M) General Secretary Sitaram Yechury said the Trinamool did this to save itself from the probes against it.

“The CBI is probing the Narada sting where its MPs were seen taking money. It is trying to cut a deal with the BJP. The walkout was to send a message to BJP that they are willing to do business,” Yechury told reporters.

“The Trinamool is now seen as compromised. It’s bargaining power has been checkmated on both sides,” he added.

(Mar 30, 2017)

Cong oppn to Red Sari showed decadence: Moro

Javier Moro

The Congress’ opposition to the “dramatised” biography of its presidenty Sonia Gandhi showed signs of “decadence” even four years ago though his book portrayed her in “good light”, author Javier Moro said on Saturday.

The book ‘The Red Sari: A Dramatised Biography of Sonia Gandhi’, which could not be published in 2010 owing to Congress’ opposition, has hit the stands a couple of days ago and publishers claim that it is sold out already.

“I never thought the book when it was published in Europe, the reaction of the Congress would be such that they created a scandal. But this only says about the state of the party at that time,” Moro, the nephew of well-known writer Dominique Lapierre, told reporters.

He said the book is not a political or historical account of Gandhi’s life and his only aim was to tell the story of a “remarkable lady from Italy”, who came from humble beginnings to become one of the most powerful leaders in India.

The book was first published in Spanish ‘El Sari Rojo: Cuando la vida es el precio del poder” in 2008 but it attracted attention when an English translation was to hit Indian stands in 2010. Gandhi’s lawyers had then served Moro a legal notice, alleging that the book contained “untruths, half truths, falsehoods and defamatory statements”.

Asked about his views on Congress’ reaction to his book four years ago, “why they were so intolerent? I think they were decadent. It was the sign that things were not going well. They mismanaged it.”

He also rebutted allegations that he invented conversations saying, his book is only recreating the life of a person in a dramatic way.

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“I still wonder why Congress was against publishing it. The whole issue was blown out of proportion by poor PR people of Congress,” he said.

He also claimed Congress wanted to project her as a “marble figure or an idol” which cannot be approached easily.

Pramod Kapoor, founder-publisher of Roli Books, said certain pressures were out and conditions were made so difficult that they could not publish it in 2010. “But the situation changed with the change in government last year and we decided to go head,” he said but added that Roli was never told not to publish the book in 2010.

(An edited version appeared in Deccan Herald on Jan 18, 2015)

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