Inside Story: Mann-Kejriwal Meetings to Workers, How AAP Balanced Delhi & Punjab
In 2017, tussle between Delhi & Punjab leaders had harmed AAP’s campaign. How did the party handle it differently?
“Both sides (AAP’s Punjab and national leadership) were desperate. We knew we had to win this time otherwise the party would be finished in Punjab and it’s national efforts would also be over. We are so relieved,” says a newly elected Aam Aadmi Party MLA in Punjab.
The tussle between AAP’s Punjab and Delhi-based national leadership had been a constant feature of the party ever since it broke into Punjab’s political landscape winning 4 seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
Two MPs – Dharamvira Gandhi and Harinder Khalsa – fell out with the party soon after that win. In the years that followed, several top Punjab leaders left or were expelled – Sucha Singh Chhotepur, HS Phoolka, Sukhpal Khaira to name a few. Many of the leaders who left AAP cited ‘interference from Delhi’ as a reason for their disillusionment with the party.
“Yes, things weren’t perfect. But that’s all in the past. This election there was no friction,” the MLA says.
So how did AAP manage the Delhi-Punjab equation this time on?
We spoke to several levels of people involved in AAP’s Punjab campaign – candidates, back-room managers and volunteers.
Broadly, four aspects emerged.
1. Mann-Kejriwal Bonding
At the core of the Delhi-Punjab equation in AAP was the personal equation between the two main leaders of the party at the Centre and in Punjab – AAP convenor and Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal and Punjab unit chief and Sangrur MP Bhagwant Mann.
“Arvind Kejriwal went and stayed with Bhagwant Mann. That was a very important milestone in their equation. Both leaders needed to arrive at a comfort level with each other. That happened through a series of such interactions,” a party functionary from Delhi revealed.
A party leader from Punjab corroborates, “Kejriwal realised what Bhagwant Mann was all about, where he came from, what his journey had been, what his take was on different political issues. He felt he could trust Bhagwant Mann completely.”
AAP insiders say that there was a lot of one-on-one interaction between Kejriwal and Mann.
“A lot of time, it would be just the two of them. They would have a lot of discussions in Kejriwal’s suite in Mohali Club,” disclosed a party source.
“It was essential that the two leaders are always on the same page during the campaign. The time together was important as each one would know what the other thought on a particular issue or challenge,” the functionary from Delhi said.
At one point of time, there was a doubt whether Mann would be projected as the CM candidate at all. Bathinda Rural MLA Rupinder Ruby even left the party and joined the Congress saying that Mann wasn’t getting his due.
Apparently the decision to make Mann the CM candidate was taken much earlier than the ‘survey’ announced by AAP.
“Let the election gain momentum,” would be Kejriwal’s response whenever someone asked when the announcement around Mann would be made.
2. Kejriwal Took Charge of the Campaign
Kejriwal adopted a much more hands-on approach in the campaign this time. Also having won landslide victories in Delhi twice in a row, his authority within AAP had become even more unquestioned in the last five years.
“A lot of leaders who may have created problems had left the party by now,” said the Delhi functionary, specifying leaders like Sukhpal Khaira in particular.
Khaira, who later joined the Congress, is interestingly one of the few leaders to win amidst the AAP sweep.
Conversely, Delhi leaders and back-room managers who may have rubbed the Punjab unit the wrong way last time, were replaced by people with a different style of working. More on that later.
Coming back to Kejriwal, a senior volunteer involved closely with different aspects of the campaign said that Kejriwal had near complete control of the campaign and the narrative.
“AK (Kejriwal) himself handled the campaign this time. Everyone was told to recite only few points – Badlav (change), Ek Mauka AAP nu (One Chance to AAP), Sab dekh le iss baar hamein mauka do (please see and give us a chance this time) – this was our core message and everyone repeated it,” he said.
“Even ticket distribution, was decided entirely between AK, Bhagwant Mann and Raghav Chadha. No other person was involved,” the volunteer added.
3. Key Pointspersons
Kejriwal also appointed a backend team comprising some of his most trusted aides to ensure smooth co-ordination.
One such key strategist was Sandeep Pathak who had been stationed in Punjab for over a year.
From an engineering background, the Cambridge educated Pathak is for working quietly behind-the-scenes in a low profile manner.
He is said to have played a crucial role in ensuring that the campaign remains focussed on the narrative that Kejriwal has given.
Deepak Chauhan was another key back-room functionary who was deployed full-time in Punjab for over a year.
Towards the end, Vijay Nair is said to have come in to handle media and publicity.
While Pathak and Chauhan worked entirely behind the scenes, two Delhi leaders who played a key role in the campaign were Raghav Chadha and Jarnail Singh.
The fact that both were of Punjabi origin is said to have made a difference compared to 2017, when leaders from Hindi speaking states were managing the campaign.
“No offence to them but the kind of leadership style required in Punjab is different. It has to be much less hierarchial and more hands-on. Both Raghav Chadha and Jarnail Singh knew the cultural nuances in Punjab much better,” said a party functionary from Punjab.
The functionary added that Chadha, for instance, did a lot of homework on how things functioned in Punjab in the initial part of his stint.
“In his initial visits, he spent a lot of time socialising, speaking to a wide variety of people. He tried to get a hang of how politics operated in Punjab and found that it was an entirely different ball game from Delhi,” the functionary said.
4. Coordination at the Volunteer Level
Those involved with the campaign say that coordinating between volunteers from Punjab, Delhi and other states was actually easier compared to managing the equation between leaders.
“The 2017 campaign was like Shivji ki Baraat – all and sundry had joined in and it was difficult to maintain control and coherence. This time the volunteers who had come were just hungry to win and knew what was at stake,” said a party leader, adding “a lot has changed in the party since then”.
On being asked to elaborate on what had changed, the leader said, “In 2017, AAP represented different things to different people in Punjab – some positive, some negative. Then the volunteers from Delhi and other parts of India had their own interpretations. Then there were the NRIs who had their own take on things. This time everyone had a clear idea what AAP stood for and what it didn’t.”
What Lies Ahead?
The smooth coordination between Delhi and Punjab is one of the reasons behind AAP’s massive win in the election. But the coordination may become even more important and challenging now.
Sources in the party say that a pointsperson may continue to function as a link between the Punjab government and the central leadership.
However, it won’t be an easy task.
Fulfillment of AAP’s promises may be severaly constrained by the revenue deficit in the state.
Then there is the fact that Punjab is a far more complex state than Delhi and while a campaign can be run on the themes of electricity, schools and healthcare, governing the state may involve a different set of challenges.
It may often happen that the positions the electorate in Punjab may want AAP to take, may not be in line with its line in national politics. And sometimes what the AAP may say or do to expand nationally, may not go down well with its base in Punjab.