Will Punjab raise a toast for AAP’s Bhagwant Mann before polls?
From the AAP’s standpoint, the two-time MP passed the all-important loyalty test with distinction. He did not jump ship and got re-elected in 2019 while its other three MPs turned rebellious after 2014
Arvind Kejriwal has resorted to the virtual to get real on the oft-raised question of his Aam Aadmi Party’s chief ministerial face for Punjab. The move requires political decoding as unlike in the Congress, there’s just one serious contender for the top job in his party.
As in 2017, when the fledgling AAP got deluded by its own loud propaganda and lost the race, the aspirant is the same in 2022: Bhagwant Mann, the MP from Sangrur in the state’s electorally decisive Malwa belt. Well liked and an engaging public orator, Mann has also made his mark as a parliamentarian. He deftly uses his comical skills for serious messaging and pummelling, when required, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and other political rivals, notably the Congress, in the Lok Sabha.
From the AAP’s standpoint, the two-time MP passed the all-important loyalty test with distinction. He did not jump ship and got re-elected in 2019 while its other three MPs turned rebellious after 2014.
The traits should’ve made him a natural choice for the coveted role in the party which emerged as Punjab’s principal Opposition at the expense of the 100-year-old Shiromani Akali Dal in the previous polls. Why hasn’t that happened? What’s the need for a telephonic survey to select the CM face when no such outreach was made before naming 100-odd candidates for the 117-member new assembly?
The mystery only gets deeper when one considers Mann’s connect with the party cadres in Punjab. He wasn’t present at Kejriwal’s Tiranga rally in Jalandhar before the formal announcement of the polls. But the party-partisan, regionally eclectic crowd there rooted for Mann in no uncertain terms.
His attention drawn to the comic-politician’s popularity with party workers, a senior leader at that time branded it as “choreographed” lobbying. On the AAP’s radar at that time was the venerated Bharatiya Kisan Union leader Balbir Singh Rajewal who has since floated his own political outfit --- Sanyukt Samaj Morcha (SSM) --- to contest the polls. He’s in negotiations currently with another farm leader, Gurnam Singh Chaduni’s Sanyukt Sangharsh Party (SSP). Together or individually, the fledgling parties are likely to hurt the peasant base of the Akali Dal and AAP.
These parties were hopeful of a big chunk of the influential Jat Sikh constituency going to them on a rebound to neutralise the Congress’s Dalit pitch after Charanjit Singh Channi’s elevation as the chief minister. The latter’s already facing an intra-party pushback from Navjot Sidhu, an ambitious Jat Sikh who’s the party’s state unit president.
But the Congress’s is an altogether different story reflective of an in-house power stampede that could kill or sizably hurt its electoral prospects. The AAP has no such embarrassment of unbridled ambitions, with Mann its sole “son of the soil” contender. At his January 13 media interaction in Chandigarh, Kejriwal accepted it as much while clarifying that the survey was Mann’s idea to gauge popular opinion.
Yet, the AAP’s CM-face narrative isn’t as simple as it seems. The Sangrur MP has to his not-too-distant past a downside that could have exposed his “direct candidature” to ruthless public scrutiny. There was evidence to the contrary after he first claimed to have given up alcohol and turned sober (on his mother’s advice) at a public meeting also attended by Kejriwal in Punjab’s Barnala in January 2019.
The jury, therefore, is out still on his assertions of having gotten over the dipsomania that made him the butt of as many jokes as he cracked on others, especially his political rivals. That makes the telephonic/online survey to have him endorsed as the CM candidate, a dose of tactics wrapped in ethics. It’s more so because there isn’t any other name on offer in the poll except Mann’s. The strategy is ingenious in the sense that it’ll help project him as the people’s choice as against one foisted by the party.
When people raise the toast, it isn’t a waggish shot at power.