After an impressive electoral victory in Punjab, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is eager to climb the hills in Himachal Pradesh — a BJP bastion slated for assembly polls later this year — and contest from all 68 seats in the state. Party insiders say search is on for a chief ministerial face to break the five-year power circle between BJP and Congress, and give the people an alternative model of ‘clean and corruption free’ governance.
The process is underway, says Delhi University alumni Nitin Khandelwal, currently looking after the party (headquarters) for enrolment of new volunteers and constituencies’ in-charge in the state. Their number has already crossed 2.5 lakh and is expected to double within the next few weeks. “After party’s splendid victory in Punjab, we are flooded with calls from the youth, women, social activists, retired government officials, and professionals like lawyers, doctors, engineers, etc. Only, today we have activated two helplines, as the one already functional gets so many calls every day,” Khandelwal says.
Already on the party’s side is former Director General of Police (DGP) ID Bhandari from Bilaspur, actively working with the party for some months now after realising its potential to emerge as third alternative in Himachal’s bipolar politics. “I was never interested in politics. I had a very satisfying career as an IPS officer. But, after seeing how the current political system, governance, corruption and mafias have wrecked the state, I took a plunge. I was primarily influenced by AAP Chief Arvind Kejriwal’s deep understanding of issues faced by the common man. I have no doubts that AAP will form the next government. Our victory in Punjab is the icing on the cake,” feels Bhandari.
The party has not completely opened its doors to sitting politicians from BJP and Congress, but organisers are already trying to woo those who are being viewed as potential game changers. The party, still being run and manned by Delhi-based leaders, is also aware it could have a demoralising effect on Himachal’s local leadership. “Delhi model will never be size-fit in Himachal. It’s a hill state, and people here are highly educated, self-respecting and don’t want outsiders to dictate them,” an AAP leader observes. The party is making efforts to get a Rajput face from Kangra like Major (Rtd) Vijai Singh Mankotia, a former Congress minister who was sidelined by the party. BJP leader Ranbir Nikka from Nurpur (Kangra) is also inching closer to AAP. Another former Congress MLA from Shimla district is also in touch with the party.
Some party leaders admit that unless AAP gets a credible face — a leader having political grounding and understanding of state issues — the party will end up with zero seats like what happened in Uttarakhand. Even for the elections of four municipal corporations — Mandi, Solan, Palampur and Dharamshala, the party had drawn a blank. Former BJP minister and Kangra MP, Dr Rajan Sushant, was the first prominent face to join AAP in 2014 at the behest of CM Kejriwal, but quit the party when he found the affairs not to his liking and ended up floating his own political outfit. Currently, the party’s state unit head, lawyer Anup Kesri, is at the forefront holding rallies, party meetings and interactive sessions with youth, women and retired government employees, to bring them to the party fold. “We are geared up for contesting the Shimla Municipal Corporation poll, slated in May-June 2022. It will be a good parameter to measure our strength. Thereafter, we will prepare for the state assembly,” he says.
The party has started a mass contact drive in Shimla to mobilise support from citizens and promise them a better deal in all civic matters being handled by the municipal corporation if AAP forms the next body, and have its mayor and deputy mayor. Main issues being raised by the party in Himachal Pradesh include unemployment, inflation, corruption and denial of proper salaries to several sections of government employees, including daily wagers, water carriers, mid-day meal workers, Anganwadi activists and ASHA workers.
On the lines of Punjab, AAP has also promised free electricity for low income groups, a cut down in water bills and free health facilities .The party wants to restore the Old Pension Scheme (OPS), though insiders say a small state like Himachal Pradesh with no resource base and debt of Rs 63,000 crore, will only befool people with such promises. According to Bhandari, “I am getting frequent calls from retired IPS, IAS, HAS officers apart from some doctors showing interest to join the party. A few of them are already into social work, have NGOs or are into social welfare initiatives.” Retired engineer Subhash Chander, a key AAP leader, claims he is in touch with former and sitting BJP and Congress MLAs, and their leaders, for induction in AAP.
After AAP’s Punjab win, Kejriwal had rushed his Health Minister Satyendra Jain to Shimla to lead a victory procession, aimed to demonstrate the party’s intentions to contest state assembly polls. Rakesh Kumar Chaudhary, a BJP leader from Kangra, who had contested as rebel in 2019 assembly bypoll at Dharamshala, joined the party. Meanwhile, Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur has asserted that AAP has no stakes whatsoever in Himachal Pradesh. “Punjab and Delhi had different conditions. They can dream of contesting polls in Himachal Pradesh, but will not have a presence. The promises AAP has made in Punjab will never be fulfilled as Punjab has a huge debt. AAP will face realities of governance very soon,” he cautions, asserting that BJP will repeat its rule in Himachal Pradesh as happened in UP, Uttarakhand, Manipur and Goa.