Under intense pressure to declare the Aam Aadmi Party’s chief ministerial face for the February 14 polls in Punjab, the state where it fancies its chances of forming a government and in the horns of a dilemma over a difficult choice, AAP convenor Arvind Kejriwal did what he does best — go to the people. With the stated frontrunner, AAP’s two-time MP from Sangrur and state unit president Bhagwant Mann on one side, and its Punjab incharge Raghav Chadha on the other, Kejriwal said, “I suggested let’s make Bhagwant Mann the chief ministerial face of Punjab. However, Mann said the chief ministerial face should not be decided within closed doors, let the people of Punjab decide.”
The Delhi chief minister then went on to release a phone number, ‘7074870748’, for the people of Punjab to reach out to and state their choice, underlining that this is the first time ever that a party is going to the public to decide on its chief ministerial face. The number would be open until January 17 and Kejriwal said the party will announce its CM pick based on the responses that it receives. He has already said that AAP’s chief ministerial face will be declared next week and it will be a Sikh from Punjab.
This unconventional way of deciding on the CM pick for Punjab, which unlike Delhi is a full state with numerous challenges, is not a straightforward attempt by the party to get endorsement for Bhagwant Mann, who, indeed, is the most recognisable face of the party after Arvind Kejriwal in the state and enjoys a direct connection with the masses especially in the Malwa region, which incidentally gave AAP 18 out of the 20 seats it had won in the 2017 assembly elections.
And unlike in Uttarakhand, where Delhi deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia had proposed the name of Colonel Ajay Kothiyal and asked people whether the latter would be acceptable or not, in Punjab, the AAP convenor did not directly proffer the name of Bhagwant Mann and instead left the floor wide open for three crore Punjabis to get back with their own choices.
When asked in the press conference what if the ‘referendum’ throws up a candidate who is not from the party, Kejriwal responded by saying that in that case, Bhagwant Mann himself would reach out to that person. Asked whether he himself was also in the race, Kejriwal ruled that out yet again, as he has done repeatedly in the past.
How are chief ministerial candidates usually decided by political parties? The central leadership foists a nominee and the elected MLAs choose the leader of the legislative party in the house. In this case, Kejriwal has apparently moved away from this norm.
Cut to 2013, when the newly formed AAP made a stunning debut in Delhi, winning 28 seats and running short of 8 to form the government, party chief Arvind Kejriwal did the unthinkable by launching a ‘referendum’ in the capital conducted by his own party to gauge the mood of residents on whether AAP should form the government by taking outside support of the Congress, which incidentally had eight seats.
The party was born out of the Jan Lokpal movement, which had relentlessly targeted the UPA 2 government with sharp attacks that included the top leadership of the Congress. Therefore, AAP joining hands with the Congress after its debut election was neither an automatic nor an easy choice for the party. The ‘referendum’ by the Aam Aadmi Party cleared the way for government formation in 2014 and paved the way for AAP in successive elections.
While Bhagwant Mann occupies the pride of place beside the AAP chief in the party’s recent outreach, the campaign itself in Punjab is led by none other than Arvind Kejriwal: it is ‘Kejriwal’s guarantee’, ‘Kejriwal vs the rest’, ‘Kejriwal model’. A recent video tweeted by the party’s handle, “The wait is finally over, the Kejriwal anthem for Punjab elections is finally here”, was dominated totally by images of the AAP convenor himself with Mann appearing only for a few seconds towards the latter half.
While elections are fought in the name of the tallest leader of the party, respectable space is also allowed for local leadership to emerge as a challenge to the local leaders in rival parties— in this case Charanjit Singh Channi, Navjot Singh Sidhu and Sunil Jakhar of the Congress, Prakash and Sukhbir Badal of the Akali Dal, and Captain Amarinder Singh of the Punjab Lok Congress. AAP, as of today, has not yet groomed Bhagwant Mann to occupy such a position.
The move to have a referendum for AAP’s chief ministerial face could make way for Bhagwant Mann. It also gives elbow room to party chief Arvind Kejriwal, who is known for taking high risks, for a final decision and breaks open possibilities for an unconventional choice.