The Aam Aadmi Party, considered a strong contender in the Punjab assembly elections due in 2017, finds itself in a bind after the leak of a taped conversation between two party MPs. Should it take disciplinary action against rebellious MPs, whatever the cost, or should it allow dissent to fester to keep alive its hope of winning the state?

A big victory in the Punjab assembly has been on AAP’s wish list ever since the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, when it stunningly clinched four seats in the state despite a strong Modi wave and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s alliance with the Shiromani Akali Dal. After Delhi, the party feels, the next major conquest could be Punjab. Not only has it drafted a strategy to wrest power here, it has also been actively mobilising workers, getting a response that could be the envy of the ruling coalition as well as the Congress. Its confidence also stems from the fact that its candidates trailed closely at second place in over half of the 117 assembly segments in the state in the Lok Sabha polls.

That poise has, however, been slipping over the last few months, as the party hurtles from one crisis to another. The latest in the series of setbacks is the leaked phone conversation between Bhagwant Mann, the party’s leader in Parliament, and Dr Dharamvira Gandhi, a rebel MP. Just last month, Gandhi and another party MP, Harinder Singh Khalsa, were suspended for “anti-party activities”.

Ill portent in Punjab

The 10-minutes audio clip dates back to the time when party chief Arvind Kejriwal had led his party to a spectacular victory in Delhi last year. In it, Mann accuses the party’s central leadership of trying to “impose” leaders on the Punjab unit. While he makes no mention of Kejriwal, he asserts that the party’s four MPs won not only because of “jhadu” (the party symbol) but also because they were well known in their own right. In the clip, Mann, a popular comic and artist, is also heard criticising the state party convenor Sucha Singh Chottepur and senior party leader and senior advocate HS Phoolka for their “manipulations”.

The recording, which went viral on social media, has caused turmoil in AAP’s Punjab unit. It hasn’t been disowned by either Mann or Gandhi. Mann has made the excuse that it was a regular conversation between two colleagues and that he never criticised Kejriwal. On his part, Gandhi has said it “exposed the true feelings” of Mann towards the party leadership, while denying the charge that he leaked it. “It could have been the handiwork of intelligence agencies or a rival party,” he said.

Coming on the heels of the suspension of two AAP MPs for “anti-party activities”, the leak doesn’t augur well for the party that has been in the news more for infighting than for any social work. Its short history is already dotted with action against top state unit leaders, including the Punjab Disciplinary Committee chief Dr Daljit Singh, a well-regarded ophthalmologist and philanthropist.

Slipping in urban areas

The party is on the horns of a dilemma on what final action to take against the two MPs placed under suspension. Unlike in the case of other rebel leaders who were summarily expelled, it cannot afford to take such drastic action against the two parliamentarians. For one thing, even if it does expel them, they shall continue in the Lok Sabha as independent MPs under the anti-defection laws and criticise AAP as before. As it is, they have made it abundantly clear that they shall not relent on “exposing” the party leadership. But on the other hand, given the past attitude of Kejriwal, he is unlikely to relent to any pressure from within the party.

In the meantime, Yogendra Yadav, who has formed Swaraj Abhiyan and is active in Punjab, has reached out to Gandhi and Khalsa. He said at a press conference on Sunday that the two suspended MPs should lead the state towards "alternative politics" in the next Assembly elections. He also met Gandhi and discussed the situation with him. Gandhi reportedly told him that he would consider the offer only after AAP expels him.

As its dirty linen gets washed in public, the AAP may lose its edge in Punjab’s urban areas. However, it continues to garner support in the rural areas and this remains a serious concern for the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance as well as the Congress, which is seeking to reverse its fortunes with the 2017 Punjab elections.