For a few minutes on Thursday morning, the Ludhiana railway station became the epicenter of political action in Punjab. As Delhi Chief Minister and Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal deboarded from the train on platform 2, a group of party volunteers threw a cordon around him even before the police could do so.
Outside the station were members of the Punjab Mahila Congress, protesting against AAP's alleged anti-women activities. Holding black flags in their hands, they berated Kejriwal for the scandals his party has been caught in. Last week, AAP MLA Devinder Sherawat accused party leaders in Punjab of seeking sexual favours from women in return for election tickets. This came in the wake of Sandeep Kumar, a minister in Delhi, being arrested on rape charges on September 3 following the emergence of a sex tape. He was sacked from the party shortly after the tape came to light.
While the focus of AAP volunteers was on the Mahila Congress members at the railway station, the BJP made a surprise attack. As Kejriwal moved towards the exit, BJP men emerged from within the crowd, which was thought to be entirely made of AAP members. Holding up karas, the steel bracelet that is part of the five articles of faith that Sikh men must wear, the men accused Kejriwal of putting Punjab in the hands of outsiders. That AAP Punjab coordinator Sanjay Singh, who hails from Uttar Pradesh, was at the railway station did not help the situation.
The opposition has picked up both these incidents in a big way. As one of the protesters described it, the scandals were the Brahmastra – Brahma's mythical weapon – that could undermine AAP's appeal among the middle classes.
Addressing a press conference later, Kejriwal said he had faced similar criticism during the Delhi elections in 2015 and such mud-slinging does not affect him. "We won 67 of the 70 seats in Delhi," he said. "The more they throw false accusations against us, the stronger will be the people's reaction against them."
Addressing the scandal
However, the fact that Kejriwal chose to dedicate a substantial part of his six-minute press conference to the scandals rocking the party suggested he had taken its impact quite seriously. Going on the offensive, he said Punjab Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal had hired a company to "produce controversial videos" about AAP members. "I have information that the Shiromani Akali Dal has prepared 63 CDs that they will release over the next few weeks on PTC channel," he alleged. PTC is considered close to the Akalis. Kejriwal also vowed not to rest till Punjab Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal and Sukbhir Singh Badal are sent to jail.
The comment came minutes after the senior Badal criticised Kejriwal in Chandigarh for the "indecent and undemocratic" acts of AAP, which he alleged has taken politics in the Punjab to its lowest ebb.
The Delhi Chief Minister chose not to take any questions from reporters and moved back into the grand farmhouse, situated a few kilometres from the town in the village of Jhande, that he is set to stay in for the next three days. AAP officials said the farmhouse belonged to an education baron in Ludhiana. Students from the college worked as volunteers at the house on Thursday.
But even before the AAP volunteers could rejoice their leader turning the tables on the Badals, the party received another jolt as former BJP MP and cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu had a meeting in Chandigarh.
Launching his own political forum – the Awaz-e-Punjab – Sidhu said Kejriwal was an insecure man and that the Delhi Chief Minister wanted him to be a mere decorative piece in AAP in return for the promise of a ministerial berth for his wife Navjot Kaur Sidhu.
Awaz-e-Punjab, it was made clear by Sidhu, was not yet a political party. A decision on making it one would be taken in 15 days, he said, leaving the door open for reconciliation with either the BJP or AAP.
However, AAP leader Sanjay Singh said in Ludhiana that it was the former cricketer who had told Kejriwal that he would like to campaign for AAP and let his wife contest instead. It was AAP's policy not to award election tickets to more than one of a family.
"Even a child in Punjab knows that a fourth front would only help the Shiromani Akali Dal by splitting the votes," Sanjay Singh said. "If the front is formed despite such a realisation, the people of Punjab will certainly realise who the forces behind such a move are."
However, despite Sidhu's press meet, Singh said that AAP would not be averse to admitting the former cricketer into its fold since he was yet to launch his own party.
Adding to Kejriwal's woes on Thursday was the order of the Delhi High Court, which set aside the additional role of parliamentary secretaries that 21 AAP MLAs in Delhi had been given. The lawmakers could be disqualified if the Election Commission declares the appointments as illegal.
AAP officials said the party in Punjab was looking to expose "big corruption" in the Shiromani Akali Dal government and also expand its reach among farmers, considered the core base of the Badals. In tune with this strategy would be the launch of a farmers' manifesto at a grand rally on September 11. The Delhi Chief Minister said farmers would see their loans waived once AAP came to power in 2017.
On Thursday, Kejriwal began talks with the 32 party candidates announced so far on how to sharpen the party's campaign strategy. Officials said he was also trying to finalise the next list of candidates.
AAP looks flustered at the lack of a prominent Sikh face in its ranks after the exit of its former convenor Sucha Singh Chhotepur who is currently holding a state-wide tour to decide his course of action.
An AAP official, on condition of anonymity, said a strong Sikh leader would help gain some clout in the gurudwaras where the Shiromani Akali Dal currently holds sway. "The gurudwaras exercise great clout in the voting decisions of the community," he said. Though lacking in prominence, the party candidates list has an overwhelming majority of Sikhs. Of the 32 candidates announced, 30 are from the community. The Punjab Assembly has a total of 117 seats.
Kejriwal will head to the Golden Temple in Amritsar on Friday morning before returning to Ludhiana later in the day.