On August 26, the Aam Aadmi Party removed Sucha Singh Chhotepur as Punjab convenor in the wake of a sting operation that suggested corruption in fund collection. His fall was as quick as his rise.
Handpicked by party chief Arvind Kejriwal to lead the AAP in Punjab in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, under him, the party won four of 13 seats when hardly anyone expected it to win even one. Through his oratory and experience in various social movements in the state, Chhotepur cemented his position as the AAP's tallest leader in Punjab.
Chhotepur – who sharpened his organisational skills in the campus politics of Gurdaspur Government College in the 1960s – shot to fame in 1986 when he quit the Surjit Singh Barnala government to protest Operation Black Thunder – a police operation that saw security forces storm the Golden Temple to fight militants holed up in the shrine. After successfully contesting the 2002 Assembly polls as an independent candidate, he joined the Congress in 2009, only to leave the party three years later.
With cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu snubbing the AAP and launching his own political forum, Awaz-e-Punjab, on September 8, Chhotepur has quietly begun laying the ground for a possible fourth front in the state – which goes to polls early next year.
In an interview to Scroll.in on Sunday, when the AAP was holding a massive farmers' rally in Moga, Chhotepur launched a frontal attack on Kejriwal. Calling him a trickster, he accused the Delhi chief minister of orchestrating the tape controversy and said the AAP leader had ambitions to become the chief minister of Punjab. Excerpts from the interview:
Last week, AAP’s Punjab coordinator Sanjay Singh said you were still a member of the party. Could you clarify?
I do not know why he said that. No man with any self-respect will continue in the party after such humiliation. I am currently touring the state to ask my followers what course I should take. The AAP has become a den of outsiders who are hell-bent on ruining Punjab.
You were given much prominence after the 2014 general elections. In fact, Kejriwal handpicked you to lead the party in Punjab. When did the relationship start to sour?
It is true I was given prominence. But that was because the AAP wanted a strong face to improve its fortunes. As its convenor, I went to every nook and corner of Punjab and worked tirelessly for 16 hours to 18 hours a day. I ensured the party had a presence in every ward.
But what I began to realise earlier this year was that Kejriwal had other ideas, which he hid behind a false face. After using me for two years, they decided to dump me. They thought I was of no use any more since the party was now well established in Punjab.
Kejriwal is a trickster, he is a Chanakya. His real idea is to take over as chief minister of Punjab. For this, he has to rid the party here of popular faces so that there is no challenge to his claim if the party wins. But this sort of conspiracy will not stop with me.
But the party has several Sikh faces such as HS Phoolka.
Even after my ouster, he [Kejriwal] has not made a Punjabi the chief ministerial candidate. Can you authoritatively point to one Punjabi in the party and say he is the leader?
Did you ask the party to make you the CM candidate?
Never. This is my greatest disappointment. If they felt I had become too big, the party could have asked me to step down. My aim was to remove the corrupt regime of the Badals [Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and Deputy CM Sukhbir Singh Badal], who have looted Punjab for nine years. I would have happily given way to another person. But they did not ask me to step down. Instead, they orchestrated this tape.
In the meantime, people like Sanjay Singh and Durgesh Pathak, who have no connection to Punjab, dominate the party here. In all, 60 people from outside descended on Punjab. They were put in charge of Lok Sabha constituencies and one man was placed for every three Assembly constituencies. So all those who make decisions and advise the national leadership are from outside Punjab. The strategy is this: Ensure the people of Punjab know that there are no leaders in the state and the real power is with Delhi.
You were removed on allegations of corruption. You have not denied taking cash…
Let me tell you what happened since I took over in 2014. For the longest time, I asked the party to open an account for the state unit. In the absence of a proper account, how do you expect donations to be made? It was only after I pestered the national leadership for a long time that they agreed to open the account. Even then, I kept an account of every penny we collected. The money came from the common people. We managed to collect Rs 22 lakhs and sent it for the Delhi elections in 2015.
But now, on the complaint of some district party official, a committee has been formed. They have refused to release the tapes. In the 40 years of my political career, no one has ever accused me of corruption, not even my adversaries in the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Congress. But in one stroke, some elements in the AAP, who wanted to get rid of me, have blemished my image.
The charge against you is that you took money to give MLA tickets…
That’s ridiculous. Do you think the party went by my suggestions in selecting candidates? That process is being handled by outsiders. Despite being Punjab convenor, I was not informed when the second list of candidates was announced in August. Have you ever heard of a party that does not consult its state leader before deciding on candidates?
When the situation is such, how can you accept this allegation? And to whom have they given tickets? Having claimed to be a party of honest people, they have accommodated people with dubious records. For weeks, I tried to get an appointment with Kejriwal to set these issues right. But I was never given time. Even my telephone calls went unanswered. And then, they did the sting operation. My supporters told me we cannot put up with such humiliation.
When they released a manifesto, without consulting me, with the broom [the AAP's election symbol] next to a picture of the Golden Temple, I was alarmed. I told Kejriwal I would be excommunicated if the party did not apologise immediately and take some action. His reply was ‘what is the big deal if you are not a Sikh?’. Even this I tolerated for the sake of Punjab.
Kejriwal will face the same fate Narendra Modi faced in Bihar. If you project outsiders as your most prominent face and sideline local leaders, people will reject you.
Is there any truth to the speculation that you may return to the Congress?
I would like to make it clear that I will never move to the Congress or the Shiromani Akali Dal. They have looted Punjab. My aim is to send them home.
Have you spoken to Navjot Singh Sidhu?
I am yet to talk to him. Like I said, I will decide on whether to form a new party after I finish my tour.
Both the AAP and Congress have said a fourth front would only facilitate the victory of the Shiromani Akali Dal by splitting opposition votes.
It is true that opposition to the Badals is divided. But I don’t think this will help the Badals since the anti-incumbency is too strong. The people of Punjab are ready to remove this government. In such a scenario, they will opt for Punjabis with a clean image. This rules out a Congress victory as well.
Does this mean you have decided to form a fourth front and join hands with Sidhu?
I do not want to commit to anything now. But I will not rule it out either.