The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) on Monday, 21 March, announced five nominees for the upcoming Rajya Sabha vacancies in Punjab. Given the AAP's strong majority in the Punjab Assembly, these five are almost certain to get elected to the upper house of Parliament. The five nominees are:
Cricketer Harbhajan Singh
AAP's Punjab in-charge and Delhi MLA Raghav Chadha
AAP strategist and former IIT academic Sandeep Pathak
Ashok Mittal, Chancellor of Lovely Professional University
Ludhiana-based industrialist and philanthropist Sanjeev Arora
Criticism of AAP's Choices
The nominations have sparked some criticism on social media on the following lines:
The fact that none of the five would-be Rajya Sabha members have a track record of raising issues related to Punjab
Two of them – Chadha and Pathak – are not even from Punjab
Women, Sikhs, Dalits, and OBCs (Other Backward Classes) have been left underrepresented by AAP pretty much the way it did in the Rajya Sabha seats from Delhi
A few people suggested that AAP could have considered eminent people with a track record of speaking out on issues concerning Punjab such as writer and poet Surjit Patar, human rights activist Paramjeet Kaur Khalra, and water conservation activist Balbir Singh Seechewal.
Journalist Gurshamshir Singh Warraich tweeted an older video of Bhagwant Mann in which he's saying that people who have made sacrifices for the sake of Punjab should be sent to the Rajya Sabha and in this context he specifically mentions Bibi Khalra.
All of the allegations have an element of truth, however, it is not that other parties aren't guilty of similar practices.
For instance, in 2020, the Congress sent KC Venugopal to the Rajya Sabha from Rajasthan even though he is from Kerala. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) sent two Malayalis – KJ Alphons and V Muraleedharan – to the Rajya Sabha from Rajasthan and Maharashtra respectively and Hardeep Puri, a Delhite to the Upper House from Uttar Pradesh. Parties like Congress, Shiromani Akali Dal, and BJP have also not given space to eminent Punjabis in their Rajya Sabha choices.
So in that sense AAP has proved to be no different
However, it is true that by and large parties in Punjab have avoided sending outsiders to the Rajya Sabha from the state. In the past, only Congress' Ashwani Kumar didn't have a very strong connection to Punjab. The party had also sent controversial leader Venod Sharma to the Rajya Sabha from Punjab. Though even he had a Punjab connection by virtue of being a former MLA from Banur.
Buoyed by a massive mandate, AAP seems to have deviated a bit from this by nominating two outsiders in the same term.
It is important to flag this deviation as Punjab is a state where identity, federalism, and inter-state disputes matter in politics. It remains to be seen how effectively non-Punjabis and apolitical nominees such as the five people chosen by AAP represent the state on such contentious matters.
6 Patterns Behind the Rajya Sabha Choices
1. Division of clout between Kejriwal and Mann: There may have been some kind of an understanding between AAP convenor Arvind Kejriwal and newly elected Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann. It appears that Mann called the shots on the Cabinet appointments while Kejriwal seems to have decided the Rajya Sabha names.
2. Loyalists rewarded: Both the 'outsiders' rewarded with Rajya Sabha seats – Raghav Chadha and Sandeep Pathak – have been loyal party functionaries and played a key role in AAP's Punjab campaign.
Chadha may continue to serve as a link between the Punjab government and AAP's Delhi leadership. As a Rajya Sabha MP from Punjab, Chadha will have a toehold in the state.
Pathak, who handled AAP's backroom, has now shifted focus to Gujarat as the party's Prabhari for the state, besides being the co-incharge for Punjab along with Delhi MLA Jarnail Singh.
In Delhi too, one of the Rajya Sabha seats was given to party loyalist Sanjay Singh.
3. Businessmen: In Delhi, AAP had sent businessman Sushil Gupta and chartered accountant ND Gupta to the Rajya Sabha. In Punjab, it has sent Ashok Kumar Mittal of the Jalandhar-based Lovely group and Ludhiana-based industrialist Sanjiv Arora. Arora is a director in Ritesh Properties and Industries, Ritesh Spinning Mills, and Ritesh Impex, among other companies. Like in the case of Delhi, the nomination of industrialists has given rise to the allegations that these are linked to AAP's funding.
4. Celebrity factor: Cricketer Harbhajan Singh is the only Sikh among AAP's Rajya Sabha nominees. He was being wooed by both Congress and BJP in the run-up to the elections but kept his distance from the parties and now has clearly thrown his lot with AAP. Many in Punjab are questioning his track record of speaking up for the state.
However, Harbhajan Singh is a nationally recognisable face for AAP and the party's reason for nominating him seems more to do with its national calculations than considerations in Punjab.
5. Diversity not a factor for AAP in Rajya Sabha: Out of the eight Rajya Sabha MPs chosen by AAP, seven are upper caste Hindu men, leaving out women, minorities and oppressed castes almost entirely.
The only exception is cricketer Harbhajan Singh, who is a Sikh and belongs to the Ramgarhia community that mostly comes under the OBC category.
The lack of diversity in the Rajya Sabha choices is in contrast to the cabinet in which 40 percent ministers are Dalits and the new finance minister Harpal Cheema is also a Dalit.
6. The big picture emerging out of the AAP's Rajya Sabha choices: Punjab is done and dusted, Mann's team is in place and has got down to work. Now the party's entire focus is its national expansion and some of its resources from Punjab, such as Rajya Sabha seats, will now be used to that end.
The non-selection of prominent voices who raise issues concerning Punjab or Sikhs also seems to indicate AAP's fear that this may harm its national expansion and make it appear less 'mainstream.'
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