Less than a month after Aam Aadmi Party’s Bhagwant Mann took oath as the Chief Minister of Punjab after storming to power, riding on the ‘vote of angst’, a dangerous political plot is already afoot. From accusing the centre of billing the state of Punjab alone for the central forces to passing a resolution staking a claim on the Union Territory of Chandigarh, the search for Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP's new political battleground has begun.
The AAP government in Punjab will test the limit of the centre-state relationship going forward. Since his political emergence, Kejriwal has sought a personality contest with Narendra Modi, for it served a dual purpose. It projected him as a national leader, bigger than Mamata Banerjee or the likes of Akhilesh Yadav, and two, it gave his party the credibility of being a national opposition, capable of displacing the Congress. Today, with the electoral victory in Punjab, that pursuit of the purpose has tasted some success.
The personality contest began in Varanasi, where Kejriwal challenged Modi, in 2014, for the Lok Sabha seat. In hindsight, one can easily conclude that Kejriwal's challenge was not for the welfare or benefit of the Varanasi population but more suited to his political projection. This was followed by a similar stance during the intolerance debate, JNU protests and concluded with Kejriwal questioning if Pakistan orchestrated the Pulwama attack to aid Modi in the 2019 Lok Sabha contests. This was after he demanded evidence for the surgical strikes conducted by the Indian Military.
In the second tenure of the Modi government, Delhi became the battleground. First, during the Anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests that resulted in one of the worst riots in the city since 1984. This was followed by the dismal failure of the ‘Kejriwal model of governance’, an imaginary achievement much touted in the media circles.
In the first wave, the Home Ministry was requested to ensure the number of beds and other amenities. In the second wave, press briefings were held on oxygen cylinders and on how people of other states were crippling the healthcare system of Delhi.
When it came to the vaccine, the Delhi government first accused the centre of not letting the states procure the doses, and then when the gimmicks fell flat, Kejriwal sought the centre’s assistance in the procurement, along with several other regional parties and the Congress. The battleground then moved to the outskirts of Delhi, at Singhu, where Kejriwal courted the farmers from Punjab with several utilities after passing one of the three contested farm laws in the national capital.
Now, with the worst of the pandemic behind us, the CAA lost to public memory and political unwillingness, and the farm laws taken back by the government itself, the AAP is looking for a new battleground, this time in the capital city of Punjab and Haryana, the Union Territory of Chandigarh. Amongst much media noise and posturing, Mann, passed a resolution in the Punjab legislative assembly, staking claim on Chandigarh, and stating that it was perhaps time that the Union Territory was merged with the state of Punjab.
The resolution was inspired by the move of the Home Ministry of implementing the Central Civil Service Rules for all the employees of the Chandigarh Administration. But, for the AAP government in Punjab, this was an encroachment on Punjab’s rights, given the employees of the UT, so far, were covered under the Punjab Civil Service rules. However, the increase in pay scale and retirement age and other benefits had the employees within the Chandigarh administration, many hailing from Punjab, welcoming the decision.
For the AAP, it was not about how the Central Service Rules help or do not help the employees of the Chandigarh administration, but how it could be used to flame the political fire around an issue that is decades old. Mann is not the first leader to pass a resolution staking a claim on Chandigarh. It was done seven times earlier, in 1967, 1970, 1978, 1985, 1986, and 2014.
There is also the Anandpur Sahib Resolution that staked the state's claim on Chandigarh, and that is where Mann is finding his motivation, for constitutionally, he does not have much of a case for the following reasons.
One, contrary to the perception that the AAP may wish to float, Chandigarh, as a Union Territory, is an independent geographical entity, as per the Punjab Reorganisation Act of 1966. Thus, Chandigarh, geographically, is not a shared entity between Punjab and Haryana, but an independent city, and this is where Article 3 of the Indian Constitution becomes relevant.
Two, the Mann government may pass as many resolutions as they like, but constitutionally, they do not have a case. Even the Haryana government is planning to usher a resolution staking a claim on Chandigarh, as a political response to Mann’s gimmicks, and even they wouldn’t have much of a case. The onus lies with the centre and the centre alone, as it was visible during the revocation of Article 370. At best, the AAP can bet on media posturing and theatrics, but the final call lies with the centre.
It also must be noted that Chandigarh, as a city, has a distinct social, cultural, administrative, and economic identity. From utilities to the law and order, it supersedes both the states. If a Kejriwal-styled referendum were to be conducted in Chandigarh, not that it should but if it were, majority of the population of the city would choose to stick with the status-quo, that of the city being a UT.
For AAP, the resolution is also about making a case for the single Lok Sabha seat, for 2024. After losing out on the recent municipal elections, the last two Lok Sabha elections in Chandigarh, the party is desperate to make some inroads.
AAP’s entire political existence can be attributed to the perception they have paid for, heavily, within the media. Today, the party is using the same perception to drive a wedge between the Sikhs and Hindus using the issue of Chandigarh, to begin with. Already, unable to come up with ideas or governance models to sustain the finances of the debt-ridden state, the party has gone to the centre, in order to secure funds to sponsor its freebie politics, asking for as much as Rs 100,000 crore over the next two years.
The centre, rationally, would be well within its rights to downplay the resolution of the AAP government staking a claim on Chandigarh, or deny them the right to splurge on freebies as they did in the tax-rich state of Delhi, and to begin with, these two issues will be used by the AAP to drive a wedge between the Sikhs in Punjab and the centre, quite similar to what the party was doing at Singhu. Perceptions at play, again.
For the BJP, it is imperative to take urgent notice of the new political crisis that is brewing in Punjab, will be played out in Chandigarh, and will have enough firepower to warrant the attention of the diaspora abroad. Call it the preparation for Singhu 2.0 ahead of the 2024 elections.
AAP’s dangerous plot to divide the Hindus and Sikhs of Punjab is now afoot.
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