AAP and its Punjab CM Bhagwant Mann must walk the talk on taking on corruption in state

Any move to take on hydra-headed menace of corruption is welcome, but can AAP’s Punjab leadership, bereft of experience in governing a state, really ensure a high level of probity in public life?

New Punjab Cabinet in its first meeting held on Saturday
New Punjab Cabinet in its first meeting held on Saturday

Rahul Gul

Following up on sensationalist moves like withdrawing security to opposition leaders even before assuming office and conducting the oath taking ceremony in a village that was farcically termed Shaheed-e-Azam Bhagat Singh’s ‘ancestral village’, the Aam Aadmi Party’s newly sworn-in CM in Punjab Bhagwant Mann declared his intention to launch a dedicated phone line for people to report instances of ‘corruption’ in the state.

Duly amplified and hyped by AAP-linked social media handles, Mann’s announcement insisted that it would be his ‘personal WhatsApp number’, promising to launch the ‘unprecedented scheme’ on March 23, the death anniversary of Bhagat Singh, around whom a whole narrative has literally been spun by the AAP ever since it sprung a surprise by gaining a majority in the Punjab Vidhan Sabha.

From all accounts, Mann is but a fan of the martyr. His oath taking ceremony, held pretentiously in Khatkar Kalan village which houses a museum and memorial dedicated to Bhagat Singh rather than being his birth place, which in reality is located in Lyallpur district in present-day Pakistan, was ostensibly a tribute to him.

Mann donned a ‘basanti’ (yellow) turban on the occasion, as did thousands of AAP supporters gathered to witness the event, including AAP’s Delhi-based leadership and their acolytes, who, for full measure, let out full-throated slogans of ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ at regular intervals during the event even though it was completely inappropriate to do so. Mann, on his part, recited poetic quotes penned by Bhagat Singh during a monologue he delivered after taking the oath as the 17th CM of Punjab.

Entire streets of the village were painted yellow for the occasion, and indeed, everything was centered around this theme, as if it was a kid’s birthday party rather than a constitutional event.

Later, a photograph of Mann perched on the CM’s chair while signing a document came into circulation, evidently clicked to flaunt colour portraits of Dr BR Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh – his head duly wrapped in a yellow turban – nailed to the wall right behind him. Such portraits, Mann had earlier declared, would adorn all state government offices.

And on Saturday, when the newly constituted council of ministers held its first meeting, all Sikh ministers were seen donning yellow turbans.

Taking the cue, Punjab State Medical and Dental Teachers Association went on to ask all its members to turn up wearing yellow dresses every Monday.

Except that, it turns out, only four genuine photographs of Bhagat Singh are in existence, all of which are in black and white. Pointing out the anomaly, historians were unanimous in their opinion that there was absolutely no evidence that the martyr ever wore a yellow turban.

What, pray, is going on? Why did the AAP need to resort to such an elaborate charade and propaganda? Why couldn’t its usual white Gandhi cap, displaying the ‘Mujhe chahiye poorn swaraj’ slogan, seen in action for so many years after Arvind Kejriwal founded the fledgling party, suffice? Was it a callow move to mimic PM Narendra Modi’s sartorial headgear choices, or caps of a certain colour used as ‘official’ symbols by some regional parties?

Nobody is saying that Bhagat Singh isn’t a national icon. He was a charismatic revolutionary who participated in the murder of a junior British police officer named John Saunders and an Indian head constable in mistaken retaliation for the death of Lala Lajpat Rai. He also took part in a largely symbolic bombing of the Central Legislative Assembly and a hunger strike in jail, which — on the back of sympathetic coverage in Indian-owned newspapers — turned him into a household name in Punjab region, and after his execution at age 23 into a martyr and folk hero in Northern India. Borrowing ideas from Bolshevism and anarchism, he electrified a growing militancy in India in the 1930s.

However, Bhagat Singh was an atheist and had communist leanings, which lends further credence to the fact that the bid to appropriate his legacy by AAP in general and Mann in particular is completely incongruent and done just to pay political lip service to that great son of the soil.

Incidentally, even the immediate family of Bhagat Singh went on record to air their displeasure with the showbiz surrounding Bhagat Singh and being treated shabbily in Khatkar Kalan. His nephew, Maj Gen Sheonan Singh (retd), a war hero who was awarded Vir Chakra for his role in IPKF operation in 1987, stated, “I went to attend Bhagwant Mann’s oath-taking ceremony. If the aim was to honour Shaheed Bhagat Singh for his sacrifices, it was not achieved. It was a big ‘tamasha’, lacking in seriousness”.

“The family members of the martyr came there as a duty. They were ignored by political bosses and the administration,” he added, lamenting that they were made to sit at a distant place from the podium and forgotten.

Meanwhile, it transpired that the people of Punjab already have access to a WhatsApp number to report bribery, run by the state Vigilance Bureau which is duly authorized to take cognizance of such acts and initiate necessary action. Floating a brand new ‘anti-corruption’ phone line, then, seems to be nothing short of a gimmick, taking a leaf from the playbook of party supremo Arvind Kejriwal, who famously invited the whole town to a stadium in 2015 to do just the same in Delhi. Nothing much came of it, eventually, for various reasons., however.

Numerous allegations of corruption against AAP leaders in Delhi have also come up over the years. In February 2016, a video surfaced in which an AAP minister’s staff was allegedly caught demanding Rs 30 lakh on his behalf. Later the same year, in September, a complaint was filed with Delhi Police against Sarita Singh, AAP MLA from Rohtash Nagar and president of Chhatra Yuva Sangharsh Samiti, AAP’s youth wing, for allegedly pocketing Rs 9 lakh in the name of providing government jobs.

In 2017, erstwhile AAP leader Kapil Mishra filed complaints with the CBI and Anti-Corruption Bureau alleging that he saw Kejriwal taking a bribe of Rs 2 crore from his colleague Satyendra Jain. He also alleged that the Delhi CM delayed a probe into the Rs 400 crore alleged tanker scam and that his relatives were striking shady land deals in Delhi.

In January 2020, the Anti-Corruption Branch of Delhi Police lodged an FIR against Amanatullah Khan, AAP MLA from Okhla and chairman of Delhi WAQF Board for alleged misuse of funds allocated by the government to the Board.

A report by election watch NGO, Association of Democratic Reform (ADR) report said in 2020 that out of 70 AAP candidates for 2020 Delhi Assembly polls, 36 had declared serious criminal cases against them in their affidavit to Election Commission (EC), i.e., 51 per cent of the candidates, belying Kejriwal’s public stand that the party would never entertain such candidates.

Earlier this year, in February, the CBI arrested Geeta Rawat, an AAP councillor from East Delhi on charges of corruption.

Quite clearly, then, AAP would do well to walk the talk in Punjab. Merely making sensationalist announcements without any substantial results on the ground would take it only so far. Any move or drive to take on the hydra-headed menace of corruption is not only welcome but essential. But it calls for such high levels of probity that Ceasar’s wife is above suspicion. Else, it would turn out to be a classic case of ‘who would guard the guardian’.

(Views are personal)

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Published: 19 Mar 2022, 4:30 PM