Make me the chief ministerial face or I will continue to sulk in silence. This broadly reflects the mood of Aam Aadmi Party’s Punjab president and its sole Lok Sabha MP, Bhagwant Mann.
For almost a month now, Mann has not been seen at any party event or press conference in Punjab, even as the 2022 election campaign in the state heats up with the recent crisis in Congress that saw Charanjit Singh Channi replace Amarinder Singh as chief minister. As the AAP’s state chief, Mann is expected to lead the charge.
News18 has been trying to contact Mann for over a week on multiple phone numbers he uses but without luck. An aide declined an informal meeting with the leader too, saying he was in his constituency Sangrur. Upon reaching Sangrur on Thursday, News18 was told that Mann is in Chandigarh but is in no mood to meet anyone.
The Congress has seemingly dealt with its leadership issue by virtually projecting Navjot Singh Sidhu as its 2022 face, leaving AAP as the only party in the fray without a declared CM face. “If the Congress can make Channi the CM, why can’t AAP project Mann? He is the most popular leader of the party,” an aide at Mann’s office in Sangrur asked.
Some say Mann has been promised to deputy CM’s chair if the AAP wins. “But then Mann’s question is — deputy CM to whom? There is no answer,” an aide said.
In Sangrur, posters of Mann with Arvind Kejriwal promising free power dominate the streets. “There is an undercurrent in AAP’s favour in Punjab. People are sitting tight to vote for us. But Mann needs to be the face,” the aide added.
Missing in Action
Mann’s whereabouts are a mystery in the AAP party office in Chandigarh as well. He was last seen at Arvind Kejriwal’s press conference in Punjab on August 26, but has since skipped all party events. News18 learnt that Mann was in Sangrur till September 8 when hundreds of AAP volunteers from across the state came to meet him with the demand that he be declared as the CM face.
“Multiple names are doing the rounds — from Balbir Singh Rajewal to SPS Oberoi to General JJ Singh. It is confusing the cadre who feel a parachute candidate will be brought in, overlooking Mann,” an aide said.
Speculation has heightened in the last one month after Kejriwal said a Sikh CM face will be projected. Mann went for a parliamentary committee meeting in Goa from September 8-12 and then spent a few days in Delhi before returning to Sangrur. In the meantime, at least 5-6 AAP MLAs have gone public saying Mann should be projected as the CM face as he is AAP’s two-time MP from Sangrur and won both times despite a national Narendra Modi wave.
A source in the AAP leadership in Delhi, however, contended that Kejriwal is not in favour of Mann.
Scene at Mann’s Office
At his Sangrur office, Mann’s aides are holding fort as a stream of people keep coming in asking for medical help or infrastructure projects in Sangrur. An aide said Mann may go to Shaheed Bhagat Singh’s village in Punjab on the martyr’s birth anniversary on September 28 and has plans to distribute 117 motorised tricycles to the disabled from the first week of October in Sangrur. His aides also show how Mann has pushed cases of people in medical need to get funds from the PM National Relief Fund.
But Mann himself continues to be silent, breaking the same only to send out a customary tweet congratulating Channi on becoming CM. Word in Sangrur is that the party lost out in the 2017 assembly elections in Punjab as it did not project any Sikh CM face despite having Mann.
The party has said it will declare one this time, but will it be Bhagwant Mann? The odds are stacked against him.