Will the Congress make a comeback in Punjab?

Source : SIFY
By : Meghna Sukumar
Last Updated: Tue, Jan 24, 2017 13:01 hrs

Many are calling the Punjab elections the second most exciting contest after Uttar Pradesh. Given strong performance of Aam Admi Party and Congress in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections despite the Modi wave, Punjab is sure to be a fascinating political story leading upto the polls, scheduled for 4th February. The ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) which has been in ally of the BJP for more than three decades, said that their government will continue to ensure development, communal harmony and peace. Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal listed out several welfare schemes as proof of the party’s commitment to socialist and secular values. The SAD – BJP alliance currently has 68 seats in the 117 member assembly and has been in power for a decade. According to Poornima Joshi of The Hindu Business Line, however, they are losing their popular support –

Kejriwal, who is spending considerable time in Punjab, has a lot riding in the State. Given his party’s performance in the 2014 elections, it is not surprising that AAP is focusing a lot of its organisational resources here. It won all its four Lok Sabha seats in Punjab and got a staggering 30.40 per cent of the popular vote at the peak of the “Modi wave” in the country. At the same time, the Congress too put up a surprising fight in Punjab during the Lok Sabha polls, securing 33.10 per cent of the popular vote. Its chief campaigner and former Chief Minister Amarinder Singh even defeated BJP heavyweight Arun Jaitley from Amritsar.

This has set the stage for a possible Congress resurgence. The party’s senior Punjab leader, Captain Amarinder Singh who was to originally contest only from Patiala, said that he would file his nomination papers in Lambi, against Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal. Singh was quoted as saying -

I want to fight the CM on his home turf to defeat top Akali leaders responsible for destroying the state through their drugs, mafia and goonda raj, and guilty of ruining its trade, industry and agriculture. It would free Punjab from the vicious and destructive rule of the Badals

Here is an interesting analysis of the battle between arch rivals Badal and Singh face off in Lambi, a constituency which has been an Akali stronghold. According to Vinay Sharma’s article The Economic Times, for both leaders, the election is likely to be the last one given their age. While Captain won from Amritsar in 2014, defeating Arun Jaitely by almost 1 lakh votes, Badal has served as Chief Minister five times since 1970.

The 89 year old grand man of Indian politics, Parkash Singh Badal, while taking a dig at Captain,says, "This is a smart ploy of Rahul Gandhi to get rid of the Captain Amarinder Singh by pushing him into Lambi as everyone knows Rahul doesn't like him.

We saw how Arvind Kejriwal smartly manoeuvred Bhagwant Mann and other major AAP leaders into Akali strong-holds. Rahul seems to have followed that pattern with Captain. Rahul has done to Captain what Captain used to do to his junior rivals in then party in the past."

This India Today article by Asit Jolly provides some insight into the Congress’s strategy in Punjab and interviews several ordinary people across the states who want a change.

The disappointment with the incumbent, it appears, has also led to significant support for the Amarinder Singh-led Congress, no doubt helped by the targeted, single-issue campaigns crafted by master poll strategist Prashant Kishor and a team of some 250 IPAC (Indian Political Action Committee) volunteers.

The Congress has launched a Har Ghar Captain or Captain in Every House campaign and has promised an unemployment allowance as well as jobs.

Another article in The Hindustan Times also pointed out that despite speculation, the Congress decided not to field former cricketer Navjyot Singh Sidhu against, Badal’s son, also deputy Chief Minister. Sidhu resigned from the BJP to join the Congress just before the elections, calling it a ghar wapsi.

Ludhiana MP Ravneet Bittu has agreed to take on the CM’s son and deputy, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) president Sukhbir Singh Badal, from Jalalabad. The Congress is, however, persuading Navjot Singh Sidhu to fight Sukhbir to further elevate its challenge. Though Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi was keen to field top guns against the ruling Badals, Amarinder had his reservations, mainly that it would confine him to one seat.

According to Archit Watts’ article in The Tribune, Congress cadre have been energised by the decision of Amarinder Singh to take on the Chief Minister. However, this move helped AAP position themselves as an alternative. AAP’s enigmatic leader Bhagwant Mann was quoted as saying –

Badal has told Amarinder to file nomination from Lambi, but don’t fight for the seat. Why Amarinder doesn’t contest from Jalalabad or Majitha, because he knows Badal is already losing his constituency to our Jarnail Singh. AAP nominee Jarnail Singh said: “It is a golden opportunity for me to defeat both Badal and Amarinder together.”

Mann will be fighting junior Badal in Jalalabad, which is another race worth watching. There have already been allegations and counter accusations traded between AAP and SAD, when a shoe was thrown at Badal during a meeting.

Jarnail Singh from the Aam Admi Party, who was infamous for throwing a shoe at Congress leader P.Chidambaram for his remark on the anti-sikh riots, is also their Chief Ministerial candidate. A former journalist, who joined AAP, was elected as MLA from Rajouri in Delhi, Singh resigned as MLA and registered as a voter in Lambi. In his interview to The Daily Pioneer, Singh appears confident that even though he is not from the state, people will vote for AAP as they want a change.

Congress have always fielded weakest candidate against Badal so far to ensure his victory. But with my candidature in the election, people have a strong reason to vote in AAP’s favour and against Badal this time.

AAP has formed an alliance with Lok Insaaf Party whose candidate in Phagwara will contest using AAP’s broom symbol. The other candidate will contest from Ludhiana central under the party symbol. LIP leader Balwinder Singh Bains towed the AAP line, and said that people will come out in large numbers against the current BJP-SAD government.

However, one view is that for AAP, victory will be an uphill task. Despite its wide presence in the state, AAP does not receive the sort of coverage in the media that the Congress gets. Moreover, the resignation of the Lt.Governor Najeeb Jung and possible action against AAP ministers on corruption charges may hurt them. There have also been allegations of links with Khalistani terrorists.

According to an article in The Financial Express, if that happens -

The argument will be: if the AAP is no different, why not try known devil Congress if the Akalis are indeed bad? By arresting AAP ministers, the Modi government will also attempt to cripple the movements outside Delhi of Kejriwal, who is a key — although not the party’s sole — vote catcher.Can Kejriwal himself be arrested — on some spurious charge?

The India Today Axis Poll gives the Congress 56-62 votes and only 18-22 to the ruling party. However, Ramesh Vinayak opines in The Hindustan Times that given the AAP’s entry into the traditionally Congress- Akali battleground, no decisive predictions are possible at this stage.

In today’s Punjab, there are no clear winners. Unless the breeze turns into a wind (‘hawa’) in the next three weeks, the state which has always voted decisively could well be heading for another historic first – a split mandate.

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