In scripting a stellar victory in Punjab, the Congress learnt a few tricks from the rival Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Taking a cue from the Delhi elections, when the AAP created a buzz in the crucial final days before campaigning came to an end, the Congress campaign peaked in the last three days, when every party candidate was told to hold road shows with pomp and party flags. The Congress was everywhere.
Unfortunately the AAP, which too had planned a high-optic campaign in the last 72 hours before the February 4 polls, ended up making headlines for all the wrong reasons — from stay of party chief Arvind Kejriwal at an ex-Khalistani commando’s house and Congress and SAD-BJP propaganda against it for the Maur blasts. The two episodes were enough to send urban voters, both moderate Sikhs and the Hindus, to the Congress fold.
In fact, all the milestones in the Congress campaign came much after the AAP’s. There was a perceptible AAP wave since January last year during the Maghi Mela rally to May, when Punjab Congress chief Captain Amarinder Singh got bad press for his US outing and Congress bit the dust in elections in five states on May 19. By this time, AAP’s dedicated army of volunteers had already gone door-to-door to enlist families under the “Parivar Jodo” campaign and the party had launched the “Punjab Dialogue” for framing its manifesto.
Around this time, the “Coffee with Captain” campaign of Congress poll strategist Prashant Kishor was at best trying to create a buzz. Then came “Halke Vich Captain”, which too could cover just a third of state’s constituencies.
If the Congress was waiting for a miracle, it came in form of cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu who resigned as the BJP MP from Rajya Sabha. The AAP missed the match point and Sidhu floated his own front. The AAP was not willing to relent nor was Sidhu. Kishor went uninvited to Sidhu’s Delhi residence and later got Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi and his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra in to woo him. The former batsman kept the suspense on but the Congress did not let him go to AAP either.
In August, came the “sting” in the tale. Former state convener of the AAP Sucha Singh Chhotepur was ousted unceremoniously. He may have failed to open his new party’s account in state elections, but caused AAP the biggest damage in the perception game. Chhotepur’s ouster after the sting operation made Punjabis feel that AAP mistrusts them. It was either Delhi leaders or NRIs for the party.
Kishor’s populist pitch
Then came the populist rush in Kishor’s campaign. The “Karza-kurki khatam” campaign of the Congress promised farmers a debt waiver. The AAP followed and so did the Akalis. But the Congress promise sounded more credible as the 600-odd ticket hopefuls of the Congress were made to vie with each other to give away the kits to families personally with Amarinder’s signed promise. The kits reached 30-lakh families. That was just the beginning. He then promised 50 lakh smart phones to youth with free data for which 30 lakh registered. Then came the “Har ghar Captain” campaign that promised “one job, per family”. As multiple ticket aspirants competed with each other, the job kits too flew off the shelves like hot cakes to another 35 lakh families, never mind if they were the same ones.
AAP missed Sidhu bus
By this time, the AAP had missed the Sidhu bus and caught that of Bains’ Brothers instead. Left with no choice, Sidhu’s wife and former Olympian Pargat Singh went the Congress way. By this time, the poll narrative had changed, but it was not precisely advantage Congress. But the party fettered away the gains by delaying ticket distribution, controversies that followed and a big list of rebels. But Sidhu added the much-needed punch when he joined the Congress in mid-January, and symbolically the party was back in the game. Rivals AAP and SAD, who had already betrayed their nervousness at Sidhu’s entry, were further jolted when Amarinder agreed to take on CM Parkash Singh Badal and Ravneet Singh Bittu took on Sukhbir.
Rahul’s key role in tickets
Though Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi is getting all the flak for party’s debacle in Uttar Pradesh polls, party insiders feel he deserves credit for getting the ticket distribution right in Punjab. A closer look at the seats that Congress won and lost proves it. Most of Captain’s picks failed to add to the party’s winning tally. All the Akali turncoats Amarinder had rooted for lost. Deepinder Dhillon lost Dera Bassi, Harry Mann in Sanaur, Bhai Kuku in Kotkapura, Rajwinder Kaur Bhagike in Nihalsinghwala and Kamaljit Singh Karwal from Atam Nagar against younger Bains brother, Simarjeet Singh.
The seats in which Amarinder was able to have his way despite infighting too have not added to the party’s stellar tally of 77 out of 117. Punjabi singer Satwinder Kaur Bitti lost from Sahenwal, Daman Bajwa from Sunam, Manoj Bala, wife of former minister Mangat Rai Bansal, from Mansa, Luv Kumar Goldy from Garhshanker or Brinder Dhillon from Rupnagar.
In contrast, those Amarinder did not want to field came trumps. Captain wanted his confidant Surinder Singla from Bathinda urban but Rahul’s choice Manpreet Badal won. He wanted former minister Manish Tewari from Ludhiana East but the choice of Ludhiana MP Ravneet Bittu’s team, Sanjay Talwar, won. To sum it all, AAP made mistakes. What Congress did was read them and make the most of it.