It is raining bypoll misery on the embattled Punjab Congress. After losing the second state election in a row in 2012, the party has been facing a byelection each year since 2013, as three legislators have deserted it. The Punjab and Haryana High Court order on Tuesday, of setting aside the election of Bhadaur MLA Mohammad Sadique, has inflicted yet another blow.
The timing of the injury could not have been worse, as it came when the Congress had to source a candidate from the Sanjha Morcha for the April 11 byelection in Dhuri, and is putting up a divided show. Punjab Congress president Partap Singh Bajwa and the deputy leader of the party in the Lok Sabha, former chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh, are running parallel campaigns for Barnala family scion Simar Pratap Singh.
While the odds are stacking up for the Congress, the verdict has brought unexpected windfall for the ruling Akalis, who are leaving nothing to chance for clinching Dhuri. Just one seat short of own majority in the Punjab assembly, they’ll welcome a repoll in Bhadaur as good news as they battle an increasingly assertive ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The Bhadaur seat falls in the Akali kitty under the seat-sharing arrangement between the allies. In the 2012 elections, the SAD had fielded chief minister Parkash Singh Badal's former principal secretary DS Guru, who had challenged Sadique’s election in the high court.
With the disqualification of Sadique, the Congress tally in the assembly has gone down from 46 to 42. The party also has the
support of an independent, Mukerian MLA Rajnish Babbi. Of the three bypolls held in the state since the 2012 elections, the SAD has won two. In both cases, Congress deserters came back to the assembly as “true-blue” Akalis. The only saving grace for the Congress was retaining the Patiala seat, which went to Amarinder's wife, Preneet Kaur, after the former was elected to the Lok Sabha in 2014.
The unceremonious exit of Sadique, who is part of Amarinder’s every show of strength, also takes the count of MLAs in Captain's team down by one. The other two MLAs from the district, Kewal Dhillon (Barnala) and Harchand Kaur (Mehal Kalan), are also Amarinder loyalists. Arvind Khanna, who resigned from Dhuri after quitting politics, also was an Amarinder loyalist, as was Jeet Mohinder Sidhu, who left the Congress to re-contest and win Talwandi Sabo in a bypoll last year after falling out with the leader over differences with Khanna.
In 2012, the Congress had won all three Barnala district seats, including Bhadaur, but a lot has changed for the party nationally and in the state since. Facing a string of desertions, bypoll defeats and infighting between Bajwa and Amarinder, the Congress has failed to lift the morale of its cadres after the party's worst show in last year's Lok Sabha elections and a total wipeout in the Delhi polls. Also, winning a bypoll is never easy for any opposition party, as it has to brace itself against the government's muscle. It doesn’t help either that in the case of the Punjab Congress, the opposition is as much within the party as outside.
An eminent Punjabi folk singer, Mohammad Sadique had remained an “unsung” politician in three years as Congress MLA from Bhadaur. As a candidate, he pulled big crowds to his campaign rallies, where he sang about the “atrocities” of the Akali regime. The Congress strategy of fielding a humble Sadique against powerful former bureaucrat and Badal loyalist Darbara Singh Guru was a hit. However, Sadique's only claim to fame as a Congress MLA was when he crooned in the Punjab assembly on the request of chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, something that did not go down well with his party.
Four bypolls since 2012, Cong tally down to 42
February 2013, Moga: MLA Joginderpal Jain quit the Congress, re-contested, and won as SAD nominee
August 2014, Patiala and Talwandi Sabo: Former chief minister Capt Amarinder Singh was elected to the Lok Sabha; his wife Preneet Kaur won the Patiala assembly seat; Jeet Mohinder Sidhu deserted Congress and won Talwandi Sabo on SAD ticket
2015, Dhuri: Congress MLA Arvind Khanna resigned after announcing to quit politics; byelection on April 11