Resurrected after defeating BJP stalwart Arun Jaitley in Amritsar, the ‘maharaja’ is back to commanding the army of Congress MLAs and district presidents, both past and present. The prestige of the erstwhile royals at stake, former Punjab chief minister and deputy leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha, Captain Amarinder Singh led a formidable army of Congressmen to outwit the might of the ruling Akalis in the Patiala byelection, contested by wife and former MP Preneet Kaur.
With all the ‘king’s’ men on one side, state party chief Partap Singh Bajwa waged a lonely battle at Talwandi Sabo, the pocket borough of the ruling Badals. Not that Bajwa has much of a sway in the family seat of the Patiala royals, but the state party president says he was not extended the courtesy of even an invite.
“I had volunteered to come to Patiala. I had openly said so in my statements. But you can’t go when no programme is chalked out for you or there is no invitation. But the Congress cadre was not divided and did a commendable job. We did not buckle under the Akalis’ pressure and stayed put at every booth in Talwandi Sabo, where they offered cash for votes and intimated sarpanches and voters supporting the Congress,” Bajwa told HT.
But Amarinder’s campaign managers say no invitations needed to be sent. “No one was sent an invite. Whosoever offered their services was welcomed. Those MLAs who wanted to go to both places did so. As for Amarinder, Patiala is his own seat and it is his family duty to stay put. Even the Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee did not write or call up to invite anyone to Talwandi Sabo, including Amarinder,” says MLA Tripat Rajinder Singh Bajwa, an Amarinder loyalist, who is managing the campaign at Patiala.
Denying reports that duties were assigned to most party leaders for Patiala before the PPCC president could divide duties between the two bypoll seats, Tripat Bajwa said he was the in-charge for the Patiala campaign and nobody was given any duty. “Most MLAs and other leaders had themselves volunteered to campaign in Patiala. Neither was anyone stopped from going to Talwandi Sabo,” he said.
Another Amarinder confidant accuses Bajwa of having spurned Amarinder’s offer for truce before the parliamentary elections. “Resorting to dinner diplomacy, former Ludhiana MP Manish Tewari had invited Amarinder and Bajwa to dinner to chalk out a plan for the Lok Sabha elections. Leaders representing all Congress factions turned up for the dinner, except Bajwa. As for Bajwa not being invited, Amarinder is the face of the Congress in Patiala and people just want to see him,” a Congress leader said on the condition of anonymity.
As differences within the Congress camps brew, Bajwa’s loyalists are accusing Amarinder of tacitly helping the Badals and Talwandi Sabo candidate Jeet Mohinder Singh Sidhu, once a blue-eyed boy of Amarinder, who had switched loyalty to the Badals after falling out with him. Not too long back, Sidhu was Amarinder’s Man Friday for practically all purposes from being his chauffeur to having access to his ‘close friends’.
Between the two, the stakes in the bypolls are higher for Amarinder than Bajwa. The Aam Aadmi Party has gained a foothold in the “safe seat for royalty” and the Shiromani Akali Dal, too, has put up a creditable fight in Patiala by fielding a Hindu face famed to be a cash-rich ‘social worker’.
The triangular contest forced Amarinder, who as a candidate had visited Patiala just for filing his nomination papers and addressing a public rally, to slug it out, and stay put in the city for two weeks for campaigning.