The “official” agenda was to strengthen the Congress in Punjab. But between the two meetings that Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi had on Monday with the state MLAs, the murmurs for change in leadership turned to a chorus, leaving the MLA wife of embattled Punjab Congress chief Partap Singh Bajwa fighting in his defence.
While the first batch comprised all 10 Dalit MLAs of the Congress, the second batch of 10 MLAs was packed by hardcore loyalists of Bajwa’s bete noire Capt Amarinder Singh, the deputy leader of the Congress in Lok Sabha. Talking to each for five to 10 minutes, Rahul asked them their views on how to bolster the party’s poll prospects in wake of an aggressive agenda of the BJP.
Hailing from Bajwa’s home turf of Gurdaspur, MLAs Tripat Bajwa and Sukhjinder Randhawa led the onslaught and told Rahul that Bajwa had spent almost his entire MPLAD funds on his wife’s constituency, Qadian, asking his wife to refute the charge if not true. Other Amarinder loyalists from Majha and Doaba areas -- Rana Gurjit, Sukh Sarkaria and OP Soni -- also accused Bajwa of working against the interests of the party and following a “divisive” agenda. These legislators told Rahul that the Congress’ revival in Punjab largely hinged on handing over the reins of the party to Amarinder as the current dispensation was not in a position to win the 2017 assembly polls.
Caught in an unenviable situation, Charanjit rose to Bajwa’s defence, asking the MLAs as to who was responsible for the party’s successive drubbing in the 2007 and 2012 assembly elections.
Other MLAs present in the second group, such as Sangat Singh Gilzian and Navtej Cheema, though did not speak against Bajwa, they did not speak in his favour either.
Sources said Rahul listened patiently to legislators and asked them to talk about issues rather than individuals.
One of the MLAs, on condition of anonymity, said, “Rahul told MLAs that the Congress would lose a third election in Punjab in case we did not unite. He even remarked that earlier MLAs wanted to change Amarinder and now they wanted Bajwa to go, so who could run the Punjab Congress? He heard out our views and some MLAs spoke openly against Bajwa while a few said the ongoing leadership tussle should be resolved to save the party. He did not give any assurance but was open to our feedback on the issue. He asked us to raise issues concerning people to take on the SAD-BJP government, which is facing a strong anti-incumbency wave.”
The remaining 23 MLAs, including Congress Legislature Party leader Sunil Jakhar and other MLAs from Malwa, will meet the Congress vice-president on Tuesday. These include those who have so far maintained a neutral stand on the Captain-Bajwa feud, such as Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, Lal Singh, Bharat Bhushan Ashu, Rakesh Pandey, Surinder Dawar, Kuljit Nagra, newly-appointed Indian Youth Congress chief Amrinder Singh Raja Warring besides those hailing from Amarinder’s home district of Patiala -- Randeep Nabha and Brahm Mohindra -- who are openly opposed to him.
Interestingly, while Bajwa faced revolt from his own turf, Majha, it would be a test of Amarinder’s popularity in Malwa when MLAs from the area meet Rahul on Tuesday. This time, his wife Preneet will be a part of the batch, some of whom are not favourably inclined to Amarinder.
Congress sources said the aim of the meetings was to avert the escalating war between Bajwa and Amarinder from going out of hand, by showing that the party high command was alive to the situation and wanted to give the MLAs a hearing.
They said Rahul was not against Amarinder holding a show of strength against BJP president Amit Shah in Amritsar as the rally was “successful” in showing the clout of both Congress and the Captain, but the leadership would not buckle under pressure of Amarinder as of now, but try to find a suitable alternative to both the warring leaders.
Factionalism taking toll
The intense factionalism is taking a heavy toll on the party at a time when it has got the ammunition in the form of the drug issue to attack the ruling Akali Dal. The issue has even brought the two-decade-old allies – Akali Dal and the BJP – face to face with political analysts predicting that they could part ways before the 2017 assembly elections.