Until a few days ago, Punjab was emblematic of all that was seemingly going wrong for the Congress at the national pollscape: battle-shy senior leaders, desertions to the rivals’ fold and a creeping sense of defeat among party workers even before the fight had actually begun. But, on Friday, the Congress high command chose the border state to unfold its carefullycrafted strategy to dramatically reverse its electoral sweepstakes — at least in the perception game — for the summer slugfest.
By fielding Captain Amarinder Singh in Amritsar and Ambika Soni from Anandpur Sahib, the Congress has attempted a rear-guard action to convey that its top leaders were not wary of fighting the Lok Sabha elections. And, for throwing down the gauntlet at the BJP, the Congress couldn’t have chosen a more high-profile seat than Amritsar where the saffron party’s Arun Jaitley, widely seen as number two to prime minister-hopeful Narendra Modi, has made his electoral debut.
NO LONGER CAKEWALK FOR JAITLEY
The Captain’s unexpected nomination has for once electrified Punjab’s election scene. Also, it has fired up the Congress workers, put the party back in the reckoning for the 13 Lok Sabha seats and sent the Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP alliance scrambling to revise its poll strategy. Amritsar has suddenly been turned into a mega fight. It’s no longer a cakewalk as Jaitley was assured by the Akalis when they lobbied hard with the BJP leadership for his candidature from the holy city only to trump their bête noire and BJP’s three-time MP Navjot Singh Sidhu.
Congressmen call the Punjab gambit “an electoral masterstroke”. By most accounts, it was party vicepresident Rahul Gandhi who pushed for big guns taking the plunge. This move was seen as a potent counter to the BJP’s charge that the Congress stalwarts had no stomach to fight. It also helps in curbing the intra-party factional fights led by senior leaders out of the poll arena.
Factionalism was precisely the reason why both Punjab Congress chief Partap Singh Bajwa and Capt Amarinder Singh were reluctant to contest in the first place. Being a sitting MP from Gurdaspur, Bajwa had little option but to fall in line. The scion of the erstwhile Patiala royalty acquiesced only after Congress president Sonia Gandhi called him up and read the riot act.
The choice of Ambika Soni was also dictated by internal bad blood against the incumbent MP Ravneet Singh
Bittu, who Rahul Gandhi had handpicked in the 2009 elections.
But, all eyes will now be on Amritsar where Jaitley, an outsider, is majorly banking on the SAD who promised to return him to Parliament with the “highest-ever margin”. Such bluster, however, was before the Captain’s entry. Jaitley is fighting against history as Amritsar, with a 64% Sikh vote, has invariably swung in favour of Sikh candidates. And, 73-year-old Amarinder is a charismatic one. His high-profile actions such as his resignation as the Congress MP in protest against Operation Bluestar in 1984 and the termination of the inter-state river waters sharing agreements as chief minister in 2004 still resonate with the Sikhs.
MAKE OR BREAK BATTLE FOR CAPT
Yet, a shrewd Amarinder is unlikely to play the Sikh card openly. What he will certainly pitch for is the issue of Jat reservation that he has been championing aggressively. Since Punjab Jats missed the bus because the Badal Government failed to first introduce reservation in state jobs, this lent the Captain heavy artillery to attack the SAD and dent its bastion in the Sikh peasantry.
The unceremonious manner in which the Akalis edged out Sidhu, the BJP’s most prominent Sikh face because he had taken on chief minister Parkash Singh Badal and deputy CM Sukhbir Badal for alleged discrimination on development of his constituency, hasn’t gone down well in Amritsar. Not surprisingly, Amarinder has hit his campaign by going ballistic against the Akalis’ “highhandedness” and an “outsider Jaitley”. A gritty fighter, Amarinder knows that it’s going to be a make-or-break battle.
A victory will resurrect his political career, and a defeat would push him into the sunset.
Amarinder’s entry has clearly changed the Punjab poll script. It has upped the ante for the ruling Badals who will now be tied down to Amritsar and Bathinda, where Manpreet Singh Badal, the Congress-backed candidate and estranged nephew of the chief minister, is pitted against sitting MP Harsimrat Kaur Badal, the wife of Sukhbir. Even Jaitley may have to count more on Modi than the Akalis.