As part of Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s strategy, the party on Friday dramatically changed the electoral landscape of Punjab by fielding two of its stalwarts, Capt Amarinder Singh and Ambika Soni. While the former chief minister will take on BJP’s Arun Jaitley, who is fighting his debut Lok Sabha election from Amritsar, Soni replaced sitting MP Ravneet Bittu, who had already been declared as the party’s candidate from Anandpur Sahib. She will be pitted against the Shiromani Akali Dal’s Prem Singh Chandumajra.
In Ludhiana, sitting MP Manish Tewari is understood to have opted out of the contest on health grounds. Former Punjab finance minister Surinder Singla is tipped to be the Congress candidate in Tewari’s place.
A reluctant Amarinder, who was under immense pressure to contest from his party but had announced to do so only if Congress president Sonia Gandhi commanded him to enter the fray, on Friday agreed to take on Jaitley after a call from Sonia. “The Congress president called me up and asked me to contest. I told her that you are my party president and I will follow your orders,” 72-year-old Amarinder told Hindustan Times.
Earlier, the former Punjab Congress chief had again conveyed to Gandhi’s emissary and party general secretary Shakeel Ahmed his reasons for not contesting the Lok Sabha elections. Much of the former CM’s wariness to contest stemmed from his seeing it as a handiwork of Punjab Congress chief Partap Singh Bajwa, who Amarinder believed wanted to confine him to Amritsar and not canvass across the state.
Sonia is believed to have dispelled his impression by telling him that he is the tallest leader of the state and none other than him could take on Jaitley, widely seen as an alternative choice of the NDA for the PM’s post. The party also told him that his reluctance was sending a wrong signal among Congress workers and giving ammunition to the BJP and the Shiromani Akali Dal to attack the party.
UPBEAT ABOUT FIGHT
Amarinder, who would be contesting the parliamentary elections after almost 16 years -- his last was against Gurcharan Singh Tohra from Patiala which he lost -- sounded upbeat about fighting Jaitley. “I have been in politics for 47 years and held important positions in Punjab. I share a strong bond with the people of Amritsar and have good relations with local politicians. With the people’s support and God’s grace, we will win Amritsar,” he said.
In the case of Ambika Soni, she is learnt to have been keen to contest from Anandpur Sahib in the 2009 elections but could not get the ticket since the party had then decided not to field Rajya Sabha MPs. Some parts of her Hoshiarpur constituency now fallin Anandpur Sahib and Soni also enjoys considerable influence in the constituency and among party office-bearers and workers. Bittu’s name was announced in the first list of 194 candidates on March 8 and he was busy campaigning when the party decided to field Soni to beat the “anti-incumbency factor” against the sitting MP.
TEWARI ‘OPTS OUT’
After blowing hot and cold, union information and broadcasting minister Manish Tewari is learnt to have opted out of the contest for Ludhiana. News of Tewari’s frequent visits to hospital had earned the ire of the Congress high command which decided that he had done enough damage to his poll prospects by a repeated show of his reluctance.