Politics makes strange bed fellows. More so, in an election season when parties go scouting, or even shopping, for allies. But, Tuesday's formality of the Manpreet Singh Badal-led People's Party of Punjab and the Congress announcing their tie-up for the Lok Sabha election has hardly come as a surprise. This alliance, in fact, was long waiting to happen.
For both Manpreet and state Congress chief Partap Singh Bajwa, it's an alliance necessitated by convenience. By choosing to be the Congress-backed candidate from Bathinda, Punjab's most politically critical Lok Sabha seat, the breakaway scion of the Badal clan has rolled out a dice on a well-calculated gambit for his political survival. And, it suits the Congress to keep the Badal rebel politically alive.
Not that Manpreet was left with any option, especially after the Aam Aadmi Party cold-shouldered his overtures to cosy up with the new entity on the block. And, he has reasons to consider AAP's foray into Punjab as political threat because Arvind Kejriwal's outfit swears by the same lofty ideals - such as cleansing the corrupt politics - that Manpreet had based his politics on after his acrimonious exit from the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal in 2010.
Existential challenge of staying relevant
Pushed to the margins of state politics since the 2012 assembly elections in which Manpreet's audacious attempt to prop up a third force in Punjab's traditional bipolar politics came a cropper, his political fortunes have only turned wobblier by the day. His failure to shape up the political discourse in Punjab has only been matched by the withering of the 'Sanjha Morcha' - a rag tag combine of a defunct Akali faction, CPI and CPI (M) that Manpreet cobbled together with a much-trumpeted goal of "saving Punjab from both the Akali-BJP combine and the Congress."
Undercut relentlessly by poaching of his cadres by the ruling Akalis and growingly viewed as a hopelessly naïve idealist, Manpreet faced the most ironic existential challenge: staying politically relevant. And, the Morcha meltdown, triggered by his parleys with the Congress, only made him to bite the bullet and seek his future in the new alliance.
After his break-up with the Akalis, Manpreet had tried to pitch himself in the shades of Shaheed Bhagat Singh's ideology. In reality, however, he found himself competing for the same political space as that of the Congress, thanks to his secular, moderate and liberal moorings. Despite being a born-Akali, Manpreet was never cut from the Panthic cloth.
Bajwa's reasons for warming up
To his credit, Partap Singh Bajwa was the first to recognise this affinity and pitch a Congress-PPP alliance for the last Assembly polls. But, Capt Amarinder Singh, then at the helm of the state Congress, had peremptorily dismissed Manpreet as a "summer storm that would blow over". It was a miscalculation that the Congress would repent later. Though PPP drew a blank, it walked away with 6% vote share - an electoral feat that rocked the Congress boat and catapulted the SAD-BJP to its historic second coming.
And now, Bajwa has more reasons for warming up to Manpreet who may have lost political ground since 2012 but still has that surname - Badal. As a much-beleaguered head of the Punjab Congress rocked by dissidence and a spate of defections of leaders to the Akali fold, Bajwa can count the Rahul Gandhi-endorsed tie-up with PPP as a deft political move.
Not only has Bajwa taken the battle to the ruling Badal's hometurf, he also tried to consolidate the anti-Badal votebank elsewhere with an eye on the 2017 assembly polls. More significantly, a lifeline to Manpreet fits into Bajwa's scheme of things to checkmate his sworn rivals from Malwa, including Amarinder, Jagmeet Brar and Rajinder Kaur Bhattal.
Clearly, all eyes will now be on Bathinda. Whether the Congress cadres will rally behind Manpreet in the high-stake battle is still anybody's guess. But, his alliance can potentially reshape the Congress politics - and his future. Regardless of the Lok Sabha poll outcome, the rebel Badal may be only a step short of embracing the Congress for good.