The saffron surge in neighbouring Haryana is making not only the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) anxious in Punjab but also the opposition Congress. Though state Congress president Partap Singh Bajwa has described the fraying ties of the alliance partners as a “strategy to befool the people of Punjab”, both he and his bete noire Captain Amarinder Singh, deputy leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha, are learnt to be wary of the BJP’s possible onslaught in the 2017 polls — either by demanding more seats from the SAD or even breaking ties, if things come to that.
The recent visit of Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi to Punjab was Bajwa’s way to checkmate his detractors’ attempt to seek an audience with party president Sonia Gandhi through a signature campaign to demand an “overhaul” of the state Congress. Many of the Congress MLAs who signed during the campaign are now deserting the “Captain-Bajwa war” owing to not just Rahul’s show of solidarity for Bajwa but also the possibility of the BJP going for the kill in Punjab.
While the Amarinder camp claimed that 32-odd MLAs had signed on the “oust-Bajwa” resolution, many seem to have now gone neutral, claiming that they never signed or at best demanded an end to the infighting to save the party. “Rahul’s visit was a clear pat on Bajwa’s back. The high command is in no mood to rehabilitate Amarinder as of now. So while a majority of the MLAs want Bajwa to go, the resolution was not sent to the high command and the move has fizzled out,” a senior Congress MLA said, requesting anonymity.
Unlike its top brass, which is dismissive of the BJP, the younger MLAs in the Congress accept that the 2017 assembly polls could pose a fresh challenge for the Congress and it cannot risk fighting its own wars.
“The BJP may position itself as an alternative to the SAD in Punjab. It may even project a Jat Sikh such as Navjot Singh Sidhu as its main leader who can match Amarinder’s popularity in Badal-bashing. Many Congress MLAs in private say they do not want Amarinder or Bajwa as their leader as they are fed up with the factionalism and their non-inclusive style of functioning,” a two-time Congress MLA said.
“The Congress leadership in Delhi, too, will go in for a major change in the coming months, if Priyanka Gandhi takes over. We cannot afford to lose the elections owing to ego battles of our senior leaders. The high command has asked us not to be embroiled in the fight of senior leaders but work towards bolstering the party’s prospects in the state,” the MLA added.
MLAs ‘United’ in not signing
Those who did not sign during the campaign include MLAs owing allegiance to Bajwa, those who claim to be neutral and also those who smell an opportunity in the spoils of the Captain-Bajwa war, such as senior MLAs Rajinder Kaur Bhattal and Lal Singh. A dozen other MLAs, such as Bharat Bhushan Ashu, Surinder Dawar, Navtej Singh Cheema, Kuljit Singh Nagra, Randeep Singh Nabha and Brahm Mohindra, too were not on the list. Interestingly, among women MLAs, it was not just Bajwa’s wife, MLA Charanjit Kaur, who did not sign but also Amarinder’s wife Preneet Kaur.
Some Congress MLAs are batting on both sides, owing to their proximity to the ruling Badals. With the BJP flexing its muscles, SAD president and Punjab deputy chief minister Sukhbir Badal may again be eyeing Congress “diamonds” to induct into his party to have a majority of his own in the assembly. Congress MLAs Jeet Mohinder Sidhu and Joginderpal Jain have already switched over to the ruling party and also won bypolls on the SAD ticket.