The ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) may revel in their string of poll victories, but much of it was served to them by the opposition Congress on a platter. For the poll-weary party and its cadres, nothing short of shock treatment would have worked to bring them into the fighting mode.
And the party high command did just that, stationing the entire tall order into the battlefield with a clear message - stop waging internal wars and fight the ruling alliance.
Learning a thing or two in perception management from SAD president and Punjab deputy chief minister Sukhbir Badal, the Congress has tried to spoil the Akali-BJP poll party by building a perception of putting up a formidable fight and confining them to their two seats of prestige — Bathinda, where chief minister Parkash Singh Badal’s daughter-in-law is seeking re-election and Amritsar, where the Akalis closed ranks with faction-ridden BJP to edge out sitting MP Navjot Sidhu and bring in BJP stalwart Arun Jaitley.
The party’s tryst for finding willing and winnable candidates after two successive poll reverses and an unending blame game started with many hiccups. However, it scripted an unusual climax, outwitting the SAD-BJP’s cocktail of rewarding loyalty and money power in choosing candidates by coming up with its own heady mix of stature and winnability.
Through a carefully-drafted strategy, the Congress has tried to harvest what it sees as clear signals of anti-incumbency against the ruling alliance caught in the thick of an unfolding druglord-politician-police nexus, public anger over “power-drunk” rulers and their strongmen, mainly the untameable Youth Akali Dal brigade, and a bureaucracy seething uncomfortably at its subjugation, besides the thriving “family business” of power.
The first list of Congress candidates exposed the party’s struggle. Some of its prominent MPs seemed reluctant to contest, while a few were clearly on a losing wicket.
So, the names of just three sitting Punjab MPs out of the eight figured in the list. While three-time Patiala MP Preneet Kaur’s candidature was a foregone conclusion, the party reposed its faith in Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s ideology of promoting the youth by retaining Vijay Inder Singla from Sangrur and Ravneet Bittu from Anandpur Sahib.
For Khadoor Sahib, it fielded Harminder Gill, a strongman who had “almost defeated” the CM ‘s son-in-law, food and civil supplies minister Adaish Partap Singh Kairon, and was seen as capable of ambushing ageing and defeated Akali stalwart Ranjit Singh Brahmpura.
For Bathinda, the party strategy was to confine the Badals. With no Congress stalwart willing or formidable enough to challenge Harsimrat Badal in what has become the Badals’ den through patronage and government largesse of welfare doles and development projects, the Congress allied with family rebel Manpreet Badal to tie them down to their seat of prestige. With the Communist Party of India (CPI) finally relenting to back him — it has considerable foothold in the area — Manpreet is at least being seen as a challenger who took on the family might.
Not wanting to look weakkneed by keeping its state presidents out of the contest, the party, in its next list, announced the name of Partap Singh Bajwa along with state Congress chiefs of Haryana and Rajasthan. Bajwa was told to lead from the front by holding his fort.
While it brainstormed over the remaining six seats, the BJP announced fielding Arun Jaitley from Amritsar. It changed the Congress strategy for Punjab overnight as it smelled a strategic victory in humbling the BJP where it hurts and confining the Badals — who had promised Jaitley a sure win — now to two seats.
BACK IN THE FRAY
Amarinder, who was busy penning down his history in his “sunset years”, was back in the reckoning. From outright reluctance, even defiance, Amarinder was made to toe the party line using the “carrot and stick” policy to take on Jaitley.
In a Sikh versus Hindu contest, the party betted on Sikhdominated Amritsar, choosing Amarinder also to vent its anger at Sukhbir’s brother- in- law Bikram Singh Majithia, whose writ runs in the Majha belt.
It was the proverbial gamechanger for the Congress as well as the Akalis who were gloating in their masterstroke of hitting two targets with one stroke - Sidhu out and Jaitley in.
Even at the expense of looking in disarray, the Congress went on to recall its announced candidate Ravneet Bittu, who was battling both anti-incumbency and infighting to field senior leader Ambika Soni. High on symbolism, the candidature of Captain and Soni infused muchneeded fervour in the Congress rank and file and a fear of a battle-ready opposition in the Akali camp.
More surprises came from the party armour as it upped its stakes by fielding three more sitting MLAs with a winning streak, including Leader of the Opposition in the Punjab assembly Sunil Jakhar.
With a rich family legacy, Jakhar has been tasked to reclaim Ferozepur after nearly two decades, while Sadhu Singh Dharamsot and Joginder Singh Panjgrain have been fielded from Fatehgarh Sahib and Faridkot, respectively, to take on Kulwant Singh and Paramjit Gulshan, who perfectly fit the money-loyalty cocktail of the SAD ticket strategy.
For “under- perfor mers” battling anti-incumbency, the party played a game of musical chairs. It rehabilitated Bittu in Ludhiana, from where MP Manish Tewari was able to escape a contest on the “creditable” excuse of health problems, while Jalandhar MP Mohinder Singh Kaypee got a safe exit to Hoshiarpur, from where union minister Santosh Chowdhary had failed to get good internal reviews.
For Jalandhar, the party relied on another former strongman in the Dalit heartland, Chaudhary Santokh Singh, betting his winnability as higher than his son, Punjab Youth Congress president Vikramjit Chaudhary.
Having blundered on candidates in the 2012 Punjab assembly polls, the party seems to have got it right, at least in the perception battle. With top guns now blazing in their respective battlefields, unity will prevail in the Congress ranks at least till the elections by compulsion, if not by choice.