It was a day of contrasting headcounts in the Punjab Congress. While the faction led by former chief minister and deputy leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha Captain Amarinder Singh hosted a lunch for MLAs, loyalists and supporters at a five-star hotel on Monday to celebrate the victory of wife Preneet Kaur in the Patiala bypoll, his bete noire Partap Singh Bajwa chaired a meeting to condemn the Jamalpur (Ludhiana) killings and demanding the resignation of deputy CM Sukhbir Badal, also the state’s home minister.
There were 33 MLAs at Captain’s lunch and three more trooped in later for Preneet’s swearing-in at the state assembly at 3pm. Enough for his emboldened camp to claim Bajwa had been “isolated” and MLAs are rallying behind a resurgent Amarinder to lead the party again.
Led by Bajwa, the Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee (PPCC) held a meeting at the Congress Bhawan at 4pm after the lunch and swearing-in of Preneet was over. The PPCC press statement had its own headcount of over two dozen vice-presidents, general secretaries and district Congress committee presidents, including 10 MLAs.
While some MLAs, such as Brahm Mohindra, Kuljit Singh Nagra, Randeep Singh Nabha, Bharat Bhushan Ashu, Rakesh Pandey, Karan Brar and Bajwa’s wife Charanjit Kaur gave Amarinder’s lunch a miss, Nagra and Anshu later appeared for Preneet’s swearing-in. Some MLAs who are also PPCC office-bearers did the balancing act -- they attended the lunch and then the meeting. Some new entrants, such as Bajwa’s one-time confidant, MLA Navtej Singh Cheema, were present at the lunch, as was known Amarinder-baiter Rajinder Kaur Bhattal. A few Amarinder loyalists were out of town.
For now, the Captain’s lunch has shown which camp has the numbers. Not the one to mince words, Amarinder made no bones about why the state party chief was not extended the courtesy of an invite. “I had invited my supporters and friends and Bajwa is neither,” he said. But the fixation of both state chiefs, past and present, with each other is all too obvious. While commenting on chief minister Parkash Singh Badal’s various statements, Amarinder inadvertently mentioned Badal as Bajwa while answering mediapersons’ queries.
On the face of it, there was no politics in the lunch invite for Congress MLAs on Monday by the Leader of the Opposition in the Punjab assembly, Sunil Jakhar, to celebrate Preneet’s bypoll victory. But the underlying power play behind the lunch diplomacy was all too evident -- humouring Amarinder through a show of strength. It was part of a strategy which has unfolded over time -- keep Bajwa off-balance.
And it did. Bajwa went on to announce a parallel dharna on the same day in front of the CM’s residence. Though Bajwa withdrew the call on Sunday, citing that the government had agreed to lend industrialists a sympathetic ear, he only undermined his position. Worse, he told reporters on Sunday that an invite to the lunch may finally come, in the process revealing precisely what he wanted to avoid by cancelling the dharna -- that many may not turn up for the agitation. An Amarinder loyalist claimed Bajwa had cancelled the dharna as many MLAs were non-committal when he called them up to attend it.
And neither camp is willing to give up the game, not yet. Bajwa mustered a meeting of the PPCC along with All India Congress Committee (AICC) secretary Harish Chaudhary on Monday with the message: it is no time for celebration. It also exposed the chinks between the PPCC and Congress Legislature Party leader Sunil Jakhar, who was conspicuous by his absence from the meeting that also discussed the upcoming municipal committee elections.
A Congress MLA, requesting anonymity, said this game of oneupmanship would not take the party anywhere. “Unfortunately, both sides are just doing headcounts. This leg-pulling has to stop or else the Congress is doomed. There seems to be no magnanimity or grace by either of the two,” he said.
Cong to fight civic polls partly on party symbol
The PPCC on Monday decided to fight the upcoming municipal council elections partly on the party symbol. “There was unanimous consensus in the meeting to contest the elections to Class B municipal councils on the party symbol. Class C can be left to local leaders and local arrangements with other parties,” PPCC vice-president Brahm Mohindra said. He said he could not attend Preneet’s swearing-in and lunch as three women of his constituency (Patiala Rural) had been mowed down by a car.