Three desertions, three bypolls and three defeats. The tally of the opposition Congress in the Punjab assembly after losing the Dhuri by-election is down by three in as many years, from 46 to 43. The disqualification of Bhadaur legislator Mohammad Sadique by the Punjab and Haryana high court last week has taken it a notch lower to 42, until the verdict is challenged and the Supreme Court orders a stay against it.
The party had virtually surrendered the contest by sourcing a candidate from the Sanjha Morcha, banking on the legacy of former Punjab chief minister Surjit Singh Barnala. The Barnalas had connect with neither the Congress rank and file in Dhuri not the Congress voters. To make matters worse, Congress deputy leader in the Lok Sabha, Captain Amarinder Singh, and state party president Partap Singh Bajwa had a bitter fallout after coming together for the nomination of Barnala scion Simar Pratap Singh Barnala. The two ran parallel campaigns, with a majority of the MLAs joining Amarinder at the fag-end, more as a show of strength. The lacklustre canvassing against “micro-management” by the Akalis made it an election that was fought to be lost.
‘Wasn’t serious about winning’
“The Congress workers and voters were confused. The party could not muster a candidate for a seat that had belonged to it for two decades. The battle of one-upmanship between Bajwa and Amarinder further disillusioned them. The MLAs came more to show solidarity with either than with the party. The feeling was that the Congress was not serious about a winning Dhuri,” said a senior party MLA, requesting anonymity.
Daggers are out in the divided, beaten Congress, and a blame game has erupted between Amarinder and Bajwa. “An individual cannot be blamed for victory or defeat. It is the collective responsibility of all those part of the election process,” said Bajwa, but in a later press statement attributed it to the “use of money and misuse of official machinery” by the ruling Akalis.
“For just one byelection, chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, deputy CM Sukhbir Badal and the entire team of Akali ministers and MLAs camped in the constituency for several days, thereby creating fear psychosis. Akali activists from all over the state descended on Dhuri. The CM, who had never visited Dhuri before, started distributing money in the villages under his sangat darshan programme just after the seat fell vacant. By the time the byelection was announced, he had covered the entire constituency. There was naked misuse of money power and official machinery,” said Bajwa.
‘Battlefield was open’
But Amarinder asked Bajwa to own up the defeat. “It was Bajwa who decided the candidate, who was not serious and campaigned half-heartedly. He made frequent jaunts to Delhi, Chandigarh and other places, leaving the battlefield open. During the Moga bypoll, we had not moved out of there for 14 days,” Amarinder told HT.
On Bajwa’s terming the defeat as collective responsibility, the former CM said: “Does Bajwa run the Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee (PPCC) as collective responsibility? It is a one-man show. As PCC chief, he alone is responsible for victory or defeat. In my 16 years in the Punjab Congress, I have always taken responsibility for all victories and defeats. He should have the moral courage to own up the defeat.”
He also issued a press statement reacting to Bajwa’s blaming him for the defeat. “Does Bajwa mean to bail Akalis out for all their sins of omission and commission during the campaign? Instead of blaming the MLAs for not listening to you, you should introspect why you are not able to take people along,” the statement read.
Chorus for a change of guard, which was earlier deferred till return of Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi from a sabbatical, may grow shriller after the loss of Dhuri. According to party sources, a decision in this regard may be taken after the April 19 rally of the party in Delhi.
Capt loyalists revive oust-Bajwa tirade
Asking Punjab Congress president Partap Singh Bajwa to own up “moral responsibility” for defeat in the Dhuri byelection, his rivals from the home region of Majha demanded his resignation.
Gurdaspur District Congress president Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa and legislator Tripat Bajwa, along with Rana Gurjeet Singh, Sukh Sarkaria, and Ramanjeet Singh Sikki raised the demand in a press statement. “The more time Bajwa stays at the helm, more the party will suffer in Punjab. This is its fourth straight defeat under Bajwa’s leadership after the Lok Sabha polls, Talwandi Sabo bypoll and the municipal elections. In view of these back-to-back defeats, Bajwa should step down, as it has shown the people have rejected his leadership. He is using the post for his personal ambitions. Former CM Captain Amarinder Singh is the only leader acceptable in entire Punjab. He not only won from Majha but also retained Patiala, the only victory the Congress has in four bypolls in Punjab,” the statement reads.