Despite high drama and some histrionics, it was yet another day in the life of faction-ridden Punjab Congress. The whirlwind visit of party vice-president Rahul Gandhi came as a much-needed lifeline for the beleaguered Punjab Congress chief, Partap Singh Bajwa, against his war of attrition with predecessor, Capt Amarinder Singh. But the day started and ended with hectic politicking by the two sides, each claiming strategic gains.
Since headcount matters, over 70 party leaders -- including two-dozen MLAs and district presidents, both sitting and former -- visited the residence of Amarinder at noon to show solidarity with the deputy leader of Congress in the Lok Sabha. But inside the Congress Bhawan -- it was clearly Bajwa’s day. The Captain was “provoked” when MLAs Arvind Khanna and Rana Gurmeet Sodhi accompanying him, besides his son Raninder Singh, were stopped by the security to enter from the main gate.
Amarinder had to turn back to tell them that they are MLAs but the security refused to budge asking them to enter from the separate entry gate for MLAs. Khanna tried to push his way through but was led out.
Even Amarinder’s wife Preneet Kaur, former union minister and three-time Patiala MP and now an MLA, sat in the fifth row. Some block presidents close to the Captain also alleged that while they were harassed for an hour for identification at the gates, many workers were allowed in despite not being office-bearers.
While coming out of the Congress Bhawan, Amarinder’s resentment was clear. “What’s happening is all wrong. Do not provoke me to comment. The briefing will be done by the PPCC,” the Captain said as some of his loyalists raised slogans in his support.
But the PPCC chief was euphoric at the “show of strength”. “Rahul has given a call for the Save Punjab from drugs campaign. He has endorsed our demand for a CBI probe into the drug racket. His message was clear -- that we should all unite,” Bajwa said. Though his responses to the Captain’s salvos have been muted, Bajwa’s counter-attack was to show he is firmly in the saddle at the high command’s pleasure.
By setting the tone and tenor of the meetings, Bajwa got Rahul’s endorsement to his plan to “revitalise” district and block committees through monthly meetings before their presidents. He also ensured that the general house meeting, where Amarinder and his loyalists were present, was without any fireworks. Seen by Rahul’s side throughout, the message planned by him and secretary in-charge for Punjab, Harish Chaudhary, for the party rank and file was clear -- Bajwa is here to stay. Bajwa’s loyalists also called up mediapersons to convey that Rahul had said so in as many words.
But the Amarinder camp claimed that Bajwa’s stature stood further diminished. “Bajwa was not allowed to speak in the general house meeting of MLAs, MPs and other senior leaders. At no point did Rahul endorse Bajwa’s leadership. On the contrary, he did not allow Bajwa the customary courtesy of a ceremonial speech. There were no senior leaders in his team. Over 90% of the PPCC, district and block committees comprise unknown faces. Even Bajwa does not recognise many of them. Getting Rahul to stand for him was Bajwa’s Brahmastra (main weapon) and he has used it. It will not help him survive the discontent brewing in the party against him,” an Amarinder aide said.
Women wing protest
The workers of Punjab Mahila Congress added to the drama outside the Punjab Congress Bhawan by squatting before it in protest. Singing songs and raising slogans on “kickbacks”, some of them alleged that they were asked to shell out Rs 1,000 currency notes in case they wanted to meet Rahul. Finally, AICC general secretary Ambika Soni had to rush out and give the protesters an audience.
New pecking order
The stage set at the Congress Bhawan lawns had Ambika Soni, Lal Singh and CLP leader Sunil Jakhar and the two MPs Ravneet Bittu and Santokh Chaudhary besides Bajwa, Amarinder and Rahul. Former CM Rajinder Kaur Bhattal was seated in the second row. There was a separate entry gate for MLAs and a third one for block and district presidents. An exhaustive security drill led to much resentment among the Bajwa detractors who said it was all being done at the behest of his brother, Fateh Bajwa, to ensure only loyalists made it to the meetings.