The much-hyped 'introspection' meeting of 71 defeated Congress candidates turned into a 30-minute gossip session over tea here on Wednesday.
Central party leaders had been given the impression that the meeting would be an intensive exercise to pinpoint factors that caused the party's humiliating defeat in the Punjab assembly elections.
In a strange coincidence, Punjab Congress president Capt Amarinder Singh had convened this meeting at 3pm on Wednesday, the same time and day on which Punjab affairs incharge Gulchain Singh Charak had fixed a meeting of frontline Punjab leaders in New Delhi.
On Sunday morning, Charak had summoned all leaders who had been airing their views publicly, including Amarinder, Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, Gurdaspur MP Partap Singh Bajwa, union minister Ashwani Kumar, Jagmeet Brar and Sukhpal Singh Khaira to come to Delhi.
Under intense attack from his detractors, Amarinder called the meeting of party leaders who lost in the assembly elections, at the guest house of the UT administration.
Ostensibly to avoid a confrontation with Amarinder, Charak decided that those unable to attend the Delhi meeting on Wednesday could meet him on Thursday. Charak even defended Amarinder's decision to meet the defeated leaders, saying that, "I had told him to hold a meeting with all stakeholders, right from district presidents to defeated candidates, and submit a report to me."
But on Wednesday, as the defeated candidates arrived, the 'introspection' session became a 'social occasion'.
A majority of the invitees attending the 'tea party' either remained tight-lipped or defended Amarinder, while just four ex-MLAs Khaira, Ripjit Singh Brar, Mangat Rai Bansal and Surinderpal Singh Sibia cried foul on being 'hoodwinked' and abruptly left the meeting room.
While Khaira was guarded in his reaction, Brar, Bansal and Sibia bluntly launched a frontal attack against Amarinder and asked him to "quit to save the Congress."
"No meeting took place," said the four leaders who have unfurled the banner of revolt against Amarinder. "The middlemen surrounding Amarinder have ruined the party," Bansal alleged. "This was a political meeting and we were asked to come here to discuss the poll debacle. But Amarinder sabotaged the meeting," Ripjit Brar said.
"This is tragic. This man (Amarinder) has destroyed the party. We sought his resignation so that the Congress survives in the state," Brar fumed.
Later, Amarinder justified his decision, saying that, "I never said that the agenda of Wednesday's meeting will be to discuss election-related issues."
"It was a pat-on-the-back sort of meeting fixed about 10 days ago. This was a social occasion to meet those who unsuccessfully contested the elections and have tea with them," he said, leaving his critics within the party foxed at the turn of events.
"Amarinder may have hoodwinked us, but how long will he deceive the party high command?" asked the anti-Captain ex-MLAs.
Inside the meeting room, in an attempt to counter the revolt by four ex-MLAs, senior leaders such as Rana KP Singh, Avtar Henry and Chaudhry Jagjit Singh floated a proposal to pass a resolution urging the high command to let Amarinder continue as Punjab Congress president. But Amarinder disagreed, saying that this meeting was apolitical.
"We had given an undertaking to the UT administration that no political meeting will be held here (UT guest house)," Amarinder later told the media.
"I will call these 71 leaders for a political discussion in the PPCC office, following which I will meet all 46 elected MLAs," he added.
Capt's show of strength
From his foxhole, Punjab Congress president Capt Amarinder Singh on Wednesday sent out a clear signal about his support base in the garb of inviting all 71 defeated party candidates 'over tea'.
More than 60 candidates who unsuccessfully contested the assembly elections turned up, of which just four former MLAs Sukhpal Singh Khaira, Ripjit Singh Brar, Mangat Rai Bansal and Surinderpal Singh Sibia took pot shots at Amarinder, while others backed the former chief minister.
Amarinder's Wednesday move assumes significance as he tried to fortify his defence and succeeded in sending a message to his detractors that he still enjoys the confidence of a majority of the 117 candidates who contested the elections.
Earlier, Amarinder had held a meeting of all district Congress presidents, where a resolution was passed 'unanimously', asking the high command to let Amarinder continue as the state party chief.
Through such deft moves, it appears the beleaguered Amarinder seems to be trying to preclude any bold decision of the high command to dump him and hand over the state unit reins to a new face, as is being demanded by his detractors.