Until a few days ago, Punjab was emblematic of all that was seemingly going wrong for the Congress at the national pollscape: battle-shy senior leaders, desertions and a creeping sense of defeat before the fight had actually begun. But on Friday, the Congress high command chose the state to unfold its strategy to dramatically reverse its electoral sweepstakes for the summer slugfest.
By fielding Captain Amarinder Singh from Amritsar and Ambika Soni from Anandpur Sahib, the Congress has attempted a rearguard action to convey that its top leaders are not wary of fighting the Lok Sabha elections. It couldn’t have chosen a more high-profile seat than Amritsar, where the BJP’s Arun Jaitley has made his electoral debut.
The captain’s unexpected nomination has for once electrified Punjab’s election scene. Also, it has fired up Congress workers, put the party back in the reckoning for the 13 Lok Sabha seats and sent the Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP alliance scrambling to revise its poll strategy. Amritsar is suddenly looking a lot tougher for Jaitley, who the Akalis had preferred over three-time MP Navjot Singh Sidhu.
Congressmen call the Punjab gambit as a masterstroke by party vice-president Rahul Gandhi, who wanted to see the big guns taking the plunge. This move is seen as a potent counter to the BJP’s charge that Congress stalwarts had no stomach to fight. It has also helped curb factional fights led by senior leaders out of the poll arena.
But the focus is on Amritsar where Jaitley is banking on the SAD who had prior to Amarinder’s entry promised to send him to Parliament with the “highest-ever margin”. Jaitley is fighting against history as Amritsar, with 64% Sikh votes, has invariably swung in favour of Sikh candidates. Besides, Sikhs remember the charismatic Amarinder, 73, for resigning as Congress MP to protest Operation Bluestar in 1984 and scrapping the inter-state water-sharing agreements as CM in 2004.
Yet, the captain is unlikely to play the Sikh card openly. He has the hot-button issue of Jat reservation that had given him the ammunition to attack the Badal government and weaken his hold among the Sikh peasantry.
The way the Akalis edged out Sidhu, the BJP’s most prominent Sikh face, has also not gone down well in Amritsar. The captain has understandably gone ballistic against the Akali “high-handedness” and “outsider” Jaitley; his political career depends on pulling this off.
The Captain’s entry has clearly changed the Punjab poll script.
It has upped the ante for the ruling Badals who will be tied down to Amritsar and Bathinda, where a Congress-backed kin of the chief minister is pitted against the deputy CM’s wife. Even Jaitley may have to count more on Narendra Modi than the Akalis.