The Congress desperately needs an electoral victory to get off the life-support system on which it has been after losing power at the Centre. It doesn't have a ghost of a chance to form governments of its own in J-K, Jharkhand or Delhi. The party's sole hope amid the gathering gloom is Punjab where the Akali-BJP combine faces insurmountable odds.
Elections to the state assembly in the border state are due in February 2017. But the party has to start early to catch, so to speak, the worm. A whole lot of rejuvenation and repair is required in its Punjab unit that’s a house derelict and divided. Emissaries from Delhi have ended up abetting rather than checking factionalism in the party there.
“Either they be made to curb their amateurish interventions or the party would face its third successive defeat in the state,” noted an insider. If handled carefully, he considered Punjab “the light at the end of a long and dark tunnel” for the party that polled more votes than the Akalis but got ten seats less in 2012.
Parkash Singh Badal’s party romped home on the aggregate vote (34.59 plus 7.15%) of its alliance with the BJP and the Congress’ internal disquiet over selection of candidates. Now, the saffron party, with mere 12 seats in the Assembly, is perceived to be preparing to dump the “hugely unpopular” Akali Dal much ahead of the polls.
A crack in the ruling coalition could even trigger a snap poll; a resurgent BJP claiming credit for ridding the state of an ‘inefficient and profligate’ regime. The consequences of it could be as damaging for the Akalis as for the Congress, given their vulnerability to poaching by the BJP with its superior resources, political muscle and Narendra Modi’s mass connect.
Amid such crisis, only Amrinder Singh's popular pull can stem the canker eating into the party’s vitals in the state, remarked an MLA. He was speaking in the context of countless internal spats, including Legislature Party leader Sunil Jhakar’s reported outburst against what he called “inaccessible” high command, leadership vacuum and unbridled one-upmanship marked by parallel PCC meetings to scuttle CLP gatherings.
Hardcore Congressmen are convinced that "imported" points-persons flaunting powers of attorney from Delhi are bent upon keeping or propping up a cosmetic leadership at the expense of Amrinder. Flying in the face of their seemingly “self defeating" agenda is a broad consensus -- regardless of individual allegiances -- that the former chief minister, despite two successive defeats under his stewardship, alone has the political timbre to grab for the party the victory it so direly needs.
"He's Punjab's Virbhadra Singh," remarked a Congress leader. The allusion was to the chief minister of Himachal, who faced similar opposition in the party before the 2012 polls when the Congress wrested power from the BJP. He said Amrinder's marginalisation would mean offering Punjab on a platter to the BJP that could try beating anti-incumbency by walking out on the discredited Akalis in a kind of repeat of Maharashtra.
Inquiries across feuding camps reveal that a majority of the 40-odd Congress legislators favoured Amrinder over his party rivals or the option of crossing over to the BJP. The common refrain in the former CM’s support is that he lived down the Congress’ 2012 defeat by trouncing Arun Jaitley in Amritsar.
Currently, the Congress’s deputy leader in the Lok Sabha, Amrinder, views the next elections as last chance to lead the party in Punjab and reclaim the CM's slot. His ambitions might rankle with the top leadership. But they converge seamlessly with the party's quest for a morale-boosting triumph after a string of defeats.’