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Punjab: Where the Congress’ fortunes lie

india Updated: Aug 03, 2008 22:37 IST
Pankaj Vohra
Pankaj Vohra
Hindustan Times
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The UPA government may have won the trust vote in Parliament, but the party has a huge task at hand when it begins its preparations of facing the electorate for the next parliamentary polls. There are several indications that suggest that the elections will be held in winter and may take place along with the assembly polls in four states in late November.

It is almost certain that in Uttar Pradesh, which sends 80 MPs to the Lok Sabha, the Congress and the Samajwadi Party (SP) may fight the elections together and that the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) and the CPI(M) could form the second formation, leaving the BJP to fend for itself.

Similarly in Bihar, the BJP and the Janata Dal (United) may form a combination, while the Congress will tie up with Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP). But when it comes to the four northern-most states and Delhi, which account for nearly 40 seats, there seems to be no clear winners.

The Congress had wrapped up more than half the number last time, thanks largely to its impressive showing in Haryana where the party won nine out of the ten seats, and in Delhi where it bagged six out of the seven seats. But if the party hopes to keep those numbers intact this time, it has to concentrate on Punjab where it had won only two of the 13 seats last time.

As things stand today, there is a likelihood that the two Jammu seats may not come to the Congress in the wake of the Amarnath Yatra controversy. Similarly, the BJP is on a better footing in Himachal Pradesh and could bag up to three of the four seats. In Haryana, both Bhajan Lal and Om Prakash Chauthala will pose a big challenge to the Congress. In Delhi, the BJP has a disadvantage in that it does not have seven clear names as such yet. Still, it will be a force to reckon with.

So, it is Punjab where the Congress hopes to reap a harvest especially because the anti-incumbency factor against the Akali Dal-BJP government may surface forcing the two parties to get into the battle on a defensive note. The Akalis may also have to answer the people as to why they opposed a Sikh Prime Minister during the trust vote.

The Congress has yet to announce its new state president in Punjab. Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, who held dual charge of both the party president’s as well as the leader of opposition’s posts, is not considered strong enough by cadres to take on the Akalis. In fact, the Congress headquarters in Delhi also shares this perception and is, therefore, looking for a suitable nominee. Bhattal’s detractors accuse her of being close to the Badals and feel that she has allowed the Akalis to consolidate themselves in the Malwa area from where the Congress had won a good number of seats during the last assembly polls.

In the panchayat polls, the advantage that the Congress had was lost as the Akalis won in a convincing manner. There are seven Parliament seats — Ferozepur, Faridkot, Bhatinda, Patiala, Sangrur, Ludhiana and Ropar — that fall in the Malwa region with the other six falling in Majha and Doaba. To gain ascendancy in public perception, the Congress has to regain lost ground first in Malwa, and then carry the battle to other places.

So who should then replace Bhattal as the PCC chief? Jagmeet Singh Brar and Pratap Singh Bajwa, both young and influential Jat Sikh leaders, have great potential. The third name doing the rounds is that of Amarinder Singh, former CM who has been on the sidelines ever since the party lost power in the closely contested 2007 assembly polls. Several senior central Congress leaders also had damaged the party prospects at that time.

Amarinder has been the face of the Congress in the state for more than ten years — ever since Sonia Gandhi took control of the Congress — and has considerable influence. He commands a following among the MLAs, many of whom served under him in various capacities. And importantly, he is both feared and respected by the Akalis.

For some odd reason, Congress headquarters has not used him effectively of late and the message has gone out that he is out of favour with the leadership. But that is politics and the erstwhile Maharaja of Patiala has not helped his cause by remaining aloof — not to mention by making undiplomatic statements about his working relationship with Bhattal who comes from a family of freedom fighters and is a former CM herself.

For the Congress, winning Punjab is most important if it wants to keep its chances alive of regaining control at the Centre. Many feel that Amarinder is the only one who can deliver if he is given a free hand. But a lot will also depend on whether he makes a comeback or if the Congress is steered in the state by a younger person in the future. Between us.