With Manpreet on board, Cong can put an end to defections in party

  • Aurangzeb Naqshbandi, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jan 16, 2016 08:38 IST
Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi talks to PPP chief Manpreet Badal who formally joined Congress party in New Delhi on Friday. (PTI Photo)

Rattled by the Aam Aadmi Party’s show of strength at Muktsar’s Maghi Mela on Thursday and recent desertions in the party, the Congress has found some consolation in the form of the “unconditional” merger of Manpreet Singh Badal’s People’s Party of Punjab (PPP).

The move has also strengthened the position of Punjab Congress chief Captain Amarinder Singh who had come under criticism following the defections of some of his colleagues to the AAP soon after he took over from Partap Singh Bajwa.

The 2017 polls are widely seen a battle between the AAP and the Congress with the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)-BJP combine facing a huge anti-incumbency. The rampant drug menace in the state along with charges of corruption against its leaders has put the ruling SAD in a tight spot ahead of the crucial polls.

Amarinder is said to have been keen on PPP’s merger rather than going for an alliance, arguing that the Congress would have definitely won the 2012 assembly elections had the two parties fought the polls together. In the run-up to the merger, Manpreet had thrice met Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi to discuss the finer points of the unification move.

Though the PPP had secured 5.04% vote share in 2012 assembly elections, there has been skepticism about Manpreet’s ability to make a mark in Punjab’s electoral politics. He lost from both Gidderbaha and Maur constituencies in 2012 polls and was defeated by cousin Sukhbir Singh Badal’s wife Harsimrat Kaur Badal from Bathinda in 2014 Lok Sabha elections which he contested on the Congress symbol.

Manpreet admitted that he had been approached by the AAP as well but he found the Congress a “bigger, better and more experienced” platform. But AAP sources said there was “a lot of resentment” among its Punjab leaders to any move to take Manpreet into the party fold.

The response to Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal’s rally at Muktsar on Thursday has given a major boost to the AAP in Punjab. Political analysts have maintained that the voters are seeing the AAP as a “viable alternative” to both the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the Congress.

Though Amarinder had described the AAP as a “junkyard for the political deadwood”, the fact is that several of his Congress colleagues, including Sukhpal Singh Khaira, Aman Arora and CD Kambhoj, and those from other parties have in the recent past joined the new party. But Manpreet’s merger is now expected to stop further defections in the Congress and restore confidence among the otherwise demoralised workers.

On Friday, senior leader and former Congress Working Committee (CWC) member Jagmeet Singh Brar created a flutter with his tweet hailing Kejriwal’s Muktsar rally. “AAP, Maghi conference at Muktsar(Pb), a record breaker. Never before In Muktsar, so many people heard any leader from Punjab or India,” he tweeted.

Earlier soon after the debacle in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Brar had rubbed the Congress leadership the wrong way by suggesting that party chief Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi should take a two-year break from politics and hand over the reins of the organisation to some other leader. While he was immediately sacked from the party, the Congress president revoked his suspension a year later.

Brar’s latest remarks fuelled speculation that he could be sending feelers to the AAP, especially after Amarinder had reportedly snubbed him by not allowing to him to speak at December 15 Bathinda rally.

With Kejriwal ruling himself out as the chief ministerial candidate in Punjab, the AAP is looking for a credible face with a clean image to lead the party in upcoming elections in the state after. State convener Sucha Singh Chhotepur, senior advocate HS Phoolka and Lok Sabha MP from Sangrur Bhagwant Mann are among the prominent contenders for leading the party.

Buoyed by the PPP’s merger, the Congress is trying to explore the possibilities of a tie-up with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Left parties in its bid to replicate Bihar-style grand alliance in the state.

Though the alliance strategy will be firmed by the central leadership, Amarinder is said to be in touch with local leaders of the BSP, CPM and the CPI to put up a united fight against the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)-BJP combine.

“We are now looking for a broad-based alliance for the next election. We are trying to get all secular parties together against the fundamentalist force,” Amarinder said.

A week ago, Punjab BSP chief Avtar Singh Karimpuri had said in Jalandhar that his party “would accept” Amarinder’s offer provided there was “a good proposal” from the Congress.

In the 2012 elections, the BSP’s vote share had increased from 4.13% to 4.30% but failed to open its account in the 117-member state assembly.

On the other hand, the vote share of both the CPI and the CPM decreased drastically from 2007 polls. The CPI’s vote share dropped from 3.31% in 2007 to 2.49% in 2012, while that of the CPM fell from 2.25% to 2.09%.

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