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Punjabi baroque

Two huge rallies in Punjab on Friday provided the first ground-level indication that a real tough contest is in the offing when the state goes to the polls in February, writes Pankaj Vohra.

india Updated: Dec 10, 2006 23:43 IST

Two huge rallies — one by the Shiromani Akali Dal and its NDA allies, and the other by the Congress — in Punjab on Friday provided the first ground-level indication that a real tough contest is in the offing when the state goes to the polls in February. The Akali rally reflected Parkash Singh Badal’s charisma and popularity in the state. But the Congress rally showed the grit and determination of Chief Minister Amarinder Singh in carrying the battle into the Akali bastion — Badal village in Muktsar district.

While the Akali gathering was addressed by a galaxy of speakers including LK Advani, Rajnath Singh, IK Gujral and Om Prakash Chautala, the Congress rally showcased Amarinder’s pulling power as he alone was the star speaker. Like in all rallies, charges were traded and allegations levelled freely. Both sides are now sizing each other up for the final showdown that, at one point, appeared heavily tilted in favour of the Akalis but is now evenly balanced. The outcome can go either way. However, if Amarinder manages to win Punjab for the Congress, he will become the first Punjab CM since the reorganisation of states in 1966 to have retained power.

But the CM has his own share of problems — the foremost being dissidence. The party’s acute embarrassment was on display when party colleague Jagmit Singh Brar, a protégé of HRD Minister Arjun Singh, raised a banner of revolt some weeks ago by addressing a press conference and making uncharitable remarks against the CM on the eve of the polls. He went on to state that PCC President Shamsher Singh Dullo could also be in the reckoning for chief ministership in case the Congress won. In the process, Brar sent out confusing signals to the cadres. Dullo and the CM do not see eye to eye on many issues. But by bringing the battle out into the open, the fiery Congress leader appeared to be helping the Akalis who must have certainly rejoiced over this development.

Congress President Sonia Gandhi was quick to act. She summoned Brar to the capital. He was apparently firmly 'advised' to keep quiet and not speak out of turn. Though he has obeyed the instructions, Brar may find it difficult to conceal his criticisms of the CM for too long. The CM’s camp has been talking about Brar having had closed-door meetings with some Akali leaders. But this kind of talk is not going to help matters since the Congress needs to maintain total unity if it wishes to humble the Akalis at the polls.

At the rally in Badal, Brar was conspicuous by his absence, despite the fact that the rally was organised in his area of influence. Instead, Mahesh Inder Singh Grewal, his one-time protégé who has shifted his loyalty towards Amarinder, was very active.

As far as Dullo goes, he and Amarinder have differed sharply about the induction of new entrants into the party fold. While Amarinder favours the induction of all those who were willing to accept the Congress ideology and the leadership of Sonia Gandhi, Dullo prefers a more conservative approach. But these are the differences that the CM and the PCC chief have to resolve between the two of them, instead of giving out bad vibes to each other in public. It, however, appears that Amarinder, who was in some kind of serious trouble three years ago, has managed to get Sonia Gandhi’s full backing and may be calling the final shots.

But the biggest hurdle for the Congress is the strong anti-incumbency factor against many of the sitting MLAs, including ministers. If the Congress is able to change half of them while distributing the tickets, its chances will improve. A large number of ministers are perceived to be corrupt and are regularly compared with the most corrupt lot from the previous Akali regime. Given that the Congress had won the last time on an anti-corruption plank, its own track record is not too flattering either.

The party is also likely to gain if it goes into the polls alone. Last time, its allies, the Left, managed to get 13 seats, but lost all except two. Also, its cadres from all parts of Punjab left their home districts to campaign for their candidates thereby depriving the Congress any benefit of the alliance. It seems the CM and the high command would not want to enter the fray with any kind of political liability.

The Akalis also have their own share of problems. While it is certain now that in the event of an Akali victory, it will be Badal Sr who will be the chief minister, it is common knowledge that Badal Jr Sukhbir will be calling the shots. Even at the rally in Moga, it was Sukhbir who emerged as the youth icon of the Akali Dal and his stamp is evident on the party’s stand on different issues. There can be reservations over his premature emergence on the Akali centre-stage among senior party colleagues. But there is no denying that he is going to play a pivotal role in the distribution of tickets.

In the ongoing power politics within the Akali Dal, there are indications that a section believes that an Akali defeat could end Sukhbir’s march and that by the time the next elections take place, Badal Sr’s influence, too, would be diminished with some of today’s senior leaders then calling the shots. But obviously, all Akalis — whether on Sukhbir’s side or not — will want to wrest power from the Congress to establish their stranglehold on Punjab.

However, the Akalis, too, have worries about their alliance with the BJP, as the latter’s hold over the Hindus in the state is suspect. The BJP has no charismatic leaders and attempts to project Navjot Singh Sidhu as its best bet will not help matters.

The ex-cricketer may find it tough to lead the BJP’s resurgence given there is a big question mark over his future, following the court sentence. A section within the Akali Dal is also not keen that Sidhu, a Jat Sikh, evolves as a leader from Punjab as he could than pose a real threat to younger Akali leaders.

The Akalis are short on agendas, as the CM has been able to corner many of their issues. That leaves the Akalis and the Congress trading charges at every level and rubbishing each other’s claims. It is to be seen whether the experienced Badal Sr. is able to put the Congress on the mat and thereby paving the way for his son to ultimately take over the reins of power, or whether Amarinder is able to translate his successful 'Vikas Yatra's into votes for his party. The Akalis have to make inroads into Congress strongholds to win. The Congress, too, has to fare much better in the Malwa region to hold on to power. The ball is now in the people’s court. Between us.

Email Pankaj Vohra: pvohra@hindustantimes.com