What could have been a game changer in the 2012 Punjab assembly polls has come four years too late. The merger of the People’s Party of Punjab (PPP) with the Congress on Friday is more out of compulsion than choice as the two poll-weary parties wake up to the reality that Punjab’s revolving-door politics is now history and there is a formidable third force in Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).
Both have been ravaged by successive poll defeats. In the 2012 state elections, the 5% vote share bagged by Manpreet’s PPP also made the difference between victory and defeat for the Congress, its second in a row. However, Manpreet and his party too failed to open account in the polls.
With no poll-worthiness, money and organisational muscle, the estranged nephew of chief minister Parkash Singh Badal contested on the Congress symbol to take on the might of his family in their bastion— Bathinda — in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.
Though he could not defeat Badal’s daughter-in-law Harsimrat Badal, he won the perception battle by narrowing down her landslide win in 2009 to a face-saver.
But by not contesting on other seats, Manpreet left the slots open to be lapped up by the AAP which won all its four seats from Punjab.
The Bathinda experience had shown Manpreet and the Congress that the enemy is not invincible. Though Manpreet’s written-off party may not make much of a difference to the Congress poll fortunes in Punjab -- the PPP has no cadres and hardly any support base -- the gains for Congress will be mainly in the perception game.
Morale booster for cadres
An immediate effect would be boosting of cadre morale after recent exodus of Congress leaders to AAP and the latter’s hit show at the Maghi Mela. The Congress would no more be seen as party of deserters but also high-profile walk-ins.
It will help the party stitch up a grand alliance by roping in the BSP and Left parties to take on Akalis and AAP.
Though all Manpreet has is the Badal tag – which he himself now dubs as a baggage -- it still stands him in good stead. Many in Punjab would like to see the family feud play out in elections and the rebel Badal take on the mighty rulers.
A good orator, he also has crowd-pulling skills. Manpreet still appeals to a section of interllectuals and youth.
Manpreet off AAP radar
With no credible face for leading the party in Punjab, Manpreet was still on the AAP radar. He too was dabbling with the idea of joining AAP. By pulling him to his side, state Congress chief Captain Amarinder Singh has ended the possibility of him adding to Arvind Kejriwal’s firepower. Now in the Congress, he would give AAP the handle to claim the Congress too now has a Badal.
Rebel Badal’s resurrection
Manpreet’s entry into Congress has surely revived his political career. With Amarinder announcing 2017 as his last election, Manpreet who had direct contact with Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi --- both are alumni of Doon School with common friends --- he may well be the next state chief- in-waiting.
No wonder his entry has caused more heartburn that heart-warming among Congress leaders in Malwa who see him as another from within. Some ambitious young leaders such as Ludhiana MP Ravneet Bittu have voiced their anger against his entry openly while others like Indian Youth Congress president Amrinder Singh Raja Warring may not be willing to share the political space with his arch-foe from Gidderbaha.
As for Manpreet, the transition from president of party to playing second fiddle in a national party setup may not be easy. He has also lost some credibility by his double-speak be it talking against nepotism and making his party a family affair or often claiming the PPP is an ideology which he would never forsake.
Also, his changing stripes --- from dyed-in-wool Akali to a rebel to a true-blue Congressman --- may not cut ice with many.