As desertions of its MLAs rock the Punjab Congress, a common thread between them is a sordid saga of cases filed against them by investigating agencies and the police, and their business empires.
Latest on the list is Dhuri MLA Arvind Khanna, who has resigned from the party and the assembly.
He was the Man Friday of former chief minister Capt Amarinder Singh, but also had the dubious distinction of being a confidant of Shiromani Akali Dal president and the deputy chief minister, Sukhbir Singh Badal.
The third Congress legislator to resign from the party after it faced a stunning defeat in the 2012 assembly elections, Khanna had once almost “hijacked” Amarinder after the Patiala royal returned to the helm of party affairs as the state Congress chief.
His resignation as MLA comes soon after exit polls said the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) would form the next central government.
The SAD is a long-time NDA constituent. Hence, the timing of Khanna’s move is being seen in the light of the change of guard at the Centre and also some pending CBI cases against him. Khanna and his father Vipin Khanna are under the scanner of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) for their alleged involvement in irregularities in arms deals during the previous NDA regime.
The CBI had also filed a detailed chargesheet against Khanna in a case of violation of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) registered in 2007 and another in the oil-for-food scam in the wake of the Volcker Committee report.
Refuting the charges, Khanna had said that the money the CBI was claiming to be a contribution from foreign sources was actually given to him by his father, who is an NRI, and the transaction was made with full transparency and on record.
A cash-rich businessman, Khanna footed all expenses of Amarinder, including his helicopter trips and the bungalow at Chandigarh.
He decided people’s access to the Captain through a close-knit team of loyalists such as Vimal Sumbly, Amarinder’s media manager, and Captain Sandeep Sandhu, his office incharge who has many business interests, including a hospitality management institute at Banur in Patiala.
On the timing of his resignation, Khanna said, “I had intimated Amarinder and Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi that I would quit soon after the elections are over.
Had I done so earlier, it would have had a bad impact on Amarinder’s election campaign in Amritsar,” he said. It is reliably learnt, however, that he did not apprise Rahul about his impending resignation during the said meeting.
This resignation comes close on heels of another Congress MLA, Jeet Mohinder Singh Sidhu of Talwandi Sabo, embracing the Badals as Harsimrat Kaur Badal sought re-election from Bathinda LS seat.
One of two Congress MLAs to manage a victory from the Badal bastion of Bathinda in 2012, Sidhu has financial stakes in Adesh Medical University in Bathinda, which was upgraded to a university from a college owing to the Badals’ largesse in the last tenure.
Chandigarh Police had also booked Sidhu and seven others, including Sukhbir Shergill, trustee of the Adesh Foundation which runs a number of education institutes in the state, and Gurdeep Singh, managing director of Fastway Transmissions and a partner in Jujhar Travels, in a multi-crore fraud case.
The first in the string of deserters was Moga ML A Joginder Pal Jain who went to the SAD in 2013 and later won the seat again in a bypoll on the SAD ticket.
Jain, too, was facing three court cases, including one against five members of his family for setting up an illegal colony and one against himself for a fake passport. One of his sons was also declared a proclaimed offender.
Among the reasons behind the Captain’s men deserting the party after he was replaced is also an attempt to destabilise the incumbent Congress chief Partap Singh Bajwa before the crucial verdict on May 16.
It will be a key verdict for Bajwa as, other than being the state Congress chief, he also contested against BJP’s Vinod Khanna from Gurdaspur in the Lok Sabha polls, whose results are due on May 16. When contacted, Bajwa said, “I have read the reasons given by Khanna for his resignation on Facebook. I will refrain from commenting till I have personally spoken to him.”