His political fortunes slipping with every election, beleaguered Punjab Congress chief Partap Singh Bajwa is caught between the proverbial devil and the deep blue sea. Though Congress infighting was as much to blame for the party’s near-rout in the Talwandi Sabo bypoll as a majority of party MLAs rallied behind Capt Amarinder Singh’s wife Preneet Kaur at Patiala, Bajwa cannot afford to score a self-goal by crediting his bete noire with having more sway over MLAs than him.
So when he meets party general secretary in-charge for Punjab Shakeel Ahmad in New Delhi next week, Bajwa will point out the “blatant misuse of police and official machinery” by the ruling Akalis as the main reason for losing Talwandi Sabo, a seat the Congress held for the past many elections. He would also point out the silver lining from the bypoll results — checking rookie Aam Aadmi Party’s march into opposition space in Punjab.
Claiming that the high command knew about most MLAs camping at Patiala, Bajwa says he does not wish to indulge in a blame game. “I have yet to give my report to Ahmad, who will then hand it to party president Sonia Gandhi. With most MLAs campaigning in Patiala, it was a one-sided affair. But it’s not the reason why we lost. The ruling party put all its might to win a bypoll. When the Bathinda SSP tells you that he cannot evict cabinet minister Sikander Singh Maluka and nearly 1,500 outsiders stationed inside serais in a gurdwara, what can the opposition do? We warned chief electoral officer VK Singh that 1,500 outsiders were likely to enter Talwandi Sabo and he had assured us that none will be allowed to stay. There were 100 to 200 Akalis in every booth,” Bajwa told HT.
He also accused the police of unleashing terror on Congress leaders and workers. Citing the example of Kot Shamir village on the outskirts of Bathinda, he said more than 50 cops were stationed outside the house of Congress leader Inderjit Singh Zira, while many party workers were picked up from their houses in the morning and taken to police stations and only released after polling was over. “How else do you explain the lead of 11,000 votes from the constituency just three months ago (in the Lok Sabha elections), changing to 46,000?” he added.
While it took Bajwa a day to react to the shock defeat, Amarinder, in Europe for the launch of his book, stole his thunder by accusing Akalis of winning the bypoll by “open rigging and unleashing terror as used to happen years ago in Bihar”.
While both leaders agree that Congress turncoat Jeet Mohinder Singh Sidhu did not win by the people’s mandate, Amarinder’s confidants say Bajwa cannot afford to blame Amarinder for the bypoll loss.
“If he tells the high command that Amarinder hijacked a majority of the MLAs or they were doing his bidding, it will undermine his authority as the state chief. It will be a self-goal he would not like to score,” said a Congress MLA, requesting anonymity.