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Chhotepur’s bouncers, Sidhu’s hardball with AAP: Cong feels back in game

punjab Updated: Aug 30, 2016 13:15 IST
Sukhdeep Kaur
Sukhdeep Kaur
Hindustan Times
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Punjab Congress chief Captain Amarinder Singh(HT File Photo)

Seven months after Congress leader Captain Amarinder Singh’s “outsiders vs locals” card failed to dent Aam Aadmi Party’s growing popularity in Punjab, his party could be gaining from AAP’s recent missteps.

Can you let those from Haryana and Uttar Pradesh rule Punjab, the former chief minister had said at the Maghi Mela in January as AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal drew huge crowds.

But the question is back to haunt the AAP, with ousted state chief Sucha Singh Chhotepur taking on the party , accusing Delhi leaders of marginalising those who built the outfit from a scratch in the border state that goes to the polls early next year.

In the months after the Maghi Mela, it was the Congress that was hurtling from one controversy to another -- its performance in the budget session, the US-Canada tour of Singh, or allegations of his family holding accounts in Swiss banks and the party’s rout in several state elections.

The AAP, all this while, was running full-page advertisements in newspapers, talking about its achievements in Delhi and making the right noises about its Punjab outreach

Video | Amarinder faces pro-Khalistan slogans by protesters in California

Congress’ ‘Achhe din’

But, some bad calls by AAP seems to have brought in “achhe din” for the Congress. The use of its poll symbol – broom—next to a picture of the Golden Temple on the cover of its youth manifesto saw AAP apologising for hurting Sikh sentiments. But the damage was done. The party was again put on the defensive after first and second lists of candidates triggered rebellion.

But, cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu’s resignation from the Rajya Sabha and reports of him joining the AAP sent the Congress in a tailspin.

Within a span of few hours, Capt Amarinder went from ridiculing Sidhu as “yet another clown in the AAP” to rolling out the red carpet for him.

Back from 10-day meditation break , Kejriwal threw the “one-family, one-ticket” rule at Sidhu, who is said to be driving a hard bargain.

Though AAP sources claim that the talks with Sidhu are off, comedian-politician Gurpreet Ghuggi, who is close to the former Amritsar MP and was also negotiating with him on behalf of AAP, denies it.

Navjot Singh Sidhu has kept everyone in suspense. (HT File Photo)

“We are eagerly waiting for Sidhu’s decision. He wanted some time. If he (Sidhu) puts Punjab above everything else, I am sure he will join us. His presence will benefit the party and the state,” says Ghuggi.

Read | After AAP, Amarinder Singh says Sidhu is welcome to join Congress

‘Will dent AAP’s NRI, Sikh fan following’

But like the BJP, the AAP is in no hurry to disown the Sidhus – the former cricketer’s wife is a BJP MLA.

The AAP is keen to put an end to the Chhotepur controversy and wants a Sikh face to counter allegations that Delhi leaders are “targeting” those from Punjab.

Sidhu is keeping up the suspense and his wife Navjot Kaur is looking to play hardball. “Sidhu out of BJP, still in BJP, all options open, AAP best option and AAP not only option,” she had told mediapersons.

Amid all the talk swirling around the Sidhus, the Congress is sitting pretty.

Though efforts are on to woo Sidhu, the party does not want to appear too eager. Punjab Congress in-charge Asha Kumari says the Sidhus are still with the BJP and it is them who should reach out to the Congress. “Our stand has been clear and consistent. It is for Sidhu to decide where he wants to go. The doors of Congress are open for everyone,” she says.

Amarinder is out wooing Chhotepur to prevent a split in the anti-incumbency vote. But Chhotepur is unlikely to join either the Congress or disgruntled AAP MPs Dharamvira Gandhi and Harinder Singh Khalsa.

Read | Amarinder not the alternative for Punjab, says Dr Sidhu

“Whether Sidhu decides to join the AAP or not, it cannot create the same euphoria among the media and voters. Sidhu, too, has come out as indecisive and a hard-bargainer while his wife’s flip-flop has dented their credibility. The AAP hype in Punjab too has fizzled out,” a senior Congress leader said.

Sucha Singh Chhotepur interacting with the media in Chandigarh hours before the AAP sacked him. (HT File Photo)

As Kejriwal’s party fights its own battles, the Congress will launch its door-to-door campaign from September 5. While party cadres will fan out in all constituencies, surveys will be conducted to pick the best candidates and weed out the “undesired” ones.

Sidhu, Pargat, SuchaI: New troika?

In the border state’s fast-changing pollscape, speculation is that Sidhu, suspended Shiromani Akali Dal MLA Pargat Singh and Chhotepur may come together.

“There is no going back to the SAD. It’s nice of Amarinder to offer that I should join the Congress. But my decision will be based on what’s good for Punjab,” the former Indian hockey captain told HT. It is widely held that Pargat and Sidhu will go one way.