The unprecedented sit-in and sleepover protest by Congress MLAs inside the Punjab assembly hall entered its second night on Tuesday as several efforts, including a visit by chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, failed to convince them to end their dharna, which had started at 6pm on Monday after their no-confidence motion was declared defeated by the speaker.
Twenty-one legislators — half the Congress strength, and all men — were still inside the House till the filing of the report at 9pm, set to sleep in the well of the House, while the ruling SAD-BJP combine readied to move a breach-of-privilege motion against them on Wednesday, the concluding day of this government’s last session before the elections due early next year.
The Congress, too, planned for the Wednesday showdown inside, with sources telling HT that they will not allow any business to be taken up until the speaker resumes discussion on the trust motion. Rules say another such motion cannot be moved in the same session.
The speaker’s office, on its part, called in additional police personnel for security inside the House on Wednesday.
Though 27 legislators had started the agitation, some had left on Monday night and a few in the morning. Most were not allowed to return after the Vidhan Sabha complex was cordoned off up to 500 metres after 9.30am.
Though majority of the MLAs said they were not able to take a bath and had no change of clothes, supporters of some were seen carrying food and medicines inside. The MLAs continued to release pictures, videos and statements to the media as also posting these on social media. This included a selfie by Gidderbaha MLA and Youth Congress national president Amrinder Singh ‘Raja’ Warring that showed him and three other MLAs brushing their teeth!
Outside, at least eight MLAs, including former CM Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, Lal Singh and Brahm Mohindra who had left on Monday night, held a protest at the high court chowk where they burnt the CM’s effigy. Terming the whole affair a constitutional crisis, Bhattal sought Punjab governor VP Singh Badnore’s intervention. Lal Singh said he spoke to the speaker in the morning to end the stalemate, “but in vain”
Badal the ‘elder’
The CM office sprung into action at noon after which Badal went in for a meeting at 1.10pm that lasted around 20 minutes; but the MLAs told him they won’t leave until speaker Charanjit Singh Atwal agrees to resume the debate on the no-confidence motion. Badal expressed helplessness, saying that is the speaker’s prerogative, and urged them to meet Atwal on Wednesday. Atwal was away in Ludhiana for a medical procedure at a private hospital on Tuesday.
CMO officials said Badal decided to meet the protesting MLAs “as an elder”. Congress leaders protesting outside had left by the time Badal reached. The CMO later emailed pictures of Badal facing the MLAs with folded hands. “I am deeply pained by the sequence of events and I appeal to you with folded hands, both in my personal capacity and as Leader of the House, to end the sit-in,” his statement read. He said he would have come even earlier but for delay in entry permission from the speaker.
But leader of opposition Charanjit Singh Channi termed Badal’s visit a gimmick. About Monday night’s ordeal, he said, “They keep switching off our lights and air-conditioners. We had no food and water for long hours. But we are fighting for Punjab and will not let the government browbeat us.”
Senior Congress MLA Sunil Jakhar, who remained inside, said over the phone that the government is not serious about people’s issues, “and that’s why it’s running away from a serious debate.”
In the evening, assembly officials too tried to negotiate a resolution with the MLAs, who were divided for a while over the offer, even as Warring and Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa eventually stayed steadfast against any talks. But the dharna group continued to ask the speaker’s office to switch on the AC. At this, assembly secretary Shashi Lakhanpal Mishra stuck to her “helpless” stance, saying that’s a decision of the Chandigarh administration.
For some comfort, Ludhiana MLA Bharat Bhushan Ashu’s supporters carried a dry-cleaned kurta-pyjama. For diabetes-patient Sangat Singh Gilzian, a man brought an insulin kit, while for Raja Warring a briefcase containing clothes and other things was sent in. Exotic fruits, water, cold drinks, juices, home-cooked food went in at regular intervals, and the assembly staff had deputed a person at the barricades to collect these.
“I am pained at the inconvenience you (Cong MLAs) have gone through. I request you to protest in the right way and appeal with folded hands to join the assembly proceedings on Wednesday.” - Parkash Singh Badal, chief minister
Badal is only shedding crocodile tears. Had he been sincere, he as leader of the House should have allowed Congress MLAs to speak on the no-confidence motion.” - Capt Amarinder Singh, Punjab Congress chief
Day-and-night match: Timeline
5.30 am: First, of the 27 MLAs inside, 4 women leave House in morning, only Aruna Chaudhary re-enters and later leaves; later, some other MLAs too leave to go home to freshen up
9.30 am: Assembly secretariat order sealing of complex; perimeter up to 500 metres cordoned off; MP Ambika Soni arrives with breakfast but refused entry
11-noon: Cong MLAs who left assembly on Monday night or Tuesday morning are refused entry; sit on dharna on roadside; 2 managed to re-enter earlier after altercation with security staff; those protesting outside burn effigy of CM and leave to meet governor, but never reach there
1.10 pm: CM Badal meets protesting MLAs for 20 mins
2 pm: Protesting MLAs manage to switch on lights inside hall; ACs not functional
4-6 pm: Message sent by assembly secretariat for meeting for resolution; it’s rejected by MLAs eventually
10.30-11 pm: Dinner arrives, MLAs settle in for the night with pillows and sheets