He is not a man known to keep his secrets. But Punjab Congress president Capt Amarinder Singh kept even his loyalists guessing when it came to boycotting the Khadoor Sahib bypoll. Till Tuesday morning, MLA Rana Gurjit Singh, political mentor of party candidate Ramanjit Sikki, who was to accompany him for filing the nomination papers, could only guess as several others if a boycott was in the offing.
Before Amarinder let the cat out of the bag on Wednesday, he had tested the waters by leaking news of the possibility of a boycott before a few in media and Congress circles. He had tried to know the mind of senior leaders such as campaign committee chairperson Ambika Soni and his predecessor Partap Bajwa on the same day as announcement of the bypoll at the latter’s luncheon at his native Qadian on January 12.
Talking to HT on the sidelines of the meet-the-press programme here, Amarinder said it was as early as January 16-17 that he had sent his inputs to the party high command that they should boycott the bypoll. Downplaying reports that the advice came from Prashant Kishor, the poll-winning strategist of PM Narendra Modi and Bihar CM Nitish Kumar who Amarinder wants to rope in to manage the Punjab polls, he said, “We got Prashant’s inputs much later. We had sent our views before he sent his to us.” Sikki’s sentiments against contesting the bypoll, which Amarinder cited as the main reason for opting out, came only days later as Amarinder stated January 21 as the date of Sikki’s letter to him.
The following are the reasons why Amarinder chose to give the bypoll a miss:
Fear of govt might
With their prestige at stake and their political graph only moving downwards after sacrilege incidents, Amarinder feared the ruling Badals would unleash the entire state force to win Khadoor Sahib through “lure and intimidation”. He often says bypolls are not a barometer of popularity of a political party but the might of the government.
The reluctance of Sikki to recontest a seat he resigned from on a highly emotive issue with no headway in investigations into them gave Amarinder a protagonist for the boycott script. As had been questioned by his detractors within and outside his party, Sikki would have to justify not only why he was re-contesting but also why he forced a bypoll on the people in the first place. The Congress needed to find answers to both before it could hit the campaign trail. An emotional and devout Sikh, Sikki was clear his reasons for resignation remained unaddressed.
The party decided to use Sikki’s resignation and reluctance to contest to its advantage by playing the religion card. Amarinder, who had earlier resigned from the Congress at the Centre in 1984 over Operation Bluestar and later from the Surjit Singh Barnala government in Punjab in 1986 after yet another commando entry into the Golden Temple to arrest radicals demanding Khalistan, has struck a more-Panthic-than thou pitch to steal the thunder of Akalis and AAP, the party which is also eying the Panthic votes.
Wary of defeat
Among reasons that could make the difference between contesting and not contesting, fear of defeat weighed the most. A bypoll defeat could seriously dent the party’s image for the big contest in 2017. It would also have emboldened the dissenting voices against Amarinder within the party. Though Amarinder said it was a consensus decision taken keeping senior state Congress leaders in the loop, that they were not consulted is evident from the silence of Ambika Soni, Partap Bajwa, former Congress Legislature Party leader Sunil Jakhar and PCC senior vice-president Lal Singh and the eagerness of those like former CM Rajinder Kaur Bhattal and CLP leader Charanjit Channi in endorsing it.
If AAP can, so can we
Senior Congress leaders say it is for the first time that the party is shying away from a contest in Punjab. But Amarinder found a precedent in the AAP, which has clearly set its eyes on 2017 and is not ready to waste time, money and resources on a bypoll that usually swings the ruling party’s way. So the logic: if the AAP can, so can the Congress. And though he says the AAP is not a serious threat, the message behind the Maghi mela rallies of Aam Aadmi Party, Congress and Shiromani Akali Dal is clear—the AAP is a serious challenger and the Congress can no longer rely on riding the anti-incumbency wave in a revolving-door poll history.