He is down but not out. Former Punjab Congress president Partap Singh Bajwa may have been upstaged by Captain Amarinder Singh but he says 2017 will not be the last election for him, since unlike Amarinder, he has age on his side. In an interview to HT assistant editor Sukhdeep Kaur, Bajwa said he would stay in state politics and Amarinder would have to employ senior party leaders like him in campaigning and work as a team for the Congress to make a comeback in Punjab.
Q. The year 2015 started with the talks of your ouster and ended with your being removed unceremoniously from the presidency of the Punjab Congress. How would you rate it?
A. It was a very challenging year. Every other month or week, the ruling Akali-BJP alliance was courting one controversy or the other and I ensured that we did not leave the space for any other opposition party. It was for the first time that we were able to turn the heat on the ruling Badals directly and the country got to know about their vast business interests. So far, they had been getting away by making others a scapegoat. Like in the drugs case, they made deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal’s brother-in-law and revenue minister Bikram Singh Majithia face the heat. The party cadre was with me but I could not get the same kind of support from some senior party leaders. That was the biggest reason for being replaced.
Q. Do you feel your party made you the scapegoat. Is there any bitterness at being asked to make way for Amarinder?
A. I was taken into confidence by party vice-president Rahul Gandhi on how to end the leadership logjam. I told him it would serve no purpose to head the party, if infighting made us lose another election. Punjab is at a crossroads and we cannot let the Congress lose thrice in a row. So before Rahul came to Bathinda and Faridkot in November, I had an inkling that things were going to change. So I said in my speech before Rahul and other state leaders there that I was willing to make any sacrifice for the party. I told Rahul if the party appreciated my hard work, it was a great achievement for me. He assured me that party president (Sonia Gandhi) and he would look after me and my people. There is no bitterness and I let bygones be bygones.
Q. Would you like to remain in state politics and contest upcoming polls?
A. I would like to stay in state politics. I will contest the Qadian seat in 2017. I have represented the constituency three times and now my wife, Charanjit Kaur Bajwa, is MLA from there.
Q. Beyond contesting, what role do you foresee for yourself in the party?
A. My role has to be decided by my party high-command. Everybody has a role to play in a party. A sarpanch alone cannot run a village; he needs to take the help of village elders. The countdown for the 2017 elections has begun and we have to cover more than 12,500 villages and 117 seats. The state party president cannot do it alone. He can utilise me to campaign in different parts of the state or among voters of different strata. The state’s youth are disillusioned with the established parties. The Congress has to reach out to them in colleges and universities. People like me can be of use in winning them over.
Q. Amarinder has declared 2017 to be his last election. Are you looking beyond 2022 now for heading the party?
A. I have no choice but to look beyond 2022. It will be Amarinder’s last election, not mine. I am 57, he is 75. I have age on my side.
Q. Amarinder is talking about a grand alliance but there are murmurs of dissent within the Congress on going with Manpreet Badal. What is your take?
A. Even during the 2012 state elections, I was in favour of aligning with like-minded parties. We have lost two polls by a slender margin of 1%-or-less vote share. Amarinder has endorsed my stand, finally. Not just Manpreet’s People’s Party of Punjab (PPP), the Congress should bring the CPI, CPM, BSP and splinter Akali factions also on board. If the party leadership is able to stitch a grand alliance in Uttar Pradesh, which goes to polls at the same time as Punjab, the Congress and BSP can tie-up in Punjab, too. It would help us sweep the Dalit-dominated Doaba belt - where we fared poorly in the last elections - and also consolidate the Dalit vote in other parts. A grand alliance is a necessity, as we also have to contend with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).
Q. What should be the Congress strategy vis-a-vis the AAP and the SAD-BJP?
A. The BJP is a party of traders. It does not care two hoots about the interests of farmers. The dismantling of the MSP (minimum support price) regime by the party has to be highlighted by the Congress. The Akalis have been in power for 10 long years. They have the money and the muscle power, besides police and the bureaucracy on their side. They cannot be written off. As for the AAP, we have to reach out to young voters and the diaspora. It is going to be a very challenging election.
Q. Since you have buried the hatchet, are you looking forward to working as a team?
A. A politician can never sit idle. I have a B-team in every single constituency and it will have to be looked after. It depends on Amarinder how much role he gives me so that his role also becomes easier. Whether he would work as a team or not, I would not like to go down in history as someone who put a spanner in the works and hurt his party’s poll prospects. Only those teams succeed that work as a team. In victory, there is something for everyone, while in defeat, there is none.