The poaching game in poll-bound Punjab is on. The ruling Shiromani Akali Dal, Congress and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) are wooing potential turncoats to prevent them from joining the rival camp. After the Congress failed to prevent a few of its leaders from joining Arvind Kejriwal’s bandwagon, it has been working overtime to prevent the confidants of People’s Party of Punjab (PPP) founder and former finance minister Manpreet Badal from going the AAP way.
A day before Manpreet met Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi in New Delhi on Friday to announce the merger of the two parties, the Congress was anxious to know if Gurpreet Bhatti, Manpreet’s key strategist, would follow suit or show up at the AAP rally at the Maghi mela. Interestingly, Manpreet was in talks with both the AAP and the Congress with Bhatti being the negotiator.
Manpreet decided to go with the Congress, also since he has a direct connect with Rahul, and as of now the AAP in Punjab is more like a house on fire owing to internal wranglings and Manpreet would not have found easy acceptance. Though Punjab Congress chief Capt Amarinder Singh finally got Manpreet on board after a meeting with Rahul before the Maghi mela and the three decided to make it official on January 15, the worries of the Congress came true on Friday -- the day of the merger -- as Manpreet’s key team comprising Bhatti, Dr Navjot Singh Dahiya and Raja Gurpreet stayed away. All three have different concerns though.
Man with deep pockets
Bhatti, who had contested the 2012 elections on a PPP ticket from Khanna but lost to Congress candidate Gurkirat Kotli, has more goodwill owing to his deep pockets and old affiliations with the Akali Dal -- his father was the president of Sirhind municipal committee and his uncle, Didar Singh Bhatti, won on an SAD ticket from Fatehgarh Sahib in 2007 but was denied the ticket in the 2012 elections. Bhatti would like to be in the winning team or at least get a better bargain. The Congress is learnt to be eager to even offer him a Rajya Sabha seat -- three of its seats in Punjab are due to fall vacant, including that of former union minister Manohar Singh Gill, who is not likely to get a re-nomination.
When contacted, Bhatti refused to comment which way he intended to go. “I have not left the PPP or its ideology. Since the party is now extinct, it is for me to decide which way I go,” he said. Riding high on the popularity wave in Punjab, the AAP may not mind fielding Bhatti from assembly seats such as Samrala, Amloh, Khanna or Fatehgarh Sahib -- where his family has a political standing. Their old party, Akali Dal, has also sent him feelers to return to its fold.
Weighing the best deal
During the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Manpreet had met Kejriwal for a tie-up but the two could not seal a deal. The estranged nephew of chief minister Parkash Singh Badal then contested unsuccessfully on the Congress symbol from Bathinda against sister-in-law Harsimrat Badal. Though in the last six months, Manpreet had met Rahul to discuss the possibility of coming together, the former had still not given up on the AAP and it was Bhatti who was in talks with Kejriwal’s Punjab team, including state affairs in-charge Sanjay Singh and national organisation building head Durgesh Pathak.
Capt Amarinder Singh was aware of the situation and did not want the AAP to get its Punjab face in Manpreet. He, too, intensified efforts to woo Manpreet and Bhatti. Though the duo’s discussions with the AAP, too, had reached final stages, the Delhi AAP leadership was taking time to convince its Punjab leaders to agree on getting a Badal into the party fold. “The entire poll rhetoric of the AAP in Punjab is based on Badal-bashing. Some Punjab AAP leaders opposed the idea tooth and nail while many volunteers took to social media to vent their anger. So the party was taking time to decide over Manpreet’s induction,” an AAP leader said. While Bhatti weighs his options, other confidants of Manpreet such as Dr Navjot Dahiya and Raja Gurpreet, too, are trying to gauge if their tickets are assured in the Congress before taking the final plunge.