The ruling Shiromani Akali Dal, which found itself in a politico-religious minefield after incidents of sacrilege and police firing on protesters, was able to turn the debate to a political slugfest by accusing the Congress of flirting with radicals who organised the ‘Sarbat Khalsa’ on November 10. But the Congress has served an ace by bringing back former chief minister Capt Amarinder Singh to the helm of affairs in Punjab Congress.
Amarinder’s appointment has spiked the political temperatures in Punjab to feverish levels more than a year before elections. Known for his confrontationist politics, Amarinder has thrown the gauntlet at the ruling Akalis by announcing to hold his coronation rally at Bathinda — the bastion of the Badals. The challenge for holding a rally at Bathinda had come from deputy chief minister Sukhbir Badal during his Sadbhawna rally. Though the ruling Akalis’ counter to the ‘Sarbat Khalsa’, the rallies have ironically ended whatever little goodwill remained between the SAD and Congress.
The dice has been cast with Captain’s anointment and the two parties are not even wasting their time in warming up for election. A no-holds-barred war of words started on the day Captain was appointed with Sukhbir calling the former “an old lion” and Amarinder roaring back at the Badals terming their decade-long rule as “disastrous” and claiming that “scared Akali leaders and ministers are afraid to venture out these days”.
The Badals are pinning their hopes on the fact that Amarinder — not known to be a vigorous campaigner — may not be able to run a marathon. He will also have to match the father-son chemistry. While the CM ploughs from village to village holding sangat darshan, the son is a man of detail and seems to have mastered the art of micro-managing polls.
Amarinder is in comfortable territory while dealing with the Badals, especially after they have been tamed by recent setbacks. It is his combat strategy for Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party — which is a force to reckon with in Punjab and a third alternative that has changed the state’s bipolar politics — that will decide the Congress’ fortunes in 2017.
The wild card
Despite the dissensions in its ranks — two of its four MPs have been suspended after turning rebels — and no credible CM face to challenge Amarinder and Badal, AAP remains the wild card in Punjab elections. Kejriwal has decided to stay put in Punjab six months before elections to spin a victory from voters “disillusioned” with both the parties. Amarinder, who has more than once admitted that AAP is a formidable contender, knows only too well that it may not just play a spoiler but a principal player in the elections. Kejriwal may even spring a few surprises in the final rounds.
No wonder the erstwhile royal who had snubbed potential allies in the 2012 polls is wiser after two poll drubbings and is likely to extend a hand of friendship to the CM’s estranged nephew Manpreet Badal, whose People’s Party of Punjab has been pushed to the oblivion. He may also like to get the left parties on board as polls near. The Akalis, on their part, have an ally in the BJP and a hidden one in the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) which cuts into Congress Dalit votes in Doaba — the Dalit heartland — by contesting elections on its own. It also explains why Sukhbir has not targeted BSP leaders who attended the ‘Sarbat Khalsa’.
Punjab is all set for a clash of personalities — Captain versus Badal versus Kejriwal. The new Congress president has hit the ground running. The Akalis are trying to regain “lost ground” while Kejriwal is yet to emerge on the poll scene. It will be a marathon, not a sprint, and political parties would have to be prepared for the long haul to gain an edge during the final rounds.