The May 19 poll verdict in five states — with the Congress losing Kerala and Assam and its alliances in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu facing a drubbing — has upped the stakes for the party in Punjab. It’s not only where it can hope for a rebound, salvaging Punjab is also important in terms of the perception game.
Punjab is among the next lot of five states that go to polls early next year, including Uttar Pradesh, Manipur, Goa and Uttarakhand.
Unlike other poll-bound states, a loss in Punjab to the rookie Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) will embolden the latter to challenge the Congress in other states where it is in opposition. The prospect of losing even the opposition slot to Arvind Kejriwal’s party that is working aggressively towards having a national footprint makes Punjab crucial to the very survival of the Congress in the country.
This is why party’s poll strategist Prashant Kishor is giving Punjab as much importance as Uttar Pradesh, if not more. In UP, much of Congress fortunes will depend on the alliances it is able to forge or if it at all plays “a Gandhi as CM face card”. Without that, even a reasonable performance will be good enough seeing that the party has been reduced to its lowest tally of 28 in the 2012 state polls. Though the Congress government in Uttarakhand has been able to survive a floor test and a coup attempt, it will have to battle strong anti-incumbency to romp home.
Though the party had braced for the worst, the May 19 verdict will hit the Congress prospects in Punjab even as the personal stakes for Punjab Congress president Captain Amarinder Singh, who has announced it to be his last election, have gone up by several notches. Recent surveys have predicted a perceptible wave in favour of the AAP. The ‘Panthic’-rural appeal of the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) coupled with its president Sukhbir Badal’s poll management make it a party that cannot be written off on the ground of two-term anti-incumbency. It may also gain from split in anti-incumbency votes between the Congress and the AAP.
In the face of it all, the Congress is still hoping for redemption after two successive poll drubbings.
Unlike the AAP, in Amarinder, the party has a CM candidate, never mind the timing of his announcement as one. Not averse to playing second fiddle in alliances with regional parties in Tamil Nadu and Bihar, in Punjab, the Congress has managed to merge smaller parties such as People’s Party of Punjab and SAD (Longowal) into it though the Left and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) have not responded positively to Amarinder’s call for a grand alliance, the recent election results may change that.
Full-throttle campaign from June
The poll verdict, however, failed to dampen spirits of the party. Congress Bhawan in Chandigarh remained abuzz with activity the whole day as the party prepared for a onslaught on the AAP from June with members of its different cells and frontal organisations. Some were even distributing sweets after their inclusion in the recent list of state executive. “The Congress knew it will have to start from zero after the poll verdict on May 19. Our campaign will take off after we hit rock bottom,” a senior Congress functionary said.
Kishor is learnt to have decided to launch the campaign full throttle from June after the May 19 verdict. Roping in both its central and state leadership, the party will try to counter AAP’s ‘Punjab Dialogue’ by engaging people in deciding Punjab’s agenda. Though it claims AAP’s ‘Punjab Jodo’ campaign has fizzled out, it will go village-to-village, door-to-door from next month to cover each household.