The Congress’ reluctance to outrightly project Captain Amarinder Singh as its chief ministerial nominee in the Punjab assembly polls could deprive it of its initial advantage over the Akali Dal-BJP combine in the state. To make matters worse, a section of the party is busy fuelling speculation that if not Singh, the Congress chief may consider his wife, Preneet Kaur — who’s a minister of state at the Centre — for the top job in case the Congress wins. The oft-repeated argument of not projecting Singh is that the Congress decides its CM after the polls and, therefore, there is nothing unusual about this.
This means that the Grand Old Party of India refuses to learn from its past mistakes where the absence of a chief ministerial candidate has cost it dearly in polls. At the national level, when the UPA decided to continue with Manmohan Singh and made him its prime ministerial nominee in 2009, it secured 60 seats more than it did in 2004.
The reason for the Congress getting weak in states is that it has failed to develop or nurture the full potential of its regional leaders. Wherever it has done, the party has won. Andhra Pradesh in 2004 and 2009 is an example on how YS Rajasekhara Reddy delivered. In Delhi, Sheila Dikshit has made a major contribution to the party’s success story. In Haryana, Bhupinder Singh Hooda has brought some stability. But the problem in Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Bihar and many other states is that there is no clear-cut regional leader who has been allowed to establish himself. In Himachal Pradesh, the Congress will lose on day one itself if Virbhadra Singh, the tallest leader from the state, is not part of the campaign.
Punjab has always liked its leaders to be strong and assertive. Parkash Singh Badal, who is at the end of his political innings, is construed to be a very tall and decisive personality. His son, Sukhbir, who is seen as his virtual successor, is well versed in politics and knows the ground realities very well. Captain Amarinder Singh is perhaps the only Congress leader who can take them head-on. The erstwhile Maharaja of Patiala has the charisma and the guile to take the Akalis on their own turf. Strategically, he is the best bet and the only one who can bring the power back to his party, a fact recognised partially by his own party chief, who made him the Pradesh Congress Committee president last year.
The Akalis know that they are on the backfoot and have shifted their strategy accordingly. From a party which was totally communal in nature, since, as per its constitution, it is committed to serve only the Sikh Community, it has tried to project itself as a party of the Punjabis and not Sikhs alone. This is evident from the highest number of tickets (11) given to Hindus by the Akali Dal this time. The image makeover also includes being soft on Sikhs who trim their beards. The party ticket given to former Indian Hockey captain Pargat Singh is one such example.
The BJP, which contributed to the formation of the government last time, has also somewhat reviewed its strategy, even if it hasn’t been able to rub off the corruption taint from some of its former ministers. The issue in Punjab today is anti-incumbency against the ruling combine as well as corruption.
The intense anti-Congress feeling in the rest of the country, on matters of corruption at the national level and the phenomenal price rise, are till now being overshadowed by local issues. But once the Congress national leaders, including Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Manmohan Singh, hit the campaign trail later this week, their opponents will bring them in the poll arena in a big way.
The ticket distribution for the Congress hasn’t been done on the winability factor. The advantage that it has at the moment will fritter away if the party chief doesn’t take decisive and bold decisions to strengthen the campaign.