AAP bets on 'top guns' on tough seats, but Congress won't bite the bait
Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) chief Arvind Kejriwal may be playing his own game in Punjab polls. The Delhi CM had taken on BJP's Narendra Modi from Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. For both Modi and Kejriwal, contesting from Uttar Pradesh was high on symbolism. It helped the saffron party sweep the most politically-important state. Kejriwal too reaped dividends eight months later when he pulled off a spectacular win in Delhi elections.
At a time the Congress in Punjab is trying to stem the rebellion on the 77 seats announced so far and is delaying the remaining 40 where a consensus still eludes the party, Kejriwal is trying to gain an edge over the Congress in the perception game by putting its "best men" forward and showing he wants to challenge the Badals in their den.
Kejriwal also has his compulsions. The AAP campaign peaked much ahead of the elections in Punjab and thereafter, the party has hurtled from one controversy to another. Now, Kejriwal is trying to bring back the momentum by announcing his party's "top guns" against ruling Badal family. On Wednesday, he declared firebrand Delhi MLA Jarnail Singh from Lambi, the seat represented by Punjab CM Parkash Singh Badal. He has already pitched party MP Bhagwant Mann from Jalalabad, the seat of SAD president and deputy CM Sukhbir Badal. When AAP was facing open rebellion on many seats after being the first to go off the block with ticket distribution, the Congress had tried to make most of its misfortunes by launching one campaign after another to woo youth, farmers and other segments.
Kejriwal is also challenging Congress too to follow suit or else it risks being seen as "colluding with the ruling SAD". But Punjab Congress chief Captain Amarinder Singh is not willing to bite the bait. The former CM goes by the logic — top leaders should get winning seats and tough ones are for "appeasing" those who cannot win.
The Congress had experimented with putting its top leaders in fray during the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Amarinder took on BJP leader Arun Jaitley at Amritsar and Partap Bajwa was once again pitted against Bollywod actor Vinod Khanna. Then Punjab leader of opposition Sunil Jakhar and Rajya Sabha MP Ambika Soni too contested Ferozepur and Anandpur Sahib seats, respectively, while Preneet Kaur was given the responsibility to defend her own turf, Patiala. The party won the prestige battle at Amritsar where Amarinder defeated Arun Jaitley (now Union finance minister) but all its big guns missed the target.
It was the rookie AAP that won four of the 13 seats in Punjab, against three by the Congress. But the theory was nevertheless again deliberated within the Congress this time too. There were speculations that top leaders, including Amarinder and Ludhiana MP Ravneet Bittu, take on CM and Sukhbir, respectively, to beat Kejriwal propaganda that "Amarinder is in cahoots with the Badals". But the Punjab Congress chief rubbished the idea. "We will find the best candidates for Jalalabad and Lambi. I started my political innings from Patiala and will end it there. Why should we field a sitting MP and then face a bypoll? I have challenged to fight against Kejriwal from any seat he chooses. By fielding a 'petty little' journalist like Jarnail, he has shown he is hand-in-glove with the Badals," Amarinder told HT on Wednesday.
Not all is going as per Captain's calculation that some seats are for "appeasing" those he has given his word to. After MLA Karan Brar was able to retain Muktsar, Amarinder wants to "keep his word" to Bhai Kuku by giving him Kotkapura. But a local leader, Ajaypal Sandhu, who has the backing of Amarinder loyalist Kushaldeep Dhillon, the Faridkot candidate, is a strong contender and is not willing to settle for assurance of "next time". Similarly, his choice from Ludhiana East, former union minister Manish Tewari, is not finding favour with the Ludhiana team of MP Bittu. He has also yet to succeed in convincing Pargat Singh to move out of Jalandhar Cantt in favour of loyalist former MLA Jagbir Brar.