Congress divided over Mann of the moment

CM’s sharp rebuff to Ludhiana MP Bittu’s pitch for inducting Sangrur MP into party underscores internal conflict in both AAP and Congress

punjab Updated: Jun 15, 2018 10:12 IST
Sukhdeep Kaur
Sukhdeep Kaur
Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
Congress,Ludhiana MP Ravneet Bittu,Aam Aadmi Party
AAP MP Bhagwant Mann(HT File)

When Ludhiana MP Ravneet Bittu batted for the induction of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Bhagwant Mann into the Congress, Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh was quick to snub him publicly through a media statement.

A “surprised” Captain asked Bittu not to speak outside the party forum on issues that could be “detrimental to interests” of the Congress in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Amarinder’s riposte to late CM Beant Singh’s political heir has underscored the internal conflict in both AAP and the Congress. Mann, who resigned as Punjab AAP chief after the party’s national convener and Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal offered an “unconditional” apology to Akali leader Bikram Singh Majithia over drug trafficking allegations, wants to dump AAP.

“He sees it (AAP) as a sinking ship in Punjab. Also, no one from the Delhi leadership has spoken to him to take back the resignation,” says a leader close to him.

Though pitted against Shiromani Akali Dal president Sukhbir Badal and Bittu in a triangular contest in Jalalabad during the assembly polls last year, the Sangrur MP is friends with his Ludhiana counterpart.

Bittu says he is keen on Mann’s inclusion as the latter is a crowd puller and can be the party’s star campaigner in the parliamentary polls. “But as advised by the CM, I will speak to him (CM) and Punjab Congress president Sunil Jakhar about it,” he said.

Mann also has a sympathiser in Jakhar. The Sangrur MP has often joined ranks with the Gurdaspur MP and Bittu inside the Lok Sabha. Jakhar, however, refuses to be drawn into the controversy. “We have come together in the Lok Sabha cutting across party lines only on issues concerning the state. Any decision on taking in someone who had contested against a Congress candidate rests with the party high command. Also, Mann is a sitting MP,” Jakhar said.

Congress leaders supporting Mann’s entry feel it would totally dismantle AAP in Punjab. Two of AAP’s four MPs are already under suspension for “anti-leadership” remarks. If three of the four switch over to the Congress, it makes it a two-third split, not in conflict with the anti-defection law.

It will also give the party a challenger against Sukhbir’s wife and Union food processing minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal in the Bathinda segment. But the Amarinder camp sees Mann’s entry as an alignment that will consolidate position of Bittu, who is part of Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s youth brigade and enjoys his and Jakhar’s confidence.

Also, while the CM is seen as going “soft” on the Badals, Mann’s mainstay in politics is Badal-bashing. Bittu too has openly demanded that they be sent to jail, a sentiment that resonates with many Congressmen. Amarinder, according to his close aide, also wants Mann to approach him directly for being accepted into the party fold.

Slugfest over Sangrur

The bone of contention is also learnt to be the Sangrur Lok Sabha seat. Sangrur is up for grabs as Congress nominee Vijay Inder Singla, who lost the last the parliamentary polls, is now a minister in the Amarinder Singh cabinet. Singla, according to Congress sources, is not keen to contest but does not want to lose his home turf to Mann, and therefore, is opposed to his entry. He reportedly has used his good equation with general secretary in-charge of Punjab, Asha Kumari, to prompt Captain to snub Bittu. Also, eyeing the seat are Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, Kewal Dhillon and a member of CM’s family.

Mann too is not willing to give up his claim. “My victory margin was the highest in Punjab. I have nurtured the seat with MPLAD funds to give it streetlights, roads and ambulances. Why should I leave it?” he says.

The comedian-turned politician is not burning bridges with AAP either. “I will not take my resignation back. But I will contest elections and campaign for the party as people throng my rallies and love my political digs,” he says.

First Published: Jun 15, 2018 09:54 IST