Captain announces Cong boycott of Khadoor Sahib byelection
After much flip-flop on whether the Congress would contest the February 13 Khadoor Sahib bypoll, Punjab party unit chief Captain Amarinder Singh had his way as he announced a boycott hours before the nomination process ended on Wednesday.
The former chief minister again deftly played the Panthic card to sell the boycott as the party’s protest against the state government’s failure to nab the culprits of sacrilege of Guru Granth Sahib and “unprovoked” police firing on Sikh protesters in October last year -- the reasons which led to Ramanjit Singh Sikki’s resignation as the Khadoor Sahib MLA.
Amarinder chose to play it safe as part of his larger strategy for the high-stakes 2017 assembly polls, which, by his own admission, is his last elections and for which he would take no chances. After his swear-by-gutka act at his ‘coronation’ rally at Bathinda in December, this is the second time that the Captain has struck a more-Panthic-than-thou pitch to outdo the Akalis on the Panthic pedestal. Amarinder, who had earlier denied that Sikki had expressed his reluctance to contest, said the decision was based on the latter’s sentiments.
During a meet-the-press programme at Chandigarh Press Club, Amarinder said: “Sikki wrote to me on January 21, saying that he resigned over the issues of sacrilege of Guru Granth Sahib and death of two protesters in police firing, and that he would not like to contest as the government has failed to act against the culprits on both counts. I agreed with his sentiments and sent his letter to party president Sonia Gandhi. Though she approved Sikki’s name, she left it to me to take the final call. We have decided that the sacrilege of Guru Garnth Sahib is a bigger issue than contesting the Khadoor Sahib bypoll. It is not important if we win another seat. How will CM Parkash Singh Badal and Akalis justify why they are contesting the bypoll?”
Political tremors in own, rival camps
Coming a day after the All India Congress Committee (AICC) announced Sikki’s name, the news set off political tremors in the Akali-BJP and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) camps, but the first ones were felt within the Congress itself. Even as Amarinder was addressing the media, former Congress MP Jagmeet Brar lost no time in hammering the former CM with his tweets. He said Amarinder had played a big fraud with the party high command as Sonia Gandhi had announced Sikki’s name. “Amarinder has backstabbed again and the party has dug its own grave. He is using Guru Granth Sahib as a shield for political purposes,” Brar said.
Calling it a unilateral decision taken by Amarinder without taking them into confidence, several senior Congress leaders said the party would appear like running away from a contest and the high command’s authority, too, had been undermined. Signalling his disapproval, Amarinder’s predecessor Partap Singh Bajwa said he had no comment to make on the issue, while AICC general secretary Shakeel Ahmad, too, struck a discordant note, saying that the AICC was in favour of the contest.
“The AICC made it clear that the party wants to contest the bypoll and Sikki’s name was announced as he was the best candidate. But after receiving his letter, we authorised the Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee to take the final call keeping Sikki’s sentiments in mind, and the PPCC took the decision to boycott the bypoll,” Ahmad told HT.
As expected, the ruling SAD -- which now remains the only mainstream political party in the fray -- said the Congress had fled out of fear of a “certain and humiliating defeat”. The Aam Aadmi Party, which had announced its decision not to contest the bypoll soon after Sikki’s resignation was accepted, said the boycott reeked of a secret pact between the Congress and the SAD.
Amarinder was left firefighting the Opposition and his own party leaders’ onslaught. He dubbed AAP’s charge as “pot calling the kettle black” as the party was the first to flee from the contest. He dismissed Brar as “someone who loves to plough a lonely furrow”.
The Captain’s reasons to opt out may be more than Sikki’s sentiments. The former CM, under whose command the party has lost two back-to-back elections, is obviously taking no chances in his last poll battle. A victory won’t be more than a morale-booster but a defeat -- which he believes the ruling party is capable of inflicting through “arm-twisting” -- can make it an inauspicious start to the grand finale in 2017.