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What made BJP appoint Shwait Malik as Punjab unit president?

Shwait Malik’s appointment on Saturday as Punjab unit chief of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) underlined the oft-cited dictum in politics: Never say never again!

punjab Updated: Mar 31, 2018 23:03 IST
Ravinder Vasudeva and Surjit Singh
Shwait Malik with Union finance minister Arun Jaitley.
Shwait Malik with Union finance minister Arun Jaitley. (HT File Photo)

Six years ago, he was all but written off when he lost the municipal elections in Amritsar in spite of being the incumbent mayor from the state’s ruling alliance. But Shwait Malik’s appointment on Saturday as Punjab unit chief of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) underlined the oft-cited dictum in politics: Never say never again.

This comes two years after he was seen as having been “adjusted”, again as a surprise, by the party with a Rajya Sabha seat in March 2016. This was essentially a grand re-entry into politics by Malik, bagging the seat that fell vacant after the party’s then national vice-president Avinash Rai Khanna’s RS term expired. And now his elevation to the post of state unit president, replacing Union minister Vijay Sampla, has also left many calling him a “silent operator”.

The choice by the party is being seen as an effort to win back the urban vote it purportedly lost to the Congress that won 77 of 117 seats in last year’s assembly polls. The polls saw massive resentment against the ruling alliance of Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and BJP. As the Aam Aadmi Party emerged a distant but primary opposition to the Congress with 20 of 117 seats, SAD was reduced to 15 and BJP to three. And then the Congress snatched the Gurdaspur Lok Sabha seat too from the saffron party in a bypoll in October.

Party leaders who did not want to be named said issues such as demonetisation of high-value notes in 2016 followed closely by implementation of goods and services tax (GST) still affects businesses and minds of the urban community in particular. With Malik, the party is aiming to concentrate on the upper caste Hindu trader again. An engineer by education, Malik, who will turn 55 on April 29, comes from hardcore urban politics and was thrice elected councillor and then remained mayor.

When Hoshiarpur MP Sampla, a prominent Dalit face, was given the post in April 2016, the party had its eye on Dalits who form nearly a third of the state’s population, the highest proportion among all states. “Sampla was given the post when he was already a Union minister too, and was made all-powerful with a strategy that it will help the BJP make inroads into the Scheduled Castes (Dalits). But that experiment failed as the party lost badly in Sampla’s own area, Dalit-dominated Doaba region. Phagwara was the only seat there that the party won, and the winning candidate , Som Parkash, was openly opposed by Sampla’s group,” a former minister said.

Among choices for replacement were the party’s national secretary, Tarun Chugh, and former minister Manoranjan Kalia, whose name was being pushed forward by Sampla and Khanna. Former Jalandhar mayor Rakesh Rathore was also in the race, while the Pathankot district president of the party, Narinder Parmar, was favoured by a section in the BJP’s parent body Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS).

But Malik had no dearth of his own RSS credentials too, as his late father, Rajinder Malik, was a pracharak (office-bearer) of the Sangh. The backing of Union finance minister Arun Jaitley, who contested and lost the 2014 Lok Sabha polls from Amritsar, sealed it further. It anyway worked for Malik that he is considered a neutral face within the BJP and has kept himself away from any controversy.

Malik’s performance as Rajya Sabha MP has also helped in bagging the post, observe leaders. In the two years of his tenure till now, he has been vocal and active in raising the issues of Amritsar. He is credited with bringing special funds from the Centre for development of the city and for upliftment of Sri Guru Ram Das Jee International Airport. A direct flight from Amritsar to Birmingham (UK) has been resumed and a new flight to Sikhism’s holy town Nanded (Maharashtra) has started too.

In Amritsar, although there are rifts in the local party leadership, there was happiness over a local leader becoming president. The holy city has got the post after 15 years. Former MP Daya Singh Sodhi was the last saffron party leader from here who served as state unit chief from 1998 to 2003.

Meanwhile, former state BJP chiefs Kamal Sharma and Sampla congratulated Malik. Sharma’s statement said,
“Malik is full of energies and has proved himself in Rajya Sabha as well. He has risen from the level of a grassroots worker... We will unitedly work to ensure our win in next Lok Sabha polls.”

‘Expanding party base top priority’

In his first reaction after being named the Punjab unit chief of BJP, Shwait Malik said, “I will not leave any stone unturned to expand the party’s base in all 117 assembly segments in Punjab. We will take the party to grassroots level and will act as watchman in society.” He added, “The first priority is to strengthen the BJP-SAD base in Punjab keeping in view the Lok Sabha polls scheduled in 2019.” He alleged that the Congress has not yet delivered poll promises to the state and “people here are living in deep mess”.