Millennium Post

Congress seeks resurrection in Punjab through the Captain

Captain Amrinder Singh is undoubtedly one of the tallest leaders in Punjab across the party lines. However, at this juncture, he is fighting the most difficult battle of his political career. As a result, the former chief minister is back on the center stage of Punjab politics.

The Congress party, which has been pushed to fringes after 2014 Lok Sabha polls, finds itself in a fix in Punjab, with former Chief Minister and party strongman Captain Amarinder Singh rising in revolt against the president of the party’s state unit, Partap Singh Bajwa. Amarinder Singh has threatened to quit the party if Bajwa is not removed as Pradesh Congress Committee president.

Singh met Congress president Sonia Gandhi a few days back and seems to have received some positive response from the high command, after the former chief minister had given a clear lay-out for the 2017 assembly polls in the state. The Congress party’s revival is likely to see the light of the day from Punjab assembly polls onward, since the party does not stand a chance in other states.

In fact Singh is following in the foot-steps of Virbhadra Singh, the Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh. The latter too had put pressure on Congress high command before the 2012 state assembly election in Himachal Pradesh and got his rival Kaul Singh ousted from the post of state Congress Committee President. Virbhadra, like Singh, had pushed the high command to a point, where they were bound to go with the rebellious mafia. In fact the Himachal Pradesh chief minister had many corruption cases against him, while Singh has none. In addition, the support Singh has received from his state leaders is huge, when compared to Virbhadra’s situation in 2012. Singh is also the Lok Sabha Member of Parliament from Amritsar, where he had defeated Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley in last year’s general elections.

Last week Singh displayed show of strength when he hosted a lunch, where 35 sitting Congress legislators out off 44 turned up. As a majority of its sitting and former MPs, MLAs and office-bearers decided to throw their weight behind their Deputy Parliamentary Party Leader Amarinder Singh, the Punjab unit of the Congress on Sunday decided to organise a rally in Amritsar on January 22, where earlier BJP president Amit Shah was supposed to have launched his own anti-drugs rally.

In a yet another show of strength by Singh, at least 200 leaders, including Leader of the Opposition in the Punjab Assembly, Sunil Jakhar, 35 MLAs, approximately 50 former legislators, Ludhiana MP Ravneet Singh, and various officer-bearers of the Pradesh Congress Committee pledged to work under the his leadership to revive the party and strengthen the hand of party president Sonia Gandhi and vice-president Rahul Gandhi. In fact Sunil Jakhar, Congress legislative party leader in Punjab assembly, said, “The Congress needs you (Capt. Singh) more than you need the party, as there is no leader who can match your stature. However, we shall try and get all leaders together.”

Pratap Singh Bajwa, meanwhile, was one of the first appointments by Rahul Gandhi after he took over as Congress Vice President. Party sources feel that Bajwa’s appointment had become a prestige issue for Rahul Gandhi. Bajwa, however, has been facing numerous protests from party members, who have accused him of being temperamental. Many of his closest aides have deserted him for the other side. His associates say that he sometimes entrusts a single task to three or four of them at the same time, and in the process upsetting all of them.

The relatively young leader was seen as a loner, without a core team of advisers. Bajwa faced his first revolt during the reorganisation of PCC at the end of 2013. Although the restructuring was done at the insistence of the high command, it was Bajwa who faced the wrath of those who were left out. Bajwa annoyed in particular Rana Gurmeet Singh Sodhi, who had joined his camp only to desert him after being denied the LS ticket from Ferozpore. Sodhi held Bajwa responsible, though it is said to be on Rahul’s insistence that the Congress fielded Sunil Jakhar, who lost the Ferozepore seat. A reluctant Bajwa was made to contest from Gurdaspur, a constituency he did not nurture as an MP, and lost by over one lakh votes to actor-turned-politician Vinod Khanna.

The main source of trouble in the Congress in Punjab, as elsewhere, is the practice of imposing leaders from the centre instead of looking at the mass leaders from the state. Besides such a practice, the high command constantly sends conflicting signals. Singh has his pros and cons. His working style is well known in political circles and is considered to be inaccessible. However, he can still rally MLAs behind him whenever required. His success in the Lok Sabha polls has lifted his spirits. Given his experience and appeal in the entire state, it would be a big mistake on part of the party high command to ignore him at this stage after his recent show of strength. As a close aide of Bajwa’s told reporters, the biggest blunder of the young leader’s political career was pushing Singh to fight the Lok Sabha elections from Amritsar.

(The author is a senior journalist based in Delhi)
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