After a three-year-long campaign, Capt Amarinder Singh finally had his way. On Friday, the Congress high command finally gave in to his demand, removed Partap Singh Bajwa as the Punjab unit president, and instated the former chief minister in his place. It was the end of one skirmish for Amarinder Singh, and it was the start of another battle before the state elections due late next year or early 2017.

The long-expected announcement came within a week of two major political events.

On November 23, the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal, along with its ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party, organised a well-attended Sadbhavna Rally in Bathinda to limit the damage from the months-long protests across the state. The same day, the Aam Aadmi Party declared that its next goal after the resounding triumph in Delhi polls would be to win in Punjab, the state from where it got all its four MPs in the 2014 general election. It was also decided at a meeting in Delhi that AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal will spearhead the party’s Punjab campaign.

For the Congress, which had been wracked by an internecine war in the Punjab unit for months, a further delay in deciding the leadership for the state elections could have been disastrous. Punjab is crucial for the Grand Old Party. Of all the states going to polls in 2016 and early 2017, including West Bengal, Assam and Tamil Nadu, Punjab is its best bet. The northern state can potentially provide a turning point for the Congress, arresting its declining fortunes and giving it momentum on the road to 2019.

Rebellion in the ranks

For more than a year, despite the tremendous pressure from Amarinder Singh, the party high command had been undecided on forcing out the beleaguered state unit president Pratap Singh Bajwa and giving him the post. The leadership in Delhi, it was said, didn’t want to be seen as capitulating to Amarinder Singh’s rebellion. But the urgency of the situation, and the events of the last few days, made the move inevitable.

Still, it won’t be easy going for Amarinder Singh. Although Bajwa has publicly pledged support to him, and may be placated with rehabilitation in the party’s central executive, he is bound to nurse a grievance for being ridiculed by the former maharaja over the past three years. His supporters too are unlikely to lend full support to Amarinder Singh.

Besides, to keep Amarinder Singh under check, the party high command has appointed former Union minister Ambika Soni, a close confidante of Sonia Gandhi, as the chairperson of the party’s election campaign committee. Her deputy, Ravneet Singh Bittu, a former youth Congress chief, is also unlikely to let Amarinder Singh have his way. Lal Singh, another senior leader with whom the former chief minister shares an uneasy relation, has been made the state unit’s vice president. Meanwhile, another political rival, former Chief Minister Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, is waiting to trip him up.

Development agenda

Apart from the internal party struggles, Amarinder Singh will have to aggressively counter the SAD-BJP combine, which will predictably do all it can to prolong its 10-year reign in power. It is expected that Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Badal may use his proven organisational skills to push disgruntled Congress leaders to defect. Already, he has launched a campaign against Amarinder Singh by questioning the presence of a few Congress leaders at the recent Sarbat Khalsa, literally meaning “assembly of all Sikhs”, that was hijacked by radicals. He is also likely to target the former chief minister's inadequate track record in initiating development works during his last tenure.

With rising aspirations of voters, the new Congress chief will have to stretch himself to set a fresh development agenda and cash in on the anti-incumbency faced by the Badals. He also cannot afford to ignore AAP, which has been building up its base in the state’s rural areas despite the rebellion of half of its four MPs. Although the nascent party has not contested a by-election in Punjab after the 2014 general election, it has made sure to set up units in the state's rural and semi-urban areas.

The salvos have already started flying from all sides. Badal recently called Amarinder Singh a budha sher (an old lion). To this, Congress leaders retorted that Badal has at least acknowledged that their new chief as a lion – and a lion always remains the king of the jungle.