It was five years ago, at the traditional Maghi mela in Muktsar, that a new political force had made its presence felt in Punjab. Manpreet Singh Badal, a former state finance minister and an estranged nephew of Shiromani Akali Dal chief Parkash Singh Badal, had just launched a new political outfit called the People’s Party of Punjab. And yet, at the historic mela, he and his boisterous supporters in saffron pagris were the focus of attention at all the political conferences.

After the high came the low. In the state assembly elections the following year, Manpreet Badal’s party drew a blank in terms of seats, but managed to get a healthy 5.04% of the total votes polled. That number was politically significant, given that the Congress secured 40.09% of votes, about one percentage point less than the 41.91% of the winning alliance of Akali Dal and Bharatiya Janata Party. The Congress may not have lost solely because of the vote share of the People’s Party of Punjab, but it was clear that the new party had acted as a spoiler. That possibility has been ruled out as Punjab goes to elections in a year.

On Friday, the People’s Party of Punjab merged with the Congress, after Manpreet Badal had a meeting with Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi. According to news reports, hectic discussions were held between Manpreet Badal and “Punjab Congress chief Amarinder Singh and other senior party leaders” before the merger decision was taken. But there were signs of it coming.

After the 2012 assembly elections, the People’s Party of Punjab did not contest any by-elections to the state assembly, and when Manpreet Badal stood against his cousin Harsimrat Kaur Badal from the Bathinda constituency in the 2014 general election, it was under the Congress symbol. Though he lost that contest, he was nevertheless able to reduce Harsimrat Badal's victory margin from over 1.5 lakh votes in the previous election to just about 20,000 votes in 2014.

There was speculation ever since that he would either ally or merge his party with the Congress to take on their common rival, the alliance of the Akali Dal and BJP. Some reports speculated that he was toying with the idea of joining the Aam Aadmi Party, but the resistance from some local leaders and the party’s refusal to declare him the chief ministerial candidate put a spanner in the works.

His conspicuous absence from the political conferences at the Maghi mela this year gave further evidence that he had agreed to merge his party with the Congress. Evidently, he did not want the Aam Aadmi Party’s thunder at the mela to steal the focus of his own entry into the Congress. Also, it is said, he wanted Rahul Gandhi to do announce the news in the national capital.

Learning from the past

The merger of the PPP with the Congress is certain to prove a morale booster for the Congress after AAP succeeded in weaving magic at this year’s Maghi mela with a massive rally. Though the Congress got better response than the SAD-BJP combine, the focus at the mela was AAP.

It is nobody’s case that the PPP vote share would transfer seamlessly to the Congress in the next election. However, the presence of Manpreet Badal is certain to add to Congress’s strength in some constituencies. On his part, Manpreet Badal is likely to again challenge his uncle, Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, from Lambi constituency, a seat the senior Badal has held since 1997. It is also possible that he will insist on a handful of seats for his loyal supporters.

On the flip side, he will have to contend with hostility from some young Congressmen. Before his induction came through, there was open opposition to Manpreet Badal from Ravneet Singh Bittu, the co-convenor of the party’s campaign committee and grandson of former Chief Minister Beant Singh. While Amarinder Singh discussed the merger possibility, some other junior leaders amplified their resistance.

Moving forward, the Congress’s performance will depend on how well Amarinder Singh and Manpreet Badal are able to take along all sections of the party. The Congress learnt the pitfalls of dissensions and internecine conflicts to its peril in the last assembly elections. It can ill-afford a repeat this time.