With assembly elections in Punjab less than a year away, the state unit of the Congress had been hoping to turn the tide in its favour. Instead, it appears to be in self-destruction mode.
The Congress’ chances are bleak in the assembly elections that are underway in Assam and West Bengal, and will soon be held in Tamil Nadu, and Kerala. As a consequence, the party was banking on Punjab for a boost ahead of the crucial assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh later next year, especially given the strong anti-incumbency wave against the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party government.
Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi had focused his attention on Punjab, and had succumbed to pressure built up over the last couple of years for a change in the state leadership. Former chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh had been fighting an open battle with state Congress chief Partap Singh Bajwa for nearly three years. Amarinder Singh had bolstered his credentials by defeating Bharatiya Janata Party leader Arun Jaitley, now the Union Finance Minister, in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The 74-year-old has undeniable charisma and is the most popular party leader in the state.
Enter Prashant Kishor
Rahul Gandhi did not want to be seen as someone who could be arm-twisted into changing the state leadership, but finally gave up his reluctance in the interest of the party making a strong bid in Punjab. He even took up Captain Amarinder Singh’s suggestion to recruit well-known election strategist Prashant Kishor to guide the party's campaign in the state. Kishor made a name for himself by devising victorious election strategies for Narendra Modi in the 2012 Gujarat assembly elections and the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Most recently, he helped Nitish Kumar win a third straight term in the Bihar assembly elections late last year.
While Rahul Gandhi was seemingly hesitant to sign up Kishor for the Punjab campaign, it is now learnt that the party has also decided to rope him in for the Uttar Pradesh elections.
Kishor has a difficult task on his hands. Leadership was not an issue during his stints with Modi and Kumar. But the Punjab Congress is a different cup of tea altogether. While trying to give Amarinder Singh a political makeover, Kishor has his own reputation at stake in Punjab.
Trouble in the House
Even though Rahul Gandhi decided to appoint Amarinder Singh as state chief and make him the party’s face for the elections, he sought to please disgruntled sections of the party, including those opposed to Singh’s elevation.
In an effort to “balance” the Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee, Rahul Gandhi put confidante and former Union minister Ambika Soni in charge of the Election Campaign Committee – a move that did not go down well with Amarinder Singh.
Instead of retaining Sunil Jakhar, a respected and competent leader, as the Congress Legislature Party chief, Gandhi appointed the inexperienced Charanjit Channi to the post. This was done mainly to accommodate a Dalit leader in the party leadership. Jakhar was left high and dry but has maintained his restraint.
Channi, the new CLP leader, was clearly out of his depth during the recent assembly session. He was virtually mauled by members of the ruling coalition, with few from his own party coming to his defence.
Matters got worse when a party member raised petty issues relating to his own constituency, just when the Congress was cornering the government on the contentious issue of the Sutlej-Yamuna Link canal. After much persuasion, the legislator let his colleague address the canal issue.
Rajya Sabha misstep
The state Congress scored another own goal when it floundered over its choice of candidate for the Rajya Sabha elections. Amarinder Singh had wanted to rope in popular Punjabi Sufi singer Hansraj Hans, who had unsuccessfully contested the previous elections as an Akali candidate. Even so, he remains very popular and has emerged as a Dalit leader. Amarinder Singh had assured Hans of a Rajya Sabha seat if he joined the Congress. Hans agreed and his entry into the party was seen as a great victory and a morale booster for the Congress.
All seemed well until Shamsher Singh Dullo, another senior Dalit leader, rebelled and staked his claim for the party ticket. Hours before the nominations were to be closed, the Congress high command announced that Dullo would be the party nominee and not Hansraj Hans, thus putting Amarinder Singh in a highly embarrassing situation and leading Hans to say that he was backstabbed.
Dalits are split into two major communities, and the Congress’ decision alienated the powerful Valmiki section to which Hans belongs. Subsequent efforts were made to douse the fire and Hans was given a personal audience with Rahul Gandhi. It’s not known what exactly transpired at the meeting, but Hans expressed his “satisfaction” and claimed that he would remain a staunch supporter of the Congress.
The problems do not end there. The Punjab Congress has been hurtling from one crisis to another and its leaders have been speaking in different voices. Those opposed to Amarinder Singh such as former state chief Partap Singh Bajwa and former chief minister Rajinder Kaur Bhattal keep taking potshots at him, while there has been infighting among district-level leaders.
While Bajwa has been eased out of the state by offering him a Rajya Sabha seat, the assembly constituency vacated by him has several contenders including his brother, Fateh Jang Singh Bajwa. The brothers had a public spat after Partap Singh Bajwa unexpectedly decided not to name his sibling as the party’s candidate. Eventually, however, he changed his mind.
The latest chapter in the internecine war is a spat between Amarinder and Bir Devinder Singh, a former deputy Speaker and an outspoken leader who was given the reins of the state Congress’ media panel.
He lashed out at Amarinder in one of his newspaper columns, and was suspended from the party on Thursday. Prashant Kishor immediately got into firefighting mode and tried to calm the two leaders down. But such frequent bouts will only delight the ruling coalition and the surging Aam Aadmi Party.