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Political Diary | Muddied waters of Punjab politics

On the whole, the Congress has made a mess of the one state it could have won easily.

Kalyani Shankar | New Delhi |

In the crowded political landscape of Punjab, will the proposed new party of former chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh succeed? It depends on many things including how the new party gets public support. Pressured by the cricketer-turned-Punjab-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu, the Congress party high command got rid of the chief minister last month.

The ousted leader’s principal aim is to spoil the chances of the Congress in the upcoming Assembly polls. He also wants to get Sidhu defeated wherever he contests from. The Captain is waiting for the Election Commission to agree to his political outfit before launching the party. With just four months left for the Assembly polls, the Captain is indeed taking a chance.

He has no time to prepare the ground. The aging leader (79 years old) hopes to partner with the BJP, providing him with organizational support and even finance as the BJP’s main aim is to stop the Congress from winning the state.

The other opposition parties like the Aam Aadmi Party, which has made inroads, SAD, BSP, and splinter groups of SAD all have the same purpose of defeating the Congress. The Shiromani Akali Dal, the senior partner of the BJP, had severed its connections with the saffron party on the issue of the three farm laws passed by Parliament last year.

The farmers have been protesting against these laws for the past year. The Captain, too, has been supporting and helping the farmers’ cause all along. He is seeking the BJP’s support because he wants to play the middleman in resolving the crisis by mediating between the Centre and the agitating farmers. He obviously has thought up some face-saving formulas for the BJP and the agitating farmers.

Before the Captain’s ouster last month, the Congress was in a position to win the state. But now, the situation has changed, and Congress has weakened due to internal disputes and indiscipline. The Captain would have managed to win the state for the Congress, but the party does not have a charismatic leader to it now.

His successor, Charanjit Singh Channi, is a lightweight in Punjab politics. The Congress and the BJPSAD combine had been alternating in power, but now it will be a multicornered contest this time. Incidentally, this is not the first time the Captain has floated his outfit.

In 1984, he left the Congress and joined Shiromani Akali Dal to protest against the army attack on the Golden Temple. In 1992, Singh formed his SAD (Panthic) and later merged it with the Congress when he joined the party again in 1997. Since then, he had remained in the Congress. He became the chief minister twice – in 2002 and then in 2017.

The former chief minister hopes that even if his new outfit does not win enough seats and gets three to five per cent of the vote, it will damage the Congress. Then he hopes to poach on the Congress and claims that several members of the party are already been in touch with him. He hopes that at the time of ticket distribution, many of them might come to him.

However, it all depends on how they assess the prospects of the new political outfit. The SAD has tied up with the BSP already. In the past, the two long-time allies, the SAD and the BJP, had complimented each other. While the SAD attracted Sikh votes, the BJP got the Hindu votes.

This time it will benefit neither. The BJP is delighted to get the support of the Captain, who has been on good terms with the Centre. For instance, he supported the Modi government on the ‘surgical strikes’ after the Pulwama terror attack.

More recently, he supported the Union government’s decision to extend the Border Security Force’s jurisdiction in Punjab. On the whole, his partnership with the BJP is a bonus for the saffron party. Meanwhile, new Punjab chief minister Channi is trying to fend off attacks from Sidhu who will not remain quiet until he gets the top job.

There are too many factions in the Congress. Moreover, there is an impression that Channi is only keeping the seat warm for Sidhu. Though Congress has made a bold experiment by installing a Dalit leader, unity is lacking in the party.

The big picture is that in the current scenario, no single party might get the majority, and it is likely to be a hung assembly. In the post-poll scenario, all options are open for all players. Thus the actual picture will emerge only after the polls.

On the whole, the Congress has made a mess of the one state it could have won easily. Splintered votes can only yield a divided verdict.