By Vishal GulatiChandigarh, April 1 : With the BJP gung-ho on its prospects in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, the Congress in the border state of Punjab is yet to re-emerge from its own shadows — first to challenge the ruling AAP and then to counter the saffron brigade, which is largely banking on the sections deserting it, largely Jat Sikhs, to strengthen its base.
Also, the state’s once prominent regional outfit Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), which marked its centennial in 2021, is facing worst crisis “structurally, organisationally, and even in terms of ideological leadership” with the mass exodus of leaders, even veterans with grey flowing beards.
Now the SAD is going back on its “panthic” agenda to win back its core base, particularly in rural belts, after the backlash to the 2015 sacrilege incidents and subsequently its initial support to the Centre’s (now repealed) farm laws.
Of late, SAD President Sukhbir Badal visited the residence of Satwant Singh, one of the assassins of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, in Gurdaspur and attended the wedding of slain militant leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale’s grandson.
Slamming the AAP government for the “undeclared emergency and reign of repression and terror” with arrest of Amritdhari youth (baptised Sikhs) amidst the ongoing crackdown against fugitive Khalistani preacher Amritpal Singh, Badal categorically said five-time Chief Minister and Akali Dal patriarch Parkash Badal had pulled the state out of “bloody cycle of terror and repression” and started an era of peace and progress.
Citing the violent separatist movement for Khalistan in the 1980’s and early 1990’s in which thousands of people died, he said successive governments since have “pushed Punjab back into the jaws of insecurity and repression”.
For the weakened Congress, which ruled the state from 2017-2022, the mass exodus of leaders, comprising loyal and veteran lawmakers like Capt Amarinder Singh, Manpreet Badal, Gurpreet Kangar, Rana Gurmeet Singh Sodhi, Raj Kumar Verka, and Sunil Jakhar, a prominent Hindu face, left the party struggling for revival.
Popular Sikh face from Delhi, Manjinder Singh Sirsa, has also joined the saffron brigade.
The Akali Dal enabled the BJP to play a second fiddle role till September 2020 when it snapped over two-decade long ties by pulling out of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) after sharp differences emerged over the three controversial farm laws.
People have rejected the SAD in the recent Assembly polls for the second consecutive time.
Its legislators in the present Assembly of 117 have shrunk to a mere three, down from 15 seats in 2017-22, the lowest ever number.
The BJP, which had won three seats in the 2017 when it had contested in alliance with the Akali Dal, secured two seats this time.
The saffron party is strengthening its roots in the Sikh-dominated state under the leadership of two-time Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, who is seen as a nationalist and widely respected Sikh leader in the politics, and prominent Hindu face Jakhar.
Jakhar said he decided to leave Congress over issues such as “nationalism”, “brotherhood”, and “unity” in Punjab.
But can “poaching” of the prominent Sikh faces turn the tide in Punjab? BJP insiders say all is not well at this point in time.There is a tug of war of supremacy between the new entrants and the hardcore ‘Hindutva’ face, who is feeling suffocated now.
Congress watchers feel Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra has somehow managed to energise the cadres that had been demoralised after the Assembly elections rout in March last year and the mass exodus of their leaders.
The eight-day Punjab leg of yatra passed through five out of the 13 Lok Sabha seats of Punjab — Fatehgarh Sahib, Ludhiana, Jalandhar, Hoshiarpur and Gurdaspur, probably the most extensively covered state after Kerala.
Interestingly in Punjab, the tug of war is both between the BJP and the AAP, and the Congress and the AAP.
BJP state president and legislator Ashwani Sharma recently accused the Bhagwant Mann-led government for deteriorating law and order in the state, mainly in the wake of the escape of pro-Khalistan preacher Amritpal Singh.
Facing Opposition parties’ potshots in the just concluded Budget session on the issue of law and order, Mann said as compared to several Congress and BJP-ruled states, the law and order situation was far better in Punjab.
Replying to the discussion on the Governor’s address in the Vidhan Sabha, Mann said rather than misleading people on this issue Congress and BJP leaders must check their facts as the states having governments of their parties were far below Punjab in law and order.
Despite the narrative set for the BJP with its brand Modi once again in 2024, political watchers told IANS the Congress is largely wracked by infighting and the oldest state party Akali Dal, which emerged from a religious reformist movement, is falling back on a core “panthic” agenda to regain its political battleground.
Ahead of the final showdown for 2024 general polls, there is a semi-final in the state.
Jalandhar, the Dalit-dominated constituency that fell vacant after Congress MP Santokh Singh Chaudhary, 76, died of a heart attack while taking part in the Bharat Jodo Yatra, is going for bypoll on May 10.
Eyeing to retain its seat, the Congress had announced the name of Karamjit Chaudhary, wife of Santokh Chaudhary, as the party’s candidate.
Till date, the Congress enjoyed seven full-term governments — after the 1952, 1957, 1962, 1972, 1992, 2002 and 2017 elections — in the state.
The Akali Dal made history in 1997 by becoming the first non-Congress party to complete its first full term in office since Independence and has repeated its feat in 2007 and 2012 in alliance with the BJP in both terms.
(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at [email protected])
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