IT’S THE season for hopping parties in Punjab. Ahead of a three-cornered election among the SAD-BJP, the Aam Aadmi Party and the Congress, some 100 prominent leaders have already crossed over, or are on the verge of doing so, from one of these four parties to another. These are twice as many as the 50-odd party hoppers of 2012 and include include six sitting MLAs and a sitting Rajya Sabha member.
The Congress, for example, counts 32 leaders it has won over from SAD and AAP but it has also lost 20 leaders to other parties. The latest of the Congress’s gains are former SAD MLA Ramesh Singla and councillor Ashok Bittu, who joined Wednesday. Over the last one month, the Congress has inducted five more SAD MLAs — former minister Sarwan Singh Phillaur, Inderbir Singh Bolaria, Pargat Singh, Rajwinder Kaur and Mahesh Inder Singh Nihalsinghwala. From the BJP, it has gained MLA Navjot Kaur Sidhu, whose husband Navjot Singh Sidhu is expected to follow soon.
The SAD, for its part, inducted a number of Congress leaders on Christmas day. Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal handed tickets to two of them: former MLA Surinderpal Singh Sibia from Barnala and Amit Rattan from Bathinda (Rural). Earlier, Badal had taken in Dalit leaders Satpal Mal and Kabir Dass and nominated both.
The shift of political loyalties had started as early as 2015, when AAP had emerged as a force following the Lok Sabha elections of 2014.
When Capt Amarinder Singh took over as Punjab Congress president in December 2015, many leaders went to AAP. These included former MLA Sukhpal Singh Khaira, Col CD Singh Kamboj, Giri Raj Rajaura, Aman Arora and many others. Among AAP’s latest gains are Independent MLA brothers Balwinder Singh Bains and Simarjit Singh Bains, late Akali leader G S Tohra’s son-in-law Harmel Tohra and his wife Kuldeep Kaur, and late Capt Kanwaljit Singh’s wife Sarabjit Kaur and their daughter Manpreet Kaur Dolly.
“We have taken in 50 prominent and 500 smaller leaders,” said AAP state convener Gurpreet Singh Ghuggi. “Our politics is about swaraj, which is to strengthen the common man and not the leaders.”
But AAP, hoping for a clean sweep until a few months ago, has suffered a few setbacks since it started allotting tickets. Yamini Gomar, a former member of AAP’s national executive and who had polled 2 lakh votes in the Lok Sabha election from Hoshiarpur, had been trying to nurture Sham Churasi assembly constituency. AAP denied her a ticket, referring to an objection by the Election Commission on her expenditure in the LS election. She joined Congress on Christmas day. “I did not do any wrong. I have the proof. But the party has wronged me,” she said.
Most of the crossing over has been due to ticket distribution. More exits could follow with the Congress yet to name 40 candidates and the BJP all its 23. The BJP’s alliance partner SAD, which will contest the remaining 94 seats, has already named 86 of these candidates. It denied the Phillaur ticket to its sitting MLA Sarwan Singh Phillaur, who promptly joined the Congress. “I was being sidelined for 10 years. So I quit,” he said. Others who joined the Congress after being denied tickets were former CM S S Barnala’s son Gaganjeet Barnala and grandson Simar Partap Barnala.
The Congress, unlike the SAD, is yet to nominate most of its new entrants, with state party chief Amarinder Singh under pressure not to field them. Amarinder said the priority is Punjab’s future and there is no harm in strengthening the organisation. He said 22 SAD leaders have joined Congress this year and predicted that the model poll code, once enforced, would open the floodgates for the influx of leaders into the Congress.
Prof Pramod Kumar, director of the Institute of Development and Communication, attributes the party-hopping trend to a dilution of party ideology and personal ethics. “Whosoever is not getting a ticket is a potential hopper now,” he said. “Parties do not have any ideology, hopping has a premium and, criterion is winnability and not ideology or an issue. Also, parties do not have any filters and everybody and anybody is welcomed. Although former prime minister late Rajiv Gandhi got the anti-defection law enacted, the issue is more of ethics rather than legality.”
A few leaders have switched parties more than once. Singer Hans Raj Hans quit the SAD to join the Congress, then headed to the BJP a few days ago. Former MLA Balbir Singh Batth joined AAP but then went back to SAD.