With many leaders opting out of the electoral contest in what is being seen as an indication of the despondency and defeatism in the ruling camp, the Congress Friday sought to counter that perception by fielding former Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh to take on senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley in Amritsar and getting AICC general secretary Ambika Soni to contest from Anandpur Sahib instead of Ravneet Singh Bittu.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi, it is learnt, was upset about the reluctance of party leaders to contest, and personally intervened to persuade Singh and Soni to contest. She was also said to be instrumental in getting former union minister Ghulam Nabi Azad to agree to contest the Lok Sabha election this time.
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“She has been quite upset about sitting MPs running away from the battle. With some MPs also switching over to the BJP, the election was looking lost even before it began. She, therefore, decided to take it upon herself to convince senior leaders to contest and make a fight of it,” said a senior Congress leader.
Amarinder had Thursday expressed his unwillingness to contest from Amritsar saying there should be a local candidate. He had also said his wife, Patiala MP Preneet Kaur, needed him for campaigning there but added that he would go by the decision of the party.
“I got a call from the party president half-an-hour ago. She asked me to contest from Amritsar as the party needed me there. I agreed immediately. I had said yesterday that I would not ignore the orders of the party president. Hence, I stand by my word and commitment to the party,” Amarinder told The Indian Express Friday.
“I know it will be a problem for Preneet and me to contest two seats but I will handle the Amritsar constituency and ask my trusted colleague Sukh Sarkaria to handle her campaign in Patiala,” he said.
Sources said Preneet Kaur had sent urgent messages to Sonia, requesting her not to nominate Amarinder from Amritsar saying she, a three-time MP from Patiala, was facing anti-incumbency and needed her husband to campaign for her.
Amarinder is the MLA from Patiala and was chief minister from 2002 to 2007.
While the Punjab congress leadership has argued that only Amarinder stood a chance in a “tough seat” like Amritsar against Jaitley, the sub-text was not lost on his supporters as he is facing a concerted attempt by his detractors to sideline him in party affairs.
Soni, on the other hand, was said to be disinclined to contest as she had worked in the constituency and done all the groundwork ahead of the 2009 election but had been denied the ticket in favour of state youth Congress president Bittu.
Sources said she too relented after Sonia’s intervention. The party had declared Bittu’s candidature this time as well but decided to replace him with Soni following “adverse” reports from the constituency.
Amarinder and Soni figured in the list of 26 candidates released by the Congress Friday. With this fifth list, the Congress has announced 392 candidates so far. – with inputs from KANCHAN VASDEV in Chandigarh.