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Tuesday, August 03, 2021

Punjab: Cracks in Congress open up space for AAP, Akalis

The Assembly polls in Punjab are less than a year away. And just when it seemed that the ruling Congress was assured of a return ticket, the cracks within the party have opened up the field.

Written by Manraj Grewal Sharma | Amritsar, Jalandhar, Mansa |
Updated: July 7, 2021 6:58:47 am
Kejriwal’s poster with Vijay Pratap Singh. (Photo: Rana Simranjit)

Drive across Punjab and you will be greeted with posters of a beaming Arvind Kejriwal with Kunwar Vijay Pratap Singh, the former police officer who investigated the sensitive desecration case and joined AAP recently.

At the same time, you cannot ignore the giant billboards of Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh, and the smaller ones of SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal with BSP supremo Mayawati. The BJP, still reeling under the backlash over the farm laws, is conspicuous, too, in a way — by its absence.

The Assembly polls in Punjab are less than a year away. And just when it seemed that the ruling Congress was assured of a return ticket, the widening cracks within the party have opened up the field.

In 2017, the Congress came to power with a formidable 77 seats while AAP trailed with 20, Akalis with 15 and BJP three.

The results came as a rude shock to AAP, which was riding high on mammoth crowds and NRI campaigners. This time, says AAP MLA and Leader of Opposition Harpal Singh Cheema, the party is treading with caution — and optimism. “The infighting within the Congress has exposed its inability to deliver. People in villages are seeking a change,’’ Cheema said.

The Indian Express travelled across the state to find that the Congress dissidents, who have been echoing several complaints on the ground, have handed a double barrel for Opposition parties to target the government with: non-performance and weak leadership.

Making the most of this opportunity, say observers, is Kejriwal’s AAP.

During a visit to Amritsar last month, Kejriwal used Vijay Pratap’s entry to promise justice in the sacrilege case, claiming that the officer had to quit police when the system ganged up against him. More recently, as the state grappled with unprecedented power shortage, Kejriwal rushed to Chandigarh to promise 300 free units to all households and 24-hour supply — if elected.

Kejriwal, who had faced much flak for going to the hustings without a chief ministerial candidate in 2017, has promised a Sikh face for 2022. And unlike the past, when the party relied heavily on social media, it’s banking on local influencers.

“In villages, almost everyone is aware of the Delhi government’s successful schools, mohalla clinics and low power bills,” said Gurjeet Singh, who runs a taxi service at Barnala. He couldn’t stop gushing about the Rs 5,000 stipend the AAP government gave to out-of-work cab drivers in Delhi during the lockdown.

The Akalis are also making the most of the Congress meltdown that started in April after the Punjab and Haryana High Court quashed the SIT probing the 2015 Kotkapura firing on anti-sacrilege protesters.

From commandeering dharnas in front of electricity offices to “uncovering illegal sand mining sites”, party president Sukhbir Badal, who was on the backfoot with the farm laws, is now positioning himself as a crusader.

Daljeet Singh Cheema, former Akali minister, says the court verdict changed the complexion of politics in the state. Calling the sacrilege incident “a conspiracy” to malign Akalis, Cheema said the verdict exposed AAP. “The party had been hobnobbing with Vijay Pratap for a while. The court called his investigation politically motivated against the Badals,’’ he said.

Said Chandigarh-based political analyst Dr Pramod Kumar: “Kejriwal has communalised the role (of CM) by talking of a Sikh face, which doesn’t usually go down well in Punjab.’’

Pirmal Singh Dhaula, who quit his AAP seat to join Congress last month, points to “other flaws”. “The party did not once review the debacle of 2017. It seldom asks MLAs for advice and works in an autocratic manner. Besides, they don’t really have any fresh faces,” Dhaula said.

As for the Congress, the rift has also exposed discontent among its Dalit legislators. While the party won 22 of 34 reserved seats in 2017 (AAP 9 and SAD 3), only three got Cabinet berths. Dalits form 33 per cent of the state’s population, and in some parts of the Doaba region, this number goes up to 50 per cent.

The Akalis, meanwhile, have stitched an alliance with Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Kumar says this alliance will help them in at least 30 seats where BSP is strong.

The BJP, which is going it alone after the break-up with SAD, is desperately hoping for a consolidation of Hindu and Dalits votes with their slogan of a Dalit CM. But as Charanjit Pal, sarpanch of Mahil Gahlan village in Doaba, said: “They can even promise a Dalit PM, but they have nothing in hand here. The farm agitation has put paid to their chances this time.”

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