Leadership discord can stump Congress in Punjab

The altering political canvas in border state Punjab has remained susceptible to persistent bouts of uncertainty for the last few years now. Just when the 'Modi wave' swept the Congress out of power in the general elections in 2014, its impact was arguably insignificant in Punjab. Astonishingly, political greenhorn Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) made its debut with four MPs from Punjab while it drew a complete blank elsewhere across the country.

The second innings of the SAD-BJP regime in Punjab, something that electoral history had not witnessed before, too grounded many popular perceptions, just like the defeat of now Finance Minister Arun Jaitley from Amritsar at the hands of  former Punjab Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh.

Unfortunately for the Congress, these uncertainties and political alignments haven’t worked much to the advantage of the beleaguered party. The Congress is to blame for much of what has not fallen in place for a party that commanded a sizeable voter base in Punjab and now fancies its changes of returning to power.  

The leaders squabbling over miniscule to serious issues is nothing uncommon for the party to deal with. But to attribute the escalating war of words, or the clamour to retain or regain the top post of the Punjab Congress ahead of assembly elections over a year away, is to undermine the unpalatable ego clash between its two of its senior most leaders- incumbent state president Partap Singh Bajwa and former CM and deputy leader of the Congress in Lok Sabha Capt Amarinder Singh.

The party battles unsettling times given the poor rapport the two leaders share. Both leaders continue to live with heightened political aspirations and to want to be seen increasingly relevant even when out of power. The Congress high command has finally moved in to square the circle. Both Bajwa and Amarinder Singh met Congress president and vice president Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, respectively, in New Delhi last week. The discussions remained inconclusive, yet both leaders have been assured of their rightful due.

For now, Amarinder's coronation as state party chief could be a work-in-progress with no deadlines set, yet the reigns of elections campaign will rest with him and he could be tagged the face of the elections when they draw near. But all these measures by the party high command will best set the course for a course correction, rather than do anything to bury the hatchet or address what is at the heart of the problem.

Amarinder has his own style of leadership, perhaps stemming out of his stint as a former army officer or even his inherited legacy as a descendent of the erstwhile Maharaja of Patiala. Bajwa's supremacy has continued as state party chief despite his defeat in the LS elections.

On the other side, Amarinder's splendid win against all odds pitted against saffron party heavyweight Jaitley from holy city Amritsar was a rare moment of glory for the Congress that was otherwise left to lick its wounds. Amarinder's rise to prominence, beyond just a state leader was imminent, especially given that he had fought his first parliamentary elections, unlike Bajwa.

His stint as the LS deputy leader of the Congress would have brought smiles for Bajwa for it was an opportunity that would have kept Amarinder largely out of state politics. That didn’t happen. Bajwa has been all through uneasy as the state party chief. Amarinder has made his intentions to return to state politics loud and clear.

Prognosis is clear

That Amarinder enjoys support of majority of MLAs in Punjab cannot be disregarded either by Bajwa or the party high command. Until now, the high command too has had a limited effect in resolving the party leadership crisis in Punjab. That the crisis could escalate if the high command took either sides has been a misplaced possibility given that the party is neither in power at the Centre nor in Punjab.

The tussle to garner support and supremacy within the party has cost dear. Amarinder minces no words criticising Bajwa for his lack of leadership and more, just as Bajwa would seldom miss a chance to complain about his bete noire before the high command. Bajwa draws strength from his proximity to Rahul Gandhi, but Amarinder's long standing equation with Rajiv (they were classmates in Doon School, Dehradun) and Sonia Gandhi is hard to undermine.

The prognosis is clear, and it’s now all about the timing of announcements that will set the pace for the Congress to prepare the ground for taking on the Badal's. Arguably the popular perception is that the one leader who can pose a formidable challenge to the incumbent regime in Punjab, now facing almost a decade of anti-incumbency, is Amarinder. Blame on Amarinder or Bajwa's lack of leadership, the Congress is a badly split outfit in Punjab.

That may not do the party any good in the assembly elections, despite conjectures that infuse confidence within party cadre of its chances of regaining power 10-years later.  The rising political trajectory of the AAP too cannot be overlooked. Call it rhetoric or whatever, even Amarinder last week said the next election in Punjab is a contest between Congress and the AAP.

His increasing absence from the Lok Sabha has done no good to add the bench strength. Amarinder has often flaunted his space: shown where he stands with support of nearly three dozen of the 44 Congress MLAs in Punjab. Albeit strongly denied by Amarinder, there are reports of his floating another outfit, or even joining hands with the BJP ahead of Assembly  elections. The complexities are only adding to the political uncertainties that continue to spring surprises.

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