Punjab’s Political Pot Is On The Boil
AAP under pressure
Punjab’s political pot is on the boil. There are bubbles, froth and steam gathering as the political parties now eye a Lok Sabha by-poll in Jalandhar. Those will be followed by the high stake Parliamentary polls, a year down the line in 2024. In the process there will be internal restructuring and defining of roles.
In the political domain things continue to be noisy as these parties scramble to outdo each other on every issue as they struggle for revival, survival and capitalising on the public mood which is known to spring surprises as was visible in the recent Sangrur Lok Sabha by-poll.
The recent inter-party and intra-party developments make an interesting dot matrix on the political board of the state. Starting with Congress, the grand old party recently witnessed the high profile Bharat Jodo Yatra undertaken by senior leader Rahul Gandhi, and observers say that it moves on like a rickety old machine that cannot avoid fits and starts.
All eyes are presently set on cricketer turned politician Navjot Singh Sidhu’s arrival from the jail. The former Congress state unit chief is expected to be released soon, and his arrival is speculated to launch another round of power struggle within the party. How things play out remains to be seen.
Sources in the party had recently disclosed that Rahul Gandhi, during his Yatra, had told the party men that no leader is above the party and everyone has to toe the party line. In one of the media interactions while replying to a question on Sidhu he had stated, “There is a role for everyone in the party.”
The party had recently witnessed the departure of former finance minister Manpreet Badal, who is the nephew of former Shiromani Akali Dal (S.A.D) patriarch and former Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal. Manpreet had formed People’ Party of Punjab in 2011 after his expulsion from S.A.D in 2010.
He had then merged this party with the Congress in 2016 and has now parted ways to join the saffron fold into the Bharatiya Janata Party (B.J.P). He is another one of the senior cabinet colleagues of former Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh to have joined the B.J.P.
Sources say that the Congressmen who have joined the saffron party are facing resistance from some of the ‘organic’ B.J.P. members. The style of functioning of the two is divergent but things are being ‘sorted out’ by the senior leadership of the party.
Meanwhile, in another twist of events Amarinder’s wife and present Congress Lok Sabha member from Patiala Preneet Kaur was recently handed over a show cause notice by the party leadership accusing her of anti party activities, besides being reportedly suspended. The former minister of state for external affairs hit back daring the party leadership to take whatever action it wanted to.
In a letter addressed to the Congress Disciplinary Action Committee's Member Secretary Tariq Anwar, she stated, “At the onset I am surprised to see that a person who left the Congress party in 1999 on the issue of Mrs. (Sonia) Gandhi being a foreign national, and stayed out for 20 years till 2019, and had to face disciplinary action himself, is now questioning me on a so-called disciplinary matter.
“The Congressmen in Punjab who have made allegations against me are those who have many issues pending against them. If you call my husband who was then chief minister he will give you details about their doings. He protected them because they were from his own party. However I suppose you will not do this.
“As per your show cause notice I have always stood by my constituents, constituency and my state Punjab and have taken up their issues regardless of which government is in power. I hope you are aware that every minister of a Congress government in any state has to meet his department’s union government minister, in this case the BJP government, to get their state's issues resolved.
“This was done in the past Congress government in Punjab and today I am sure that it is being done by the Congress governments in Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan as well. I too shall always continue to meet the state and union government to resolve such issues, whether you like it or not,” added Preneet.
With husband Amarinder, their daughter Jai Inder Kaur and son Raninder Singh already in the B.J.P, Preneet’s departure from the Congress is seen as imminent.
But being the main Opposition party and despite having multiple poles in its ranks, Congress continues to be a formidable force in Punjab.
The second traditional political powerhouse in Punjab – S.A.D (Badal) – continues to fight for revival. Burdened by two successive losses in the state Assembly polls, and drawing public ire for its initial support to the three controversial Farm Laws that were eventually repealed by the centre after a historic farmers’ agitation, this party is struggling to win back the people’s confidence.
The Akalis had to eventually walk out of their alliance with the B.J.P in the face of the public pressure on the issue of the Farm Laws, but failed to win back people’s support.
Despite being India’s oldest regional party, the S.A.D continues to be in doldrums. Its leaders have been trying to rake up Panthic issues on one side while attacking the B.J.P government at the centre and the Bhagwant Mann led Aam Aadmi Party (A.A.P) government in the state.
Former central minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal was vocal in criticising the Central Budget as being anti-farmer, and called for a special package to Punjab for ‘sacrifices it has made to feed the nation’, and extending tax benefits in border areas to encourage investment. In a tweet she called the budget a ‘fraud on farmers, labourers and the poor’ pointing that allocation to the agriculture sector had reduced with various schemes taking a hit.
“How will you double farmers’ income by adopting an anti- farmer stance?” she questioned. Harsimrat also called for transfer of Chandigarh to Punjab as it is the only state without its own capital.
“The S.A.D faces multiple problems. The people are still not convinced that the party will not join hands with the B.J.P if an opportunity arises to enjoy fruits of power. This despite the fact that it has paid heavily for aligning with the saffron party that is seen to be centralised around Hindutva while the Akalis claim to be representatives of the Panth and the rural peasantry.
The party got a rude message from the electorate when its candidate got less votes than even the one put up by the B.J.P in the recent Sangrur by-poll. Simranjit Singh Mann of Akali Dal (Amritsar) who is known for his radical politics romping home was another dampener for this party that has a moderate image.
Secondly, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (S.G.P.C) is an institution on which the Akalis cannot afford to lose their grip. The Supreme Court upholding the validity of the Haryana Sikh Gurdwaras (Management) Act, 2014 aimed at establishing a separate Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee for neighbouring Haryana last year was another blow for this party,” underlined an observer.
The B.J.P on the other hand is trying to consolidate its presence in the state. The arrival of Manpreet Badal along with several others before him is being seen as yet another addition of ‘credible’ Sikh faces in its fold, something it has been trying to do for quite some time now.
The party now wants to increase its footprint outside the urban areas, something it was not able to do while being an ally of the Akalis. At the same time it is consistently trying to catch public attention by attacking the A.A.P government in the state persistently while also attacking the other political forces.
The party is now aiming for making a strong statement in the Jalandhar Lok Sabha by-poll that is to be announced shortly. The seat fell vacant when the sitting member Santokh Singh Chaudhary died during the Bharat Jodo Yatra following a heart attack.
Doaba is a region where the BJP has a relatively strong presence with leaders like Vijay Sampla coming from Phillaur that is a part of the Jalandhar parliamentary constituency.
“Santokh Chaudhary enjoyed tremendous public support and was popular. It is quite possible that the Congress will try to capture his sympathy votes. Even if the BJP manages a second position in the by-poll it will be a big boost for the party’s long term plans in the state,”sources said.
The party has reportedly announced a Yatra against drugs and corruption from March to August in the various Parliamentary segments of the state. The Yatra participants plan to spend 18 days in every Parliamentary constituency. In addition to this the party plans to organise a series of public rallies by its senior leadership in the days to come.
It is the A.A.P that is facing the maximum heat at present and will continue to do so in the run up to the forthcoming Lok Sabha polls. Having won a landslide victory in the state assembly elections held earlier this year cornering 92 of the total 117 seats, the party got a rude jolt just a couple of months later when the Parliamentary seat vacated by the present Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann was lost to Simranjit Singh Mann.
Bhagwant Mann had won the Lok Sabha seat twice in 2014 and 2019. The A.A.P. is now going to face another litmus test in the Jalandhar Lok Sabha by-poll. It needs a decent showing in Jalandhar to send across the message to the electorate that its popularity has not eroded in a matter of just a few months.
The party which emerged as the third pole in Punjab politics is up against a multiple opposition comprising the BJP, the Congress and the Akalis while it faces persistent attacks from non-political pressure groups.
The latest assault it faces came from the state Governor Banwarilal Purohit who reported flagged irregularities in selection of principals for training in Singapore. Purohit in a letter told Bhagwant Mann that he was elected to run the administration as per the Constitution and not according to his whims and fancies.
Stating that he had received complaints of malpractices in the selection of principals, he sought details about the said training. The 36 principals were to reportedly participate in a professional teacher training seminar in Singapore.
Bhagwant Mann has come out saying that in a democracy people are supreme and the government is run by the people elected by them. However, he quipped that some selected persons of the Centre are just poking their nose into the affairs of the state which cannot be tolerated.
He said that these selected persons should remain in the area of their own jurisdiction rather than locking horns with the elected representatives of people.
At the party level, A.A.P. has hit out at the Punjab Governor for ‘interfering in day-to-day functioning of the state government’ saying that the governor is not maintaining the sanctity of his post. The party has demanded that he should be shifted from the state immediately.
The party’s chief spokesperson Malvinder Singh Kang said that it is condemnable and very unfortunate that Punjab Governor is acting at the behest of the B.J.P. and trying to sabotage the development of the Punjab by interfering in the working of the A.A.P. government. He said it is extremely unfortunate that the Governor sought details about the educational trip of principals to Singapore and his recent comments on drugs, which indicates that he is acting to the tunes of the Central government to defame the ruling A.A.P. government.
Kang said that the Governor’s houses in states with non-B.J.P/ governments have become places for hatching conspiracies and the Punjab Governor is acting like an Opposition.
He said that even the father of constitution, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar said, "The drafting committee felt as everybody in the House knows, that the Governor is not to have any kind of functions- to use a familiar phraseology, no functions which he is required to discharge either in his discretion or in his individual judgement... According to the Principles of the Constitution, he is required to follow the advice of his ministry in all matters.”
Run-ins with the Governor apart, the A.A.P. government has been facing criticisms on various counts. It is particularly under attack on the issue of the deteriorating law and order situation in the state. Slain singer Sidhu Moosewala’s father Balkaur Singh hitting out at the government on the issue of law and order made headlines. He has threatened to drive across the state in the car in which his son was killed with the latter’s pictures displayed.
The government’s claims on improvement in the law and order situation have drawn sharp reactions across the political spectrum. The S.A.D. president Sukhbir Badal has shared his video saying that the gangster culture is thriving in the state. “Bhagwant Mann’s name should be changed to Bhagwant Singh Beimaan (dishonest),” he said.
In a scathing attack B.J.P’s national spokesperson Jaiveer Shergill said, “It is really shocking that despite the high profile murder of singer Sidhu Moosewala, ransom killing of a 20-year-old youth Harmandeep Singh hailing from Punjab's Muktsar district; killings of famous Kabbadi players (Sandeep Singh ‘Nangal Ambiyan’ and Dharminder Singh); rape of an 11-year-old girl in a moving car in Patiala; murder of anti-drug activist Ram Gopal in Jalandhar; death of Police constable Mandeep Singh in a shootout in Nakodar; two separate RPG attacks on the police establishments, besides several other incidents of crime, Mann has the audacity to claim that law and order in Punjab has improved.”
The law and order scenario is being linked to the A.A.P. government upgrading the security cover of Bhagwant Mann’s wife Gurpreet Kaur. In a social media attack, Congress leader Pargat Singh who has been constantly attacking the government on issues said that 40 cops are deputed to provide her with a security cover which is more than what ministers get.
“This is the same state where world famous singer Sidhu Moosewala was killed as A.A.P. reduced his security to earn brownie points,” he said. The V.I.P. culture among the political class has always drawn public anger in Punjab.
The A.A.P. government has also been facing the heat on the Aam Aadmi clinics amid allegations of old health facilities being renamed and given cosmetic treatment. Punjab Congress president Amarinder Singh Raja Warring recently said the government was only renaming the existing healthcare facilities and superimposing party names on them which is ‘illegal’.
He added, “It is only trying to propagate and publicise its party name.” The government claims to have started 500 such clinics.
“The A.A.P. government has an uphill task on its hands. The people are asking why the promises on taking the cases of sacrilege of holy texts are not being taken to their logical conclusion.
“They are asking about the cash doles promised to the women ahead of the Assembly polls. A large section of the industry is unhappy with the industrial policy announced recently. It is not an easy road ahead,” pointed an observer.
The government claims that the new industrial policy will spur industrial development in the state leading to more employment opportunities for the youth but there are reports from industrial hubs of Ludhiana on the industrialists holding protests and accusing the A.A.P. of making false promises in its election manifesto. A section of the industry has reportedly announced a boycott of the forthcoming Invest Punjab summit to be held in Mohali next week.