NEW DELHI: At a time when the BJP, Akali Dal and Aam Aadmi have finalised their candidates for the Punjab Assembly elections, and are campaigning hard, Congress leader Amarinder Singh is cooling his heels in Delhi waiting for Rahul Gandhi to finalise the candidates for at least 40 seats that still remain.

At a press briefing on Monday when the election manifesto was released by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for Punjab, Amarinder Singh declared, “this is going to be my last election.” This on the eve of an election---Punjab goes to the polls on February 4, less than a month away---sounded rather defeatist and those trying to put some gloss on it insisted that this was just Singh’s way of assuaging his rivals in the party.

Perhaps. But the Congress party in Punjab is ridden with factionalism, being encouraged by New Delhi. It is no secret that Amarinder Singh is not exactly a Rahul Gandhi favourite, and it was with some reluctance and without real options that the latter actually agreed to accept Singh as the face of he party in Punjab. Even so he kept him waiting for a long while, and even today has not officially declared him as the party’s Chief Minister in Punjab. Singh loyalists cannot help but point out that there was no such hesitation in projecting Sheila Dikshit---despite her differences on issues--- as the CM candidate for Uttar Pradesh, but the same decision was “deliberately” not taken in favour of Amarinder Singh.

The New Year holiday has now further delayed what should have been attended to by Rahul Gandhi before he left India, according to sources. Singh arrived in Delhi as per Rahul Gandhi’s return schedule but till the time of writing this no headway in finalising the candidates and mounting a sustained, united campaign has been made. In fact the decision to finalise all candidates has been left till so late, that almost every seat has two or more candidates from the Congress with the result that after the final list, dissidence will reign supreme in these constituencies.

Rahul Gandhi’s “disappearance” at this crucial time when the Congress is facing tough elections in all the five states has created considerable resentment in the party. Although as a senior leader said wryly, ‘we are resigned to this, it happens quite often.” It is, however, more difficult now for the Punjab unit of the party to digest particularly as in the state it had an edge that it felt it could capitalise on with an early decision of candidates, hard campaigning, and a head start on all other rivals in the fray.

However, it has fallen far behind with just 24 days left for the polls. The blame for the delays is sticking to Rahul Gandhi this time around.

The Congress top brass has moved from one mistake to another in Punjab, squandering off good will quite unnecessarily. For instance, its first decision to appoint 1984 Sikh violence tainted Kamal Nath as the leader in charge of Punjab met with an uproar from all sections in Punjab. The decision was revoked and Kamal Nath was replaced by lightweight Asha Kumari, also controversial because of her alleged involvement in a land scam. She was, supported by Amarinder Singh, probably out of relief that she was too light weight to interfere in his functioning. And he has been proven right in that Kumari remains more in Delhi, and is rarely seen in Punjab despite the elections that should have been regarded as crucial by the Congress party.

In fact, for reasons best known again to Delhi, considerable time has been spent in negotiating with cricketer Navjot Sidhu whose demands were rejected earlier by both the BJP and AAP. Sidhu wants specific seats for himself and his wife---seems to have settled for Amritsar East---and an assurance that he will be Deputy CM. For all this he is reportedly negotiating with the Delhi leadership, and not with Amarinder Singh who is the undeclared CM candidate of the party.

The Congress is facing factionalism in Uttarakhand between teh CM and the PCC chief, although here relations between Rahul Gandhi and Harish Rawat are on a fairly even keel. In Uttar Pradesh, the party had been trying hard for a pre poll alliance with any of the two regional parties, BSP and Samajwadi party. The BSP rejected the overturers at the beginning and as the sources said, Mayawatiji is just not interested. In the SP, Mulayam Singh was opposed, Akhilesh Yadav a little more receptive but now the chaos within the party has effectively kept the Congress out. Goa, Manipur remain uncertain, the former more so.

Punjab was an opportunity, and hence most Congress leaders cannot understand the Rahul Gandhi’s reluctance to one, name Amarinder Singh as the CM right at the very beginning and two, to prioritise a long holiday over and above the elections at this stage. More so, as this was--and is of course--- a winnable election and Amarinder Singh still a sellable commodity in the state.