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Amarinder plays a captain's innings
Amarinder, who had emerged as the giant killer even during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, when he had defeated top BJP leader and now Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, has almost single handedly won the Assembly elections due to his aura and grassroots public support. It was well known that while he enjoyed the support of Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, her son Rahul Gandhi was not favourably inclined towards him.
The attitude of the party high command towards him was evident in the way the Congress shied away from declaring Amarinder as its chief ministerial candidate in Punjab. On the other hand, the party had rushed in to declare former Delhi chief minister Sheila Dixit as its chief ministerial candidate for Uttar Pradesh before its alliance with the Samajwadi Party.
Amarinder was also made to sit out at the party headquarters in Delhi for over a month to get the list of party candidates cleared. Even as the nominations had opened for the elections, the leadership had not finalised names of its candidates in 40 of the 117 Assembly constituencies. Some of the candidates recommended by Amarinder were denied ticket in favour of his rivals within the party.
Rahul Gandhi did address about half
a dozen election rallies in Punjab but most of the party candidates in the state were not inclined to host him. They were doubtful if his presence would in any way enhance their prospects.
The late induction of former BJP MP Navjot Singh Sidhu did help the party in getting support in the Majha area and was a morale booster in the state. His virulent attack on the Akalis, who were facing several serious charges, struck a chord with the electorate. His induction was perhaps one of the reasons why the Congress had not declared Amarinder as chief ministerial candidate.
While there was never any doubt that Amarinder would lead the government, the induction of Navjot and his thumping victory has given a fillip to the speculation that the party high command would press for his inclusion as deputy chief minister.
But while Amarinder cannot be denied credit for the victory, interestingly, it is the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) which has contributed to the win. It was clear from the very beginning that the AAP would benefit from the anti-incumbency votes against the SAD. It implied that the AAP would gain proportionately to the losses suffered by the Akalis. Thus, the poorer the SAD performed, the better it was for the AAP, as it would eat into the anti-incumbency vote.
The SAD, much to the delight of the Congress, performed better than what most, including the AAP, were expecting. This definitely improved the tally of the Congress. However, it was no surprise given the fact that both the Congress and the SAD have solid vote banks and have never garnered less than 30% votes even when they were defeated. When the Congress was defeated in the previous Assembly elections in 2012, it had polled 39.92% votes and had won 46 seats.
As regards the AAP, the defeat of the party which was projected to win by at least two exit/opinion polls, it would be a difficult task for it to keep its ambitions afloat for a national alternative. Together with its poor performance in Goa, the party now seems confined only to Delhi.
But Amarinder needs to be thankful to the AAP leadership, too, for their contribution to his victory. The party, which had been openly flaunting arrogance of power and wanting to win elections in Punjab in the name of its supremo Arvind Kejriwal, made a series of serious mistakes which culminated in its defeat.
Sitting pretty after winning all its four Lok Sabha seats from Punjab, the party lost direction and stumbled from one blunder to another. Within a year of the Lok Sabha elections, two of its four MPs rebelled. Dharamvira Gandhi and Harinder Singh Khalsa, the two MPs, never participated in any party programme and kept themselves away from election campaign. The two were long ago suspended by the party.
In another major blunder, the party suspended and later threw out its convenor Sucha Singh Chhotepur, who was one of the strongest pillars of the party in the state, on trumped up charges of corruption. He was accused of collecting funds without the knowledge of the party. Chhotepur was regarded as a respected leader and his exit was seen as another instance of "directives from Delhi.”
Part of the reason to oust him was his objection to the powers given to "outsiders” to select candidates. The choice of candidates in several constituencies also came under a shadow and old party workers were ignored to favour the rich and the influential. Some even with dubious reputation and leanings towards militancy were given party tickets.
One of the major factors that has gone against AAP was its failure to project a chief ministerial candidate. Some top party leaders indicated that even Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal may shift to Punjab. This evidently did not go down well with the voters.
The other prospective candidate for the post, Bhagwant Mann, too did not enjoy respect even though he is a popular comedian and has the ability to attract crowds. The defeat in the state is a setback for the party which was eyeing Gujarat, where the Assembly elections are due later this year, on its way to power in Delhi in 2019.
(The writer is a senior journalist based in Chandigarh)