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Assets or deadwood? Congress poaches strong leaders from SAD-BJP

Rajeev Khanna | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:36 IST

Thus far on the campaign trail in Punjab, the Congress has used an aggressive strategy to gain the upper hand over its rivals. And now, it is encouraging defections from both the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).

Under the leadership of Captain Amarinder Singh, the party has particularly targeted the ruling SAD-BJP combine, which has seen some senior leaders and workers switch sides.

Some of the key politicians who have joined the Congress over the last few days include Sarwan Singh Phillaur, Inderbir Singh Bolaria, Pargat Singh, Navjot Kaur Sidhu, Rajinder Kaur Bhagike and Mahesh Inder Singh. These people are either political heavyweights in their respective constituencies or can be very useful to the Congress as the campaign picks up in the days to come.

The defectors are being brought in at the perfect time to extract maximum political mileage. But it's a tightrope walk for Amarinder - new entrants to the Congress often ruffle the feathers of those who've been in the party fold for years.

Significance of the defectors

Sources say that Phillaur, being a six-time MLA and a former minister, has a substantial following among the Dalits in the state, and particularly in his constituencies of Phillaur and Kartarpur. Incidentally, he comes from the Doaba region, which has a large presence of Dalits, several of whom are well off.

Similarly, Bolaria is an influential leader in the area around Amritsar.

In the same way, the party intends to use the clean and youthful image of both Pargat and Navjot Kaur in their respective constituencies. Sources say that being a very outspoken critic of the Akalis, Navjot will particularly be helpful in attacking the SAD-BJP combine during the campaign.

Bhagike and Mahesh Inder are also political heavyweights, whose departures have come as a major jolt to the Akalis.

It is expected that the joining of Navjot's husband, cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu, who quit his Rajya Sabha seat a few months ago, will also be announced at a strategic time by the Congress leadership.

Delaying the candidates' list

A Congress functionary told Catch: "The first advantage of encouraging such defections at this point of time is that it sends out a message that the Congress is the only alternative to the present SAD-BJP regime, which is facing massive anti-incumbency. The party's task has been made easier by the daily rebellions taking place in AAP. The message that the Congress wants to send out is that people are deserting their parties for the Congress because it is leading the race to win the polls."

But a deeper connotation to such defections from other parties is linked to the Congress delaying its list of candidates. The party's biggest challenge at this point of time is to come out with a list that has winnable candidates, instead of those propped up by the party high command or because of other factors.

Party functionaries who have been working on the ground are just praying for minimum interference from the high command.

There are several questions attached to the defections and the list of candidates. The prime question is: where will the party make space for such high-profile leaders who have joined recently? Will they be fighting on Congress tickets? If yes, how would the party handle leaders from within its own ranks, who have been aspiring to fight the polls on these very seats?

Observers point out that the Congress has cleverly delayed its announcing of tickets to the effect that it will be the last one to do so. While AAP has already declared candidates for 92 of the 117 Assembly seats, the Akalis have declared 82 candidates.

In the case of the Akalis, there are only a dozen more candidates to be declared, since the party is likely to give 23 seats to its ally, the BJP. These dozen tickets would obviously go to the top rung of the party, which that includes candidates like chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, his son and deputy Sukhbir Badal, and Sukhbir's brother-in-law Bikramjit Singh Majithia among others.

Since these two parties have announced a majority of their candidates, the fence sitters in the Congress will not be in a position to cross over if they are denied tickets.

However, despite this seeming 'delay' in naming candidates, it must be pointed out that the Congress is still early compared to previous years.

Persuasion or coercion?

There is, however, one defection that the Congress has failed to engineer - that of Davinder Singh Gubaya, the son of the sitting SAD MP from Ferozepur, Sher Singh Gubaya.

Davinder's mother Krishna Rani was also supposed to join the Congress, but reports say CM Parkash Singh Badal has managed to persuade the family to stick with the Akalis.

However, other reports question whether it was 'persuasion' or 'coercion' that kept the Gubayas in the Akali fold, given the fact that on the day Davinder and his mother were scheduled to join the Congress, there were vigilance raids at a college run by the family.

The Gubaya family belongs to the Rai Sikh community which has a strong presence in Ferozepur and adjoining areas. Had Sher Singh's wife and son joined the Congress, the Akalis would have likely thrown him out of the party, but he would've been able to retain his Lok Sabha seat.

Akalis hit back

After all these confirmed and attempted defections, it's no surprise that the Akalis have refused to take the Congress's moves lying down. SAD has alleged that Amarinder has undermined the central parliamentary board of his party by making assurances to SAD and other parties' turncoats.

Sukhbir Badal, in fact, said it was ironic that a national party which brags about winning two-thirds majority and forming the next government, is hopelessly dependent on 'leftovers' and 'rejects' of other parties.

"This reliance on the rejects of SAD-BJP clearly reflects the Congress perception that the leftovers or rejects of the other parties are better placed than their own stalwarts. The Congress hopes they would bring laurels to it," he said.

Sukhbir sarcastically suggested to the Congress to defer the announcement of its candidates by some days till the SAD and BJP select their candidates, as they may grab some more leaders 'from the dustbin' of these parties.

Edited by Shreyas Sharma

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First published: 9 December 2016, 6:52 IST