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Congress loses advantage it gained in Punjab. Blame high command culture

Rajeev Khanna | Updated on: 12 January 2017, 16:58 IST

If you ever wanted proof for the adage 'old habits die hard', you need look no further than the Congress party. Once again, the grand old party seems to have shot itself in the foot; that too, at a time when everything seemed to be going in its favour.

The infamous Congress 'high command culture' seems to have bogged it down yet again, and given breathing space to rivals Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) combine.

Not only have these parties got their act together, but the advantage that state Congress chief Captain Amarinder Singh had squeezed out seems to have been squandered.

The high command culture

The biggest factor at work has been the delay in the release of the list of the candidates, coupled with the state Congress leadership camping in Delhi for almost a month now.

The workers on the ground complain that the high command culture is behind the delay in releasing the list of candidates.

Over the last one year, the state Congress leadership had begun by saying that it had learned its lessons from the 2012 Assembly polls, and would ensure that the candidates were declared solely on the winnability criteria.

A six month window was set for this, which then got reduced to three months, then one month. Eventually when the nominations began, the grand old party was still to release the list of candidates for 40 crucial seats.

To make matters worse, state Congress leaders said even the BJP list was delayed in the state, while refusing to acknowledge that the AAP and the SAD had exploited the opportunity by declaring candidates on all the seats they are contesting.

The Congress hasn't yet declared its candidates for 40 of the state's 117 seats

Perhaps Congress leaders need to be reminded that the BJP hardly has any stakes in Punjab, where it is just contesting 23 of the 117 seats as the junior partner of the SAD.

The party till national vice-president Rahul Gandhi returned from his New Year's vacation, in order to get his clearance for candidates.

Party workers on the ground feel that the exercise of shortlisting the candidates could have been done by Rahul before going abroad, or maybe the process could have been decentralised, allowing a team of senior Congress leaders to give a green signal to the release of list of candidates.

Workers fear that the declaration of candidature and the ever-looming threat of rebellions in the ranks at the eleventh hour may add to the chaos, derailing the efforts that have been put in till now to give the party an advantage.

To make matters worse, cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu has not yet joined the party, despite much discussion about it.

How to fix this problem

With the leaders camping in Delhi to lobby for tickets either for themselves, their children or their relatives, it has been the second rung leadership, and at times, only the workers who have been carrying out the campaign on the ground, in coordination with the the IPAC team of poll strategist Prashant Kishor.

Workers complain that although they are meeting the electorate one-on-one, and organising small meetings, people always look forward to having the top leadership in their midst.

The workers point to the success of the grassroot-level campaigns the party ran with Amarinder.

The flagship programme, 'Har Ghar to Ikk Captain', for empowering the youth of Punjab with the twin objectives of providing them jobs and making them commit to staying drug-free, continues to do well on the ground. Both Congress workers and the IPAC team have been actively taking it forward.

As part of this programme, Amarinder has committed to providing one job per household to youth between the age of 18 and 35 years, and till such employment is provided, the youth will be given an unemployment allowance of Rs 2,500 per month for a period of up to 36 months. In return, the youth (together with their families) must pledge to stay drug-free. IPAC claims that over 34 lakh youth have already registered for the programme.

Prashant Kishor's IPAC claims over 34 lakh youth have signed up for Congress's employment initiative

It's an important programme because, as the Congress itself has pointed out, there are about three lakh households in Punjab which have no earning family member. The unemployment rate among women in Punjab is 19% which is more than the double compared to the rest of India (7.7%).

The party quotes employment exchange data to convey that almost 72% of job seekers in Punjab are educated, out of which 78% are non-technical and 22% are technically qualified personnel.

People are being told that in 2012, the SAD had promised to create 10 lakh jobs. However, till 2015, it was able to place only 36,000 youth.

The 'Har Ghar ton Ikk Captain' volunteers have begun an extensive door-to-door registration drive across the state, where a unique ID will be provided to each enrolling youth through a 'Berozgari Bhatta Card'. The Congress has promised that spread over five years, its government would set aside a budget of almost Rs 10,000 crore (2.4% of the total state budget) for this initiative. The campaign aims to register a total of 40 lakh youth.

Workers feel that the senior party leaders now need to capitalise on the process by taking the party campaign forward around this scheme, along with other locally relevant issues.

A reported attempt by AAP to distribute cards promising unemployment allowance and a job to every household saw Congress workers countering it, and calling AAP 'copycats'.

No more meddling, please

But this is not even the first time the Congress high command has shot itself in the foot in the run-up to these Assembly polls.

It had, in fact, appointed Kamal Nath - a man allegedly involved in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots - as the state in-charge of Punjab. Needless to say, the party had to eat crow and replace him with lightweight Himachal Pradesh leader Asha Kumari, who also carries the taint of a land scam.

But, somehow, Amarinder was able to douse these fires.

Now, the party workers hope that once candidates are declared for the remaining seats, the high command desists from interefering in the campaign.

"The leaders from Punjab are capable of carrying the campaign, as they understand the local political idioms and issues. We do not want leaders from outside coming and goofing up. The best that the Congress can do is to check infighting in the party ranks," said a party worker from the Malwa region.

Edited by Shreyas Sharma

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First published: 12 January 2017, 16:53 IST