The Congress has started rolling out candidates for the Punjab assembly election, slated to be held in around two months. The first list of 61 names announced Thursday suggests the party is playing it safe - the first batch is made up of party heavyweights.
The party has been bracing for internal rebellions that usually follow ticket distribution and have become its hallmark; such rebellions are often referred to as the "Congress culture" in north India.
The list also indicates that the Congress has stuck with most of the names that its Punjab chief Amarinder Singh has been talking up. It is a surprise to many that there haven't been any voices of discontent so far with regards to the first list.
The party claimed to have chosen "winnable" candidates from various sections of the society, striking a balance between youth, new faces and experience while giving adequate representation to women.
According to a party spokesperson, "The Congress has retained 31 sitting MLAs and named seven new faces with strong credibility and winnability. Five youth, six women, eight ex-MLAs and one ex-MP, along with 11 others make up the first list, with some duplication as some of the candidates fall in more than one category."
The party seems to be serious about the "one family one ticket" formula, meaning only one person from a family would be fielded. Amarinder has promised to start with his own family, and now that he will be contesting from Patiala, there is no chance of his wife Preneet Kaur, a former central minister, and his son Raninder Singh getting tickets.
In the first list, three sitting MLAs who have been changed under this new formula. Apart from Amarinder in Patiala, Qadian is seeing a change with Charanjit Kaur Bajwa making way for her brother-in-law Fatehjung Singh Bajwa, as also Nawanshahr, where Gur Iqbal Kaur is being replaced by her son Angad Saini.
The new faces fielded by the party are Angad Singh (Nawanshahr), Amar Singh (Raikot), Sukhwinder Singh Danny (Jandiala), Kulbir Singh Zira (Zira), Khushbaj Singh Jatana (Talwandi Sabo), Kuldip Singh Vaid (Gill), and Dalvir Singh Goldy (Dhuri).
Amarinder claimed that the criteria for choosing the candidates was their "winnability", and since several aspirants were in the fray for some of the seats, those who did not make it to the final list will be "accommodated" once the party forms the next government. He also appealed to Congress workers to come together "to campaign for victory".
Besides Amarinder, the other heavyweights in the list include Sunil Jakhar (Abohar), Manpreet Singh Badal (Bathinda Urban), Charanjit Singh Channi (Chamkaur Sahib), Rana Gurmeet Singh Sodhi (Guru Har Sahai), Sukhjinder Raj Singh Lalli Majthia (Majithia), Tripat Rajinder Singh Bajwa (Fategarh Churian), Rana Gurjit Singh (Kapurthala), Kewal Singh Dhillon (Barnala).
Of the six women in the list, four have been fielded from the reserved constituencies of Ferozepur Rural (Satkar Kaur), Mehalkalan (Harchand Kaur), Budhlada (Ranjit Kaur Batti) and Dina Nagar (sitting MLA Aruna Chaudhary). The other two women in the fray are Razia Sultan (Malekotla) and sitting MLA and former chief minister Rajinder K Bhattal (Lehra).
At 25 years, Angad Saini is the youngest nominee in the Congress's first list while Amarinder at 74 is the oldest. Amarinder has lately been saying that the party will field youth on at least a third of the seats, but if this list is anything to go by, the party doesn't seem too keen on fielding younger people. It remains to be seen whether the youth will dominate the other lists to be released in the days to come.
The party, with the help of the poll strategist Prashant Kishor, has been trying to reach youngsters through campaigns like Coffee with Captain, and offers of free smartphones and one job per family, which is now the party's flagship campaign plank.
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Observers say the challenge for the party will come up when it chooses candidates for the remaining seats. In the first list, it has tried to send the message that all is well in its house but this is far from true. There have been rumblings of discontent. Punjab Congress, like several other units of the party across the country, is a top-heavy institution. It is a conglomerate of various factions led by aggressive heavyweights that operate at both the state level and at the level of the All India Congress Committee. There are groups led by former state unit president Partap Singh Bajwa, former chief minister Bhattal and others.
Bajwa, in fact, has been the most vocal of Amarinder's critics and has been leaking information to the media. Sources reveal that he has been censured on various occasions both by Amarinder and some central leaders, but in vain.
One of the main challenges for the Congress in the days to come would be accommodating the heavyweights it has imported in the recent days from its rivals, the Akali Dal, BJP and AAP. Navjot Kaur Sidhu, Pargat Singh, Inderbir Singh Bolaria and Sarwan Singh Phillaur do not figure in the first list although they were brought into the party with great fanfare. The lobby led by Bajwa and some other leaders are opposing giving tickets to these leaders, claiming they are just opportunists with no care for the interests of the party. In fact, many were opposed to their induction into the party itself.
The Congress is the last of major party in Punjab to announce its candidates, presumably believing this would leave little chance for those denied tickets to go and contest on rival party tickets.
In the last few days, the Congress's campaign in Punjab has somewhat slowed as its leaders have been camping in Delhi in the hope of getting tickets directly from the central leadership. The campaign for now is being carried out by those who are not contesting or by lower rung leaders.