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Punjab, Uttarakhand victories a must if Congress has to rebound

Rajeev Khanna | Updated on: 20 May 2016, 22:56 IST
The debacle
  • The recent Assembly elections in four states were a disaster for a Congress
  • It lost power in Assam and Kerala, and its alliance with the Left failed to topple Mamata in Bengal
The revival
  • The party needs to rebound before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, and that must begin in 2017
  • The Congress is weak in UP, so it\'s imperative that it wins Punjab and retains Uttarakhand
More in the story
  • The key challenges for the party in Punjab
  • Why Harish Rawat may still be the party\'s hero in Uttarakhand

After a dismal performance in the states for which poll results were announced on Thursday, winning the next round of Assembly polls in Punjab and Uttarakhand has become very important for the Congress, if it has to thwart the BJP's dream of a 'Congress-free' India.

These two states will be going to the polls along with Uttar Pradesh in a few months. And while the party's position is weak in Uttar Pradesh, it is comparatively better placed in Uttarakhand and Punjab.

Punjab and the emergence of AAP

Of the two states, Punjab is more important for the Congress.

Captain Amarinder Singh has returned to lead the party into the poll battle, and state party leaders have been saying that the party's revival must start from Punjab, if it has to recover at the national level before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

While the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP combine is battling heavy anti-incumbency, a major factor in favour of the Congress, it is the new entrant, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), that is threatening to upset the poll matrix in the state.

AAP is riding high on a strong, highly-localised campaign, based on issues plaguing the state like farm distress, the drug menace and the worsening law-and-order situation. Observers feel that if the Congress is unable to check AAP's success in Punjab, it faces the threat of AAP challenging its presence in every state where the Congress is in majority or in the Opposition.

AAP is riding high on a strong, highly-localised campaign, based on issues plaguing the state

The party, led by Delhi Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal is working towards having a pan-India presence.

However, AAP faces the problem of being headless in Punjab, in terms of a Chief Ministerial candidate. It has also failed to come up with a concrete road map on emotive issues like the sharing of river waters with neighbouring states, or the denial of voting rights to sehajdharis in the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) polls etc.

Amarinder's new avatar

Amarinder, on the other hand is fighting his last electoral battle, and is giving it his best shot under the strategy devised by Prashant Kishor.

The veteran leader has been successful in ensuring mergers of the Manpreet Badal-led People's Party of Punjab and the Akali Dal (Longowal) into the Congress. Kishor, meanwhile, has been trying to give him an image makeover, projecting him as an easily accessible leader through campaigns like 'Coffee with Captain' and 'Punjab da Captain'.

Having announced a jumbo state executive body, the party plans to launch an aggressive campaign from June, and its prime target will be AAP.

Amarinder Singh has been getting an image makeover through campaigns like 'Coffee with Captain'

Reacting to the poll results in Assam, West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, Amarinder said:"Winning or not winning doesn't matter. What matters is the participation and performance, and the overall performance of our party has not been bad. Congress may be down, but it is certainly not out. I wonder what are they (the BJP) gloating about?"

He pointed out that besides winning Assam, the BJP is yet to have a significant presence, leave aside making an impression, in the other states.

Kicking Cong when it's down

The AAP leadership did not desist from taking a potshot at the Congress. AAP leader Sanjay Singh said the Congress had lost its 'political existence' in the country, as it had lost faith of the people, and that in the Punjab polls, the Congress will witness its most humiliating defeat.

Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal of the SAD also hit out, saying that the Punjab polls would be the 'funeral of the Congress'.

The SAD-BJP combine cannot be written off so easily. This was proved by Badal as he set the agenda recently on the sharing of river waters and the Satluj-Yamuna Link (SYL) Canal issue.

He has also been successful in addressing the SAD's core support base on issues like denying voting rights to sehajdharis in the SGPC polls, passing a Bill paving the way for awarding life imprisonment to those guilty of desecrating the Guru Granth Sahib, while increasing the punishment for desecration of other religious texts from two years to 10 years.

On Rawat's shoulders in Uttarakhand

In Uttarakhand, too, the Congress is walking a tightrope. Observers feel that though difficult, it is not impossible for Chief Minister Harish Rawat to romp home victorious.

They point out that the biggest disadvantages for Rawat are anti-incumbency and the 10 MLAs who have deserted the party during the recent episode of the state coming under President's rule. Of these, nine were those MLAs who had revolted under former CM Vijay Bahuguna, and the 10th was Rekha Arya, who crossed over on the day of the floor test.

"With these 10 victorious MLAs joining the BJP ranks, the party will give tickets at least to those who stand a chance of winning their seats again. The BJP will bank on the RSS for transferring votes in its favour which will be a major advantage," said a senior journalist in Dehradun, who has been covering state politics since Uttarakhand came into existence.

The scribe further said there is also palpable anger among the public on the surfacing of sting operations that point fingers at Rawat for using money power to buy support to save his government.

There is palpable anger among the public on the sting operations that have surfaced against Rawat

"But at the same time, there are many factors in Rawat's favour. The Congress is eying a sympathy wave over the methods used by the BJP to dislodge an elected government. Secondly, he has been able to successfully project himself as a Thakur leader, the community that has the maximum numbers in the state. He will also be getting the support of the major chunk of Muslim voters, who account for around 15% of the votes, primarily spread over the districts of Dehradun, Haridwar and Udham Singh Nagar," he said.

But what will the biggest advantage for Rawat will be his capacity to work hard. Observers say that since 18 March, when the state was put under President's Rule, Rawat took the battle right into the constituencies of those Congress MLAs who had revolted against him.

"He has successfully carried out Democracy Bachao yatras in most of these constituencies. He plans to visit all the 70 constituencies by the time the polls are announced. With his Sewa Dal background and a reputation of being a good political manager, he sure has the capacity to turn things into his favour," the political analyst said.

First published: 20 May 2016, 22:56 IST