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What the Congress needs to learn from Amarinder's victory in Punjab

Rajeev Khanna | Updated on: 14 March 2017, 17:50 IST
(Arya Sharma/Catch News)

Congress' 2017 Punjab chapter under the leadership of Captain Amarinder Singh had a good few lessons coming out of the campaign and subsequent victory. The grand old party should learn from it if it is to revive itself across the country in the forthcoming state polls while keeping an eye on the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. And the sooner the party learns these lessons – the better.

The biggest message that has emerged from Punjab is that the Congress needs to identify a strong regional leader and hand the reins for the polls over to him. This was precisely the strategy that set the ball rolling for the Congress in Punjab at a time when the party stood rattled by the 2014 Lok Sabha poll results and the state witnessed the entry of a rookie Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) that was expanding its base after having won four Lok Sabha seats in the state.

It was at this point that Amarinder managed a comeback as the state Congress chief in late 2015 and got down to putting the act together for the party. His message to the party high command all this while was very clear – he wanted the least interference and a free hand in managing affairs in Punjab.

In fact, after his poll victory, Amarinder has come out saying it is important to promote regional leaders in order to counter other regional parties in states. He further underlined that is vital to project a regional face that the people could identify with.

The bigger picture

The same sentiment has also been aired by political analyst Jagtar Singh who has stated that the Punjab model can open the door to the Congress' revival at the national level. He has pointed out that Amarinder, after lobbying for months first, succeeded in getting back the party presidency and then a free hand at every level. The candidates this time were, by and large, his choice. He was the main campaigner who succeeded in regionalisation of the Congress and this model has delivered.

“The Congress would have to build a regional cadre and evolve regional agendas based upon multi-cultural sensitivities. The high command culture must go. The regional units would have to be made autonomous after total overhaul at every level. Rahul Gandhi would also have to change his style of functioning to adopt this model. The Congress in every state would have to go regional to meet the regional aspirations rather than the coterie around Gandhi family trying to dictate terms,” pointed out Jagtar in one of his write-ups. 

The right picks

Another factor that the Congress needs to ponder upon is that the state leadership must have a very conducive relationship with the in-charge appointed by the central leadership and the latter should act as a catalyst for the party's effective campaign. In addition to this, the central leadership should be very careful in appointing the party in-charge taking into account the regional sensibilities.

The Congress had scored a self-goal by appointing Kamal Nath for Punjab but took a corrective measure in the form of Nath resigning and bringing in Asha Kumari. Nath's appointment was immediately followed by the ghost of 1984 Anti-Sikh riots raising its head again and the opposition lapping up the opportunity to put Amarinder and the party on the defensive.

Playing it tough

The third lesson that the Congress leadership should to take from Punjab is that aggressive politics is the need of the day and the soft approach on key issues does not work. In order to combat the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah brand of politics, the party needs aggressive politicking from its leaders, something that Amarinder effectively demonstrated in Punjab. 

He was the one taking on Modi-Shah combine along with the top union ministers like Rajnath Singh, Arun Jaitley and Manohar Parrikar. He was the one who called off the 'bluff' on withdrawal of residents from the villages along the International Border (IB) in the wake of the surgical strikes across the Line of Control (LoC) and war hysteria being generated.

Amarinder also took on Jaitley and Modi on the issue of demonetisation going to the extent of challenging Jaitley to once again contest the Amritsar Lok Sabha by-poll as a referendum for the drastic step taken by the Modi government.

He also set the precedent for the party MLAs by resigning his Lok Sabha seat on the issue of sharing Punjab waters.

Observers feel the Congress leadership also needs to learn to take a clear stand on issues and avoid treading the middle path.

“In other states, particularly that will go to polls in near future, Congress needs to clearly come out as a secular party instead of peddling soft Hindutva. There is nothing hard and soft about things like Hindutva. You are either secular or communal. Amarinder had the guts to come out in support of Sehajdhari Sikhs even as his party and the other opposition parties meekly allowed the government in power to pass the Sikh Gurudwaras (Amendment) Bill in the Parliament debarring them from voting in the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) polls,” said a political observer.

Once Amarinder came out in support of the Sehajdharis, the Sehajdhari Sikh Party (SSP) extended unconditional support to the Congress for the Punjab Assembly polls. There are about 70 lakh Sehajdhari Sikhs in Punjab who strongly felt that they had been deprived of their rights.

Strategise right

The new concepts that the Congress introduced for Punjab polls under Amarinder also paid rich dividends. The first among these was one ticket per family norm and Amarinder showed that charity began from home as no other person from his family contested the Assembly polls.

The second one was fielding candidates on the criteria of winnability and not on the basis of their loyalties and affiliations.

The third was the steps taken well in advance for curtailing dissidence. One of these was promising posts in boards and corporations to those who worked for the party victory despite not getting tickets themselves.

Last but not the least was Amarinder experimenting with a corporate branding style of campaign with the help of strategist Prashant Kishor. This was something that was started by Modi during his stints as the chief minister of Gujarat.

And then the Congress must also keep in mind that naming a party chief ministerial candidate ahead of the polls can help in winning the battle.

Edited by Jhinuk Sen

First published: 14 March 2017, 17:50 IST