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Win-win: why Manpreet Badal may join the Congress for #Punjab2017

Rajeev Khanna | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 5:16 IST

As next year's assembly election draws near, Punjab's political scene is hotting up. The latest: The People's Party of Punjab led by Manpreet Badal, the estranged nephew of Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal, is warming up to the Congress.

So much so that it's speculated that the PPP might merge with the Congress rather than just ally with it.

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Manpreet has said he shares a "common agenda with the Congress in terms of ending VIP culture, freeing Punjab of debt and corruption, ending political interference in policing and ensuring 10% growth in GSDP over the next five years".

Rebel in the family

The PPP was floated in 2011 by Manpreet after he was sacked as the state's finance minister and expelled from the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal. He had resigned his assembly seat, which he had held for four terms, to launch the party.

The SAD had claimed that Manpreet was expelled for "indiscipline". He himself has said he had developed differences with Parkash Badal, and his son and deputy chief minister Sukhbir Badal, over the issue of asking the central government for a debt waiver for Punjab.

Some observers, however, believe that Sukhbir orchestrated Manpreet's expulsion because he saw him as a rival. He was apparently concerned about the finance minister's growing popularity among the party's rank and file as well as the public.

Together with Manpreet, we can rid Punjab of the misrule of the Akalis and the BJP: Amarinder Singh

At the time, the PPP was seen as a credible challenger to the SAD. Indeed, when the party joined the Sanjha Morcha - with the CPI(M), CPI and SAD (Longowal) - to contest the last assembly election in 2012, Manpreet was projected as the candidate for chief minister.

The Morcha came a cropper, however, failing to win a single seat although it garnered about 6% of the votes polled.

In 2014, Manpreet contested the Lok Sabha election against Sukhbir's wife Harsimrat Kaur Badal on a Congress ticket, and lost narrowly. He had then clarified that he had only aligned with the Congress, not merged his party with it.

A new innings?

After the Lok Sabha poll loss, Manpreet was written off as a spent force by his rivals. But he has refused to lie low, and his aggressive brand of politics, especially his opposition to the Akalis, has given him substantial following among the electorate.

The Akalis have often called him "thankless" for turning against the party despite the Badals enabling him to enter the assembly from their stronghold of Gidderbaha four times from 1995 to 2007.

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Amarinder Singh welcomed Manpreet's "encouraging response to the idea of broad-based secular alliance in the interest of the state".

"We have multiple points of convergence with Manpreet," the state Congress president said, "and I hope that together we can steer Punjab out of the social, political and economic anarchy the Akalis and the BJP have pushed it into during the last nine years of their misrule."

In 2011, Manpreet's alliance failed to win a seat despite 6% vote share. Will it do better this time

Joining hands is expected to benefit both Manpreet and the Congress. The grand old party needs a clean face, which Manpreet provides. Also, his style of functioning and his symbolic opposition to "VIP culture" - he drove his own car even when finance minister, and shunned police protection - has endeared him to certain sections of the electorate.

As for the benefit to Manpreet, he would get a bigger platform and political machinery to intensify his war against his uncle and cousin. That Manpreet's family is on good terms with the Gandhis gives him added advantage in case he decides to merge the PPP with the Congress.

There are reports that the Aam Aadmi Party is also trying to woo Manpreet. But the party leadership has denied this. "There is no such attempt from our side," said AAP's Punjab convener Succha Singh Chhotepur. "We are also hearing that he's going to merge his party with the Congress very soon."

But how soon this will happen, if at all, remains to be seen.

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First published: 13 January 2016, 11:54 IST