Eye on 2017: Congress stitches together another merger in Punjab
The Congress in Punjab has engineered a merger with the Akali Dal faction Shiromani Akali Dal (Longowal) into its fold, putting the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) on the backfoot, as moderate and secular-minded Sikhs-SAD (Longowal)'s support base-will shift to the Congress. The merger comes two months after Manpreet Badal merged People's Party of Punjab (PPP) with the Congress. With the latest merger, the Congress has further consolidated its position on the anti-incumbency front.
Both the PPP and the SAD (Longowal) had come together with the CPI and the CPI (M) as the Sanjha Morcha ahead of the 2012 Assembly polls. Though the Morcha failed to win any seat, it managed to garner around six percent of the total votes polled in the state.
As the 2017 Assembly election draws near, Punjab Congress President Captain Amarinder Singh has been trying to form a broad-based anti-SAD (Badal)-BJP alliance in the state. And although, Amarinder has been sending feelers to the Left, anything concrete has yet to emerge.
The SAD (Longowal) merger with the Congress was announced by the leaders of the two parties in the presence of a large number of workers from the both the parties in Delhi. The SAD (Longowal) workers were led by led by the Party President Surjit Kaur Barnala and Secretary General Baldev Singh Mann, along with other senior leaders. Amarinder was accompanied by All Indian Congress Committee (AICC) General Secretary Shakeel Ahmad and Campaign Committee Chairperson Ambika Soni. The Congress leadership claims that the merger will further strengthen the party's position in Punjab.
Leaders of SAD (Longowal) claim there is no better leader than Amarinder to lead Punjab from darkness to a bright future.
Meanwhile, Amarinder claims that the ruling party will disintegrate before the 2017 Assembly election in Punjab. "There is a subtle and simmering discontent prevailing within the Akali Dal. I guarantee you, it will explode ahead of the elections," he says. He also claims that several senior leaders and prominent workers of SAD (Badal) are waiting for the election code of conduct to come into force before they resign to join the Congress. "Right now, they are lying low as they do not want to be implicated in false cases framed by Sukhbir Badal (deputy chief minister)," he said.
Terming the merger a political non-event, the SAD (Badal) has dismissed the it as "legalisation of an illicit marriage already in existence".
"The enemies of Punjab have now declared their alliance with the traitors of Punjab and the Panth. In a way, it is good that the traitors have thrown aside their camouflage and come out shamelessly in the open," SAD General Secretary Prem Singh Chandumajra said.
Chandumajra, who was himself a part of SAD (Longowal), described the merger as an insult to Harchand Singh Longowal, who led the SAD during the 80s. "Sant Longowal spent all his life fighting the Congress. His spirit would be disgraced to know that a faction carrying his name is now making deals with the enemies of the Punjab."
SAD (Longowal) was launched in 2004 by Surjit Kaur Barnala, wife of Surjit Singh Barnala. It merged into the SAD (Badal) in 2007 and severed ties with the party ahead of the 2012 Assembly poll.
Political commentator Ujagar Singh says the merger of the SAD (Longowal) into the Congress has a lot of symbolic significance. "Barnala has always been seen as a secular Sikh who was against the militants in Punjab. Longowal, a moderate, was gunned down by militants. The SAD (Longowal) has considerable influence in pockets all over the state as moderate elements among the Sikhs have been supporting it."
He added that the merger is a setback for the Akalis. "The Congress will consolidate secular voters. The irony is that Amarinder has always been seen as an Akali in the Congress party. This is the view of a large number of hardliners as well as some of the SAD (Badal) supporters. The merger is definitely a booster for the Congress."
Surjit Singh of Patiala, another keen observer of Punjab politics, said: "The moderate forces that had been lying defunct in the state will now find some space within the Congress. These forces had been marginalised in the state. They were very relevant when the state was facing militancy. The merger will give a needed platform to the moderates."
What remains to be seen is how the Congress manages to convert the mergers of SAD (Longowal) and PPP into its fold into an electoral advantage.