HAND IT TO SUKHBIR
Akali Dal President Sukhbir Badal is sparing no effort to engineer defections and weaken the Congress
Sukhbir Badal holds all the cards in the pack. He can deal any hand he wants.” Handpicked by Rahul Gandhi in March to lead a party condemned to political wilderness for a historic second term, the Punjab Congress president is a visibly harried man today. Partap Singh Bajwa’s despondent acknowledgement evidently stems from the continual spate of defections from the Congress fold, each astutely engineered by Sukhbir, and episodic reminders of his (Bajwa’s) slackening hold on the party’s rank and file.
On October 30 afternoon, the Congress’s oldest and best-known face in southwestern Faridkot, Avtar Singh Brar, 82, travelled all the way to Chandigarh for an unusual photo-opportunity at the Shiromani Akali Dal’s swank, corporate-style headquarters in Sector 27. After 40 years as a Congressman, including a ministerial tenure from 1992 to 1997 during the Beant Singh government and as a member of the All India Congress Committee, the veteran politician decided to switch sides.
Brar is only the latest in a long line ( see list) of Congress leaders who, without the slightest sign of regret, have happily posed for pictures alongside a jubilant Sukhbir, SAD’S youngest ever president and Punjab’s deputy chief minister. Starting out almost immediately after his resounding victory in the February 2012 Assembly polls, he hasn’t let go a single opportunity to weaken his political rivals.
Deepinder Singh Dhillon, 52, a
senior Punjab and Haryana High Court lawyer and Union minister Preneet Kaur’s most trusted political aide in the Patiala Lok Sabha constituency, was among the first Congressmen to walk out in disgust on July 5, 2012. This after he was denied the party ticket for three consecutive Assembly polls since 2002. Aware of his sense of dejection, the Badals and Sukhbir’s brother-in-law Bikram Majithia successively called on Dhillon at his Chandigarh home to lure him into their party. “Badal sahib, Sukhbirji and Bikramji, and that’s the top leadership of the Akali Dal, personally came over to invite me to join,” he recalls with evident gratitude. Now, as chairman of the Patiala district planning board, he is reportedly being prepped to oppose his original mentor (Kaur) in the 2014 General Elections.
says his ‘machinations’ to entice Congress leaders are actually part of a carefully crafted strategy to win over leaders with a support base independent of their political affiliation. “As president of the Akali Dal, this is an integral party of my long-term plan to strengthen my party,” he told INDIA TODAY.
“The defections are all precisely planned,” says veteran political commentator and Punjabi journalist Baljit Balli who has had an insider’s view of the SAD’S years in office.
Sukhbir says he is prepared to go any distance to win over a rival. “Two months ago, I told my team I wanted Ajit Singh Shant of Nihal Singh Wala. Just three days later, he became a member of the Akali Dal,” he says, adding that the former Congress MLA had significantly reinforced SAD’S support base in the hitherto “weak” segment of Moga district. Every leader, he points out, “comes across with a large band of his supporters besides years of goodwill in his local area”. And he is clearly succeeding in wearing down the beleaguered Opposition through continuing attrition. Bajwa admits the desertions are demoralising for his party. “People are leaving because they have begun to question the very future of the Congress after two consecutive terms in the Opposition,” he says, adding feebly, “but such things invariably happen when bad times befall political parties”. The Congress chief laments that leaders have been quitting “for a lal batti wali gaddi and a couple of gunmen”.
Former chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh also acknowledges that defections are weakening the Congress in Punjab. He is, however, confident that “the Akali- BJP government’s failure to deliver even a semblance of good governance will win back both cadres and voters ahead of next year’s Lok Sabha elections.”
the moment though, things look exceedingly bleak. Besides the worrying prospect of the constant erosion in the party’s rank and file, Bajwa is himself threatened by legal action in at least two cases being actively pursued by the state administration. The first pertains to allegations of illegally acquiring Shamlat or common village land on Chandigarh’s periphery in 2012. A more serious charge under investigation, and confirmed by Sukhbir, relates to alleged irregularities in the purchase of bitumen worth crores during Bajwa’s tenure as PWD minister between 2002 and 2007. He publicly rubbished the first allegation but is yet to speak on the ‘Bitumen Scam’.
Bajwa is also stymied by brazenly dissenting voices within his own party. He constantly fears that he will be replaced as PPCC president: “Many senior leaders in the party want to see me fail so they can grab the mantle closer to the 2014 elections,” he says, without naming but clearly alluding to leaders like Amarinder Singh and former CWC member Jagmeet Brar.
Sitting in his plush Chandigarh home, Sukhbir Badal is already plotting his next move. “Keep in touch, I will very soon bring across two sitting Congress MLAs,” he says, predicting that “the Congress will be no more than an empty shell of a party by the time we go into the next Assembly elections in 2017”. Wishful thinking?
AVTAR SINGH BRAR (WEARING SHAWL) WITH PARKASH SINGH BADALAND SUKHBIR BADAL