HAND IT TO SUKHBIR

Akali Dal Pres­i­dent Sukhbir Badal is spar­ing no ef­fort to engi­neer de­fec­tions and weaken the Congress

India Today - - NATION - By Asit Jolly

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.

Sukhbir

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.”

For

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?

PTI

AV­TAR SINGH BRAR (WEAR­ING SHAWL) WITH PARKASH SINGH BADALAND SUKHBIR BADAL

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