Mark the date: Why this December 15 is an important day in Punjab politics

Mark the date: Why this December 15 is an important day in Punjab politics
Photo Credit: Narinder Nanu/AFP
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The election may be some distance away, but the electioneering has already begun. On one side is the ruling alliance of the Shiromani Akali Dal and Bharatiya Janata Party harbouring aspirations to extend its two-term rule in Punjab. And in the other corner is the Congress with hopes that Punjab would turn around its rapidly declining fortunes.

On December 15, about 14 months before the Punjab assembly polls, the rivals are holding major rallies in each other’s stronghold. The Congress, led by its new state unit president, former Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh, has picked as its venue Bathinda, the bastion of the Badals. Meanwhile, the Badals have chosen to flex muscles in Patiala, the hometown of Amarinder Singh.

Open challenge

The ruling alliance was the first off the mark when it announced a series of Sadbhavna (Harmony) rallies last month. The first of these was organised in the Badals’ pocketborough, Bathinda, after a series of attempts to disrupt communal harmony. This wasn’t an easy decision given the protests against the government and the physical attacks on some of its leaders. But the organisational abilities of Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal put paid to any doubt.

Thousands turned up at the rally, though there were allegations that exploitation of the government machinery led to the success. There were also allegations that part of the crowd was brought in from neighbouring Haryana. Still, the fact that large numbers showed up gave the ruling alliance a boost.

As the Akali Dal and BJP organised a few more rallies around Punjab, with considerable success, no-one was left in doubt that the gatherings were not just to promote sadbhavana but also electoral ambitions. Although the political discourse of the Akali Dal-BJP was already fixated on Amarinder Singh, the attacks became sharper after he was made the state Congress chief on November 27.

Not one to take criticism quietly, Amarinder Singh announced that the formal ceremony to mark his appointment will be held in the same ground in Bathinda where the SAD-BJP alliance had held its first Sadbhavna rally. Clearly, the decision was meant as an audacious challenge. Bathinda is the stronghold of the Badals, and its sitting MP is Union minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal. It is unlikely that the Congress will get the state machinery’s help for the rally – indeed, it may have to face resistance and even obstruction in its attempt to beard the lion in its den.

In an attempt to pay the Congress back in the same coin, Sukhbir Badal announced that SAD-BJP will hold a parallel rally in the hometown of Amarinder Singh, Patiala, on the same day, December 15. The idea is to puncture the show being put up by the Congress and divide the attention of the people.

Building a grand alliance

Amarinder Singh has declared that his rally will be called the Badlav Rally (Rally for Change) and that it will start the party’s campaign, christened Mission 2017. He indicated that the party may opt for a mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) along the lines of the grouping cobbled together in Bihar.

According to reports, he has already got in touch with the estranged Badal – Manpreet Singh Badal. A former finance minister of Punjab, Manpreet Singh Badal left the Akali Dal and floated his own party, the People’s Party of Punjab, before the 2012 assembly elections. Though his party did not win a single seat, it was able to garner 5% votes, which proved critical in the final analysis for the SAD-BJP alliance. Amarinder Singh has also spoken to the Left parties and may also try to rope in the Bahujan Samaj Party. A final decision on these alliances would, however, rest with the Congress’s central leadership.

The Aam Aadmi Party, the third major contender in the fray has also announced its state wide agitation on December 15 to coincide with the rallies by SAD-BJP and Congress. Sanjay Singh, the head of the state unit, has announced that the party will organise a state wide andolan on that day to demand resignation of Agriculture Minister Tota Singh allegedly being involved in a Rs 35-crore spurious pesticides scam. This will be the first state-wide organised protest by the AAP.

The party’s head, Arvind Kejriwal, will address a major rally next month to flag off his party’s campaign. He has already declared that the party will contest all the 117 seats and has said that the party is likely “to repeat Delhi in Punjab”.