A statement by Punjab Finance Minister Harpal Singh Cheema on contesting the next year’s Lok Sabha elections in alliance with the Congress has created a flutter in the Opposition party, which on Tuesday took a decision to oppose any such move. While the two parties are constituents of the opposition INDIA Bloc, the Punjab unit of Congress has steadfastly refused any electoral tie up with the Aam Aadmi Party.
In a meeting, the constituency in-charges, party MLAs and other leaders of the Congress discussed Cheema’s statement amid apprehensions that a seat sharing formula between the two parties might have been worked out by the high commands of the two parties.
The leaders authorised state party chief Amrinder Singh Raja Warring and Leader of the Opposition Partap Singh Bajwa to convey the collective sentiment of the Punjab unit to the party high command during the first meeting of newly constituted Congress Working Committee in Hyderabad on September 16.
Former chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi, who is the only CWC member from Punjab, former PCC chief Navjot Singh Sidhu and and former deputy chief minister Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa were among those who attended the meeting. Of the party’s six Lok Sabha MPs, only Mohammad Sadiq was present.
Almost all who attended the meeting, including a few former ministers who are on the radar of Punjab Vigilance Bureau and facing probes, strongly opposed any seat sharing or alliance with AAP, saying how can they ally with a party which had unleashed a “political witch hunt” against Congress leaders. They said party would stare at losing its cadre in case of a truck with AAP in Punjab.
Some also opined that “[popularity] graph of AAP had severely come down” and allying with it would be “nothing short of carrying a baggage”.
In the three-hour long meeting, the party leaders also expressed apprehensions that any pre-poll tie-up with AAP could benefit the BJP. A senior Congress leader who attended the meeting said the result of Jalandhar parliamentary by-poll was cited as an example why Congress should contest on its own.
Sushil Rinku of AAP had won Jalandhar by-poll which was necessitated after the demise of sitting Congress MP Santokh Singh Chaudhary in January this year. Chaudhary’s wife Karamjit Kaur was the runners-up in the election with Akali Dal and BJP finishing third and fourth, respectively.
“The leaders were of the view Congress would be able to do better if it contests all 13 Lok Sabha seats on its own. Any tie-up with AAP could benefit BJP, which otherwise had finished fourth in Jalandhar by-election,” said the leader.
An MLA said that in case any seat sharing between the two actualised, he would “continue to publically speak against AAP government in the State.”
A former MLA said, “Any seat sharing would spell disaster for Congress. If AAP contests on seven seats and Congress on six, this would mean that Congress will completely lose any hold on more than 63 Assembly segments.”
Before the meetings commenced, Bajwa equated the talks of Congress-AAP tie-up in Punjab saying the that the talks were about “two marriages”, one at national level and another in state. In Punjab, he said before a call was taken, the bride and groom first need to give their assent for the marriage.
The AAP, meanwhile, is confident of striking a deal. Their confidence stems from the fact that AICC did not nominate any Punjab-based leader in the Congress Election Committee (CEC) constituted on Monday. Only Ambika Soni, a leader from Punjab, has been accommodated. “It is however a given that Ambika Soni would always toe the high command line as she is considered close to former AICC chief Sonia Gandhi,” an AAP leader said building an argument in favour of the alliance.
The AAP leader argued that had the AICC wanted to listen to Punjab leaders, it would have added someone from the state. “Channi was accommodated in CWC, but it is the CEC that will be call the shots when it comes to framing any strategy related to elections. The Congress too wants to defeat the BJP in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections and it is their last chance. The Congress will not get any opportunity after this. For defeating BJP, every seat counts. AAP and Congress together will be a formidable alliance. We can get all 13 seats,” the AAP leader said.
Minister Cheema, meanwhile, harped on the fact that Congress and AAP are already part of an alliance. “The INDIA bloc’s aim is very big. To achieve that, we must keep aside our small differences. Our priority is to save the country and its democracy and Constitution,” Cheema had earlier told reporters.AAP chief spokerperson Malvinder Singh Kang, however, said that the party would rely on whats its national leadership says. “What Cheema Sahib has said is in the national perspective. We will go by what our high command says. We all are part of INDIA platform now. It is in the national interest, anyway,” he added.
Another senior AAP leader said that they have been holding internal discussions on seats sharing. Considering the brute majority it has — 92 MLAs in 117-member Vidhan Sabha — several senior AAP leaders have pitched the idea that Congress, with 18 MLAs, should be given only two of the 13 Lok Sabha seats. “If you use logic, based on their strength in Assembly, Congress should get two seats. From their side, former CM Channi, Anandpur Sahib MP Manish Tewari and Ludhiana MP Ravneet Bittu would be among the frontrunners. Tewari may also want the ticket from Chandigarh. Rest, the high command will decide how many seats are to be given to them,” said the leader.
Bajwa, however, is very clear. “We are the main Opposition party in Punjab. We had earlier told our high command that we have been opposing them for last one-year-and-a-half. We should contest separately. Then become a part of post-poll alliance against the BJP. Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann knows they his party is on a weaker wicket. They are losing perception. We will win 8-9 seats out of 13 as we have gained ground,” said Bajwa.
Earlier, state Congress chief Amrinder Singh Raja Warring had said that “26 like-minded parties have got together against BJP to save democracy”. Warring said some of the alliance partners in INDIA contest against each other in states like Kerala, West Bengal and Punjab. He had, however, made it clear that there was “no question of any alliance with AAP in Punjab, where Congress is in a direct fight against it”. There is no discussion on any alliance with AAP. Not only in Punjab, but in several other states too, the parties that have come together in INDIA are fighting against each other on different issues (at state level),” Warring had said.
Soon after the Congress and AAP joined the grand alliance of 26 parties, Punjab BJP chief Sunil Jakhar had asked “whether to call Punjab Congress a ‘ruling party’ or the ‘opposition party’ ?”
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