In his entire political life, Rahul Gandhi must have made just one wise decision — that of letting Captain Amarinder Singh lead the Congress campaign in Punjab.
If the Congress is seeing hope in a sky overcast with saffron clouds on 11 March, it is only because of Singh, who has defied the odds to win Punjab for the Congress, giving it something to rejoice on a day it seems on its deathbed.
Credit for the Congress victory in Punjab should go to Captain, who single-handedly turned on its head an election his party seemed destined to lose just a year ago. He has won it by sheer dint of his personality, image and in spite of Rahul Gandhi and the Congress.
Left to him, Rahul Gandhi would have actually ensured the Congress doesn't win Punjab. With his half-baked ideas about leaders, organisation and cadre, he had sidelined Captain Amarinder Singh and given the party's reins to politicians whose only claim to fame was their access to the Congress vice-president's drawing room.
Just a year before the elections, the Congress seemed to be in complete disarray. Factionalism was rampant as several leaders were unhappy with its state chief Pratap Singh Bajwa. Hurt by the treatment meted out to him, Captain was sulking, giving indications that he may either form a new party or become silent in elections. Taking advantage of the confusion with the Congress, the AAP appeared to be on the surge.
Though Rahul Gandhi and his acolytes seemed set to act like political fidayeen, circumstances forced them to step back from the brink of disaster. Forced by rebellion within its ranks, fears of an AAP surge and rumours of Captain's exit, Rahul Gandhi agreed to boot out his loyalists and reorganise the party's state unit. With the advantage of hindsight, he will look at his decision to appoint Captain head of the Punjab Congress as the wisest thing he did in life.
In many ways, Punjab was ready not just for change but also punishing the SAD-BJP alliance for ten years of its rule. Anger against alleged corruption and tyranny of the Badals was simmering. Voters were eager to end the hegemony of the Badal dynasty in local politics. Sikhs were incensed by repeated incidents of disrespect to Guru Granth Sahab. And abuse of drugs had become a major issue among youth.
But, voters seemed reluctant to trust the Congress. On the ground, the perception was that only Captain could be trusted to oust the Badals and lead the state. Somebody must have worked really hard to make Rahul see the writing on the wall and give a free hand to Captain.
There are many reasons for Singh's acceptability in the electorate. Apart from outgoing CM Parkash Singh Badal, he is seen as the most respectable face of the Sikhs in the state, leading to his automatic acceptance among Sikh voters. Also, voters have a favourable impression of Captain's decade-long government in Punjab before it was voted out in 2007. Amidst voters, he is seen as personally incorruptible, an image that gets strengthened because of his royal past.
Throughout the campaign, Captain talked and behaved like the CM-in-waiting. At election rallies, unlike the AAP that targeted the Badals, Captain spoke in detail about the challenges Punjab and how he planned to address them. His theme at rallies was that there is a lot to be done and the ways in which he will do it.
He played the panthic card well too. Soon after taking over as the party's state chief, Captain held a rally where he publicly swore by the holy book not just to put Punjab back on track but also punish those guilty of hurting religious sentiments of the Sikhs.
His crafty political mix of development and religious identity helped the Congress in two ways. One, it juxtaposed Captain's development politics with the perceived lack of development under the Badals. Two, Captain's emphasis on his religious identity put the AAP at a huge disadvantage because of the absence of a prominent Sikh face in its top brass.
Though it would be very difficult for the Congress to rise from the humiliation it has suffered in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand — it will most likely break it or lead to an internal rebellion — there is a lesson to be learnt from the results in Punjab.
The party's comfortable victory shows that the BJP and its allies can indeed by stopped. It proves that Congress can again reclaim the slot of the main opposition to the BJP and edge the AAP out. But for all this to happen, the Congress needs to invest in and nurture its regional heavyweights and give them a free hand.
It also needs to ensure Rahul Gandhi steps into the background and does not meddle with the organisation or its senior leaders.
Updated Date: Mar 11, 2017 13:50 PM