Ludhiana: Navigating through a political landmine, the Congress in Punjab has named nine candidates, including for the Chandigarh constituency, for the upcoming Lok Sabha election. The party received over 160 applications for the 13 Lok Sabha constituencies in the state, and to prevent internal tussle from hurting its chances of defeating the BJP-Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) alliance in the state, the Grand Old Party renominated four sitting MPs from their seats. It has also decided to field Preneet Kaur, a three-time MP and wife of Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, from Patiala.
Besides, the Congress has also finalised candidates for the Fatehgarh Sahib, Faridkot and Khadoor seats. Former IAS officer Dr Amar Singh has been fielded from Fatehgarh Sahib, folk singer-turned-politician Mohammad Sadiq from Faridkot and former MLA Jasbir Singh Dimpa got the party ticket from Khadoor Sahib.
However, there is a tough competition among party members for the remaining four seats of Ferozepur, Bathinda, Anandpur Sahib and Sangrur, along with indications of a cold war brewing in Punjab Congress.
Currently, of the 13 seats in Punjab, the Congress and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) have sitting MPs on four each, while the BJP-SAD alliance has five. Voting in Punjab for the upcoming Lok Sabha election will be held in the last and seventh phase, on 19 May.
Earlier, Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee (PPCC) chief and Gurdaspur MP Sunil Jakhar was facing competition from party general secretary Amardeep Singh Cheema for the Gurdaspur Lok Sabha seat. Although the PPCC and the selection committee have given Jhakar and three other old hands a chance to defend their seats, other constituencies are also witnessing a similar battle.
Anandpur Sahib is one of the most sought-after seats in the state. Back in 2014, Prem Singh Chandumajra of the SAD had wrestled the constituency from Congress' Ambika Soni by a margin of 2.17 percent votes. Although Soni " now a Rajya Sabha MP " has not shown any interest in contesting from the constituency, Vikram Singh Bajwa, son-in-law of former Chief Minister of Punjab Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, as well as Yadavindra Singh Kang, son of former minister Jagmohan Kang, Congress spokesperson Jaiveer Shergill and Karanvir Dhillon, son of Kewal Dhillon, who was once Punjab's richest MLA, have applied for the ticket.
According to party insiders, Congress leader Captain Sandeep Sandhu and former Ludhiana MP Manish Tewari have high chances of getting a ticket from Anandpur Sahib. But the large chunk of voters from the Saini community in this constituency lowers the chances of a "parachute candidate" finding support. Congress spokesperson Dr Achaar Sharma says the constituency has more than one lakh voters from the Saini community alone.
In Hoshiarpur constituency, a hopeful Congress has chosen Chabbewal MLA Rajkumar Chabbewal, expecting to benefit from the anti-incumbency that sitting BJP MP Vijay Sampla is believed to be facing. The contest within the party for the Hoshiarpur ticket could pose a challenge to the Congress as former MP Mohinder Singh Kaypee, who lost to Sampla in 2014 by a margin of about 13,500 votes, has sought to contest from the seat once again. Apart from Kaypee, former AAP leader Yamini Gomar, who joined Congress in 2016, had applied for a ticket from Hoshiarpur, which is a reserved (SC) seat.
Since 1984, Jalandhar has been in the clutches of the Congress, and the impressive feat in the last Lok Sabha election shows that the constituency remains a stronghold of the party. The party has, however, ignored the challenge that Jalandhar West MLA Sushil Rinku and other local leaders pose to the candidature of sitting MP Santokh Singh Chaudhary by renominating him.
Moreover, Congress has yet to find a strong candidate from Bathinda. Current MP SAD leader and Union minister in the Narendra Modi government, Harsimrat Kaur Badal, has already declared her candidature from Bathinda. Congress' Manpreet Singh Badal, who fought against Harsimrat and is now a cabinet minister in the Punjab government, has shown no interest in contesting the Lok Sabha election so far.
Sangrur, where AAP's Bhagwant Mann won in 2014 by a huge margin of over 20 percent of the votes, is a tough seat for Congress. Congress candidate Vijay Inder Singla came in third in the 2014 election with 1,81,410 votes, 3,51,827 votes fewer than Mann. Despite the stakes, former Chief Minister of Punjab Rajinder Kaur Bhattal and former MLA Kewal Dhillon have expressed their willingness to fight against Mann.
Patiala is a stronghold of Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh and his family. Singh's wife Preneet Kaur, a three-time MP, was nominated over another prominent leader " four-time Congress MLA Randeep Nabha, who has a significant following in the historic city of Nabha in the Patiala district.
Surjeet Singh Kohli, an industrialist and half brother of former prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh, as well as Navjot Kaur Sidhu, wife of Punjab cabinet minister Navjot Singh Sidhu, have shown interest in contesting from Amritsar.
Although Congress has zeroed in on sitting Ludhiana MP Ravneet Singh Bittu, Ludhiana wasn't spared from the ticket race. Claiming his right to contest from the seat, Bittu said, "I have worked hard in this constituency. From pressing for the demand of making Halwara airport an international airport to making schools of Ludhiana smart, I have left no stone unturned to make the constituency better. The party will make a decision (for the remaining four seats), and we will support that person."
Congress leader Pawan Dewan, who had also applied for a ticket from Ludhiana, claims that the party should have had give a new face chance from the constituency. "Ludhiana is an urban constituency. Majority of the Ludhiana voters are Hindu. The party should give a new face a chance from the constituency," he said .
Meanwhile, Manish Tewari wanted to contest from the Chandigarh Union Territory, but the ticket has gone to Congress leader Pawan Kumar Bansal.
Punjab Congress's internal crisis has not gone unnoticed by its rivals.
Lok Insaf Party MLA Balwinder Singh Bains slammed Congress leaders over the fight for tickets in the Lok Sabha election. "For Congress, politics is business. Everybody wants a ticket to become an MP so that they can do the business of politics. But for us, politics is serving the people. Their fight for tickets will eventually help us as people are watching who is working for them. The people of Punjab have resentment against the Captain Amarinder Singh-led state government," he claimed.
Taking a dig at the infighting in the Congress, SAD spokesperson Maheshinder Singh Grewal said, "The internal brawl and fight for tickets show Congress' weakness. Its leaders have differences with each other."
However, Congress has defended the ongoing tussle for seats, saying that the party is "democratic". "It is a good sign that we have many candidates vying for each seat, unlike SAD, which is struggling to find candidates," party spokesperson Dr Achar Sharma said.
Punjab Mission 13
The 2014 Lok Sabha Election saw Congress losing in six seats by a very small margin of votes. The party lost Anandpur Sahib to SAD by 2.17 percent of the votes, Bathinda to SAD by 1.64 percent, Ferozpur to SAD by 2.84 percent, Hoshiarpur to BJP by 1.41 percent, Patiala to AAP by 1.86 percent and Fatehgarh Sahib to AAP by a margin of less than 3 percent of the votes.
Dr Jagroop Kaur, head of the Department of Political Science at Punjabi University in Patiala, believes different people imply different perspectives while voting. "For the people of Punjab, unemployment and brain drain are two main issues, which will affect their decision. Candidates matter a lot as some people vote for candidates and some vote for party ideology," he said.
"It seems like there's a political crisis in Punjab," Kaur added, without referring to any party.
The author is Ludhiana-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters