Its obsession with wooing the Jat Sikh vote has not paid off. So, the Congress will try to reclaim what was traditionally its own— Hindu and Dalit vote banks. Its choice of candidates was cited as the main reason behind the party’s poll drubbing in 2012. This time round, the Congress intends to get the poll math right by fielding candidates of the community whose numbers count.
The party has invited applications by August 15 from ticket aspirants and the final list is expected to be out by mid-September after screening of names by the central election committee (CEC) of the party and the final nod of party president Sonia Gandhi.
Despite ally BJP having state’s predominantly urban seats in the seat-sharing arrangement, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) president Sukhbir Singh Badal had fielded 11 Hindu candidates in the 2012 polls after sensing the need to reinvent his party’s ‘Panthic’ image. The Congress, on the other hand, had let loyalists and kinship be the deciding criteria for its candidates in many seats, urban or rural notwithstanding.
As a result, it fielded Sikh faces even in urban assembly segments having considerable Hindu population. In Mansa for instance, the party “accommodated” Gurpreet Gagowal, daughter-in-law of then sitting MLA Sher Singh Gagowal, as a last-minute entry to the candidates’ list. Sukhbir went for Hindu candidate Prem Mittal, who successfully breached the Congress bastion. Likewise, Harminder Jassi lost Bathinda (urban) to SAD’s Hindu candidate Swaroop Chand Singla and Surinder Pal Sibia lost Sangrur to SAD’s Parkash Chand Garg. BJP minister Anil Joshi trumped Karamjit Singh Rintu from Amritsar (North) seat, having considerable Hindu votes.
Likewise, the Congress pitched Hindu candidates even in Sikh-majority segments. Dharamveer Agnihotri lost from Tarn Taran and Mangat Rai Bansal from Maur with the exception of Arvind Khanna from Dhuri. Little wonder then that the seat tally of the Congress, which had won a majority of seats in the Malwa belt in 2007 state polls, was down by six.
Punjab Congress president Captain Amarinder Singh says the party is likely to field Hindu faces in assembly segments where the community has high percentage of votes. “The SAD-BJP took more seats than us in Malwa. Many urban seats, especially those with mandis (grain markets) have considerable trader population. In such seats, the party may opt for Hindu candidates. For instance, on urban seats of southern Punjab districts of Bathinda, Mansa and Sangrur,” Amarinder told HT.
Once a Congress bastion owing to the Dalit vote bank, the party’s poll fortunes have been sliding in the Doaba belt since the 2007 polls. The Congress mustered just four seats in 2007, and in 2012, six came to the Congress kitty out of 23. To regain the lost Dalit vote bank, the party is mulling shuffling some of its sitting MLAs. Amarinder says while no legislator would like to be dropped, a shuffle may be needed in some reserved seats. “We won just 10 reserved seats in the 2012 polls and SAD-BJP won 20 of the total 30. We will have to see if shuffling some MLAs would take care of anti-incumbency,” he added. He, however, refused to divulge seats that may see such a change.
As for Jat Sikh votes, the Congress is banking on farmer issues and Amarinder’s recent activism on the Sutlej-Yamuna Link (SYL) canal issue — Captain has announced that he and Congress MLAs will quit their posts — is to counter the rhetoric of chief minister Parkash Singh Badal that Punjab has “not a drop of water to spare”.
The Congress has also to contend for Jat Sikh votes with the Aam Aadmi Party, which has been able to make inroads into the ‘Panthic’ and peasantry votes, the stronghold of the SAD. After facing two back-to-back poll drubbings, the Congress may even like to change MLAs of general seats who are facing “high anti-incumbency”. Though Amarinder denies such a possibility, Congress insiders say the strike rate of the party’s sitting MLAs has been around 50% since the 1992 elections in Punjab. “The party had won 90 seats after the SAD boycotted polls in 1992. Of them, just 14 returned to the 1997 assembly which brought Parkash Singh Badal government to power. In 1997, of the 14, just six made it to the 2002 assembly. In 2002, Congress had 62 MLAs, of which 37 lost in 2007. In the 2012 polls, 21 of the 44 sitting MLAs lost,” they say.