Manpreet’s exit bares deep fissures in Punjab Congress

Senior Congress leader Manpreet Badal move to switch over to BJP amid the Punjab leg of the yatra has signalled further trouble for faction-ridden state Congress as prominent leaders continue to desert the ship after the party’s rout in last assembly poll, reports Rajesh Moudgil

The resignation of yet another senior Punjab Congress leader, Manpreet Singh Badal from the party amid the eight-day Punjab leg of  Rahul Gandhi’s recent “Bharat Jodo Yatra’’ came as a rude shock, putting the state unit in bad light. Minutes later, Manpreet joined Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in New Delhi on January 18. Rahul wound up the Punjab leg of his Yatra a day later with a rally in Pathankot.

Manpreet’s departure defeated the very purpose of both – Yatra in the state as well as functioning of the state unit, leaders of which had made efforts to put up a united face of the faction-ridden state unit also eyeing the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. Manpreet minced no words in citing the reasons behind his resignation, saying that the party was at a war with itself having multiple factions.

A five-time legislator and former minister, Manpreet was the fifth minister from the previous Congress government to have left Congress and joined the BJP. About four months ago, former chief minister Capt Amarinder Singh joined the BJP after merging his Punjab Lok Congress – he had floated after leaving Congress – with the saffron party. Subsequently, former Punjab Congress leader Sunil Jakhar also joined the BJP. Earlier, former ministers Balbir Singh Sidhu, Gurpreet Singh Kangar, Raj Kumar Verka and Sundar Sham Arora had joined the saffron party in 2022.

Manpreet, a nephew of former chief minister and Akali stalwart Parkash Singh Badal, had served as the finance minister in both the Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP government from 2007-11 and in the Capt Amarinder Singh-led Congress government from 2017-22. Leaving Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), he had also floated the People’s Party of Punjab (PPP) in 2011, contested the 2014 Lok Sabha elections as a Congress-supported candidate and joined the Congress in 2016. He was elected from Bathinda (urban) assembly segment as the Congress MLA but faced drubbing in the 2022 Punjab elections.

The bad blood in the Congress, which came to power five years ago with a thumping majority of 77 legislators out of the 117-member House, has been evident since the last assembly polls and resultantly, was reduced to humiliating 18 seats this election. And it was to blame itself more than anything else for it because of the bitter infighting.

Bad blood ran deep

While the unceremonious exit of the then chief minister, Capt Amarinder Singh last year following which he left the party, is well known, the bad blood seems to still run deep in the state unit. As Charanjit Singh Channi, a Dalit leader, who replaced Capt Amarinder Singh and was declared Congress chief ministerial candidate, a fresh bout of bickering had come to the fore in the party.

Former CM Amarinder Singh joined the BJP after the Congress high command unceremoniously replaced him with Charanjit Singh Channi

Its top leaders including state unit president Navjot Singh Sidhu, election campaign committee chairman Sunil Jakhar, deputy chief minister Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa, who were among the frontrunners to replace Capt Amarinder Singh as the chief minister in September last year before the party settled for Channi, were nowhere to be seen in Channi’s campaigns. While several of the senior leaders remained missing from the scene, there were many rebels who jumped into the fray fighting against the party’s own candidates. Ironically enough, the rebels included Channi’s brother, Dr Manohar Singh, who fought from Bassi Pathana constituency (district Fatehgarh Sahib) against Congress’ sitting MLA Gurpreet Singh.

‘Coterie increasing factionalism’

Hence, this content of Manpreet’s two-page resignation letter addressed to Rahul Gandhi plainly giving the reason behind his exit; “The coterie of men entrusted with the authority to dictate Delhi’s writ to the Punjab unit of Congress are far from sound. Instead of striving to reduce the internal disagreement in an already divided house, these men acted to further increase factionalism, and almost as a matter of policy strengthened the very worst elements within the party’’.

However, aside from the above mentioned reasons, party sources say that the aversion between Manpreet and state chief Amarinder Singh Raja warring has also been well known since 2012 assembly polls when Manpreet had defeated Raja Warring from Gidderbaha seat as a candidate of the PPP. The political observers also opine that by joining the saffron party, Manpreet hopes to revive his political fortunes. With the BJP preparing to contest all the 13 Lok Sabha seats in 2024 on its own, he hopes the party may field him from his home turf – Bathinda.

Good riddance: Warring

Terming Manpreet’s exit from the Congress “good riddance”, Warring also tweeted a strongly-worded post: “Good riddance. @MSBADAL is congenitally power hungry. He joined @INCIndia knowing the party was winning. 5 yrs is a long time for someone like him to stay out of power for reasons not unknown to anyone. Instead of crying martyrdom, he should be apologising to the Congress for betrayal.”

 Interestingly, the Shiromani Akali Dal also did not miss an opportunity to take a jibe at BJP as its spokesperson Dr Daljit Singh Cheema tweeted on the developments: “Keeping in view the rapid joining of Congress leaders in the Punjab BJP unit, I humbly appeal to the BJP high command to reserve at least 3 Lok Sabha & 23 Vidhan Sabha seats for original BJP leaders who have been working hard for the party since decades’’.

Multiple power centres

Back home, the Congress seems to continue to be faction-ridden and there does not seem to be an end to it; while there are said to be many senior leaders who think that the state party chief Raja Warring is junior to them, the leader of opposition Partap Singh Bajwa has his own set of disliking for some leaders. Warring has recently said that those who would not fall in line would face action and that 12 leaders had already been expelled.

Charanjit Singh Channi, who was state’s first Dalit chief minister and is back after months-long stay abroad after the last assembly polls, has been working overtime to have his say. The former state unit president, Navjot Singh Sidhu has his own popularity and aspirations.