The divisions between the Punjab units of the Congress and the AAP over the arrest of a Congress MLA have now spilled onto the national level. Asked about the leader being taken into custody, Congress chief Mallikarjun Kharge on Thursday said the party will not tolerate injustice and those who are unjust “don’t survive for long”.
The arrest, the squabble between the parties in Punjab, and now the remarks by the Congress president threaten to deepen cracks in the INDIA alliance, which was formed with the ambition of projecting a united Opposition and defeating the BJP in the all-important Lok Sabha elections next year.
The day began with the arrest of Congress MLA Sukhpal Singh Khaira, who is a senior party functionary and a vocal opponent of any tie-up with the Aam Aadmi Party, in a 2015 case pertaining to drug smuggling and money laundering.
The Congress leader accused the AAP, which is the ruling party in Punjab with Bhagwant Mann as the Chief Minister, of being “thirsty for blood”. “I will not be surprised if he (Mr Mann) gets me physically eliminated,” Mr Khaira remarked.
Punjab Health Minister Dr Balbir Singh, however, said fresh evidence had emerged in the case and that the law “is same for everyone… whichever party member”.
Asked about Mr Khaira’s arrest after an event in Chattisgarh, Mr Kharge said he was yet to get details since he had gone to the state directly from Bengaluru. “I will take its details…But whatever may be the case, if someone does injustice, they don’t survive for long. If anyone does injustice to us, then we are not the ones who will tolerate it,” he was quoted as saying by news agency PTI.
While the Congress and the AAP have been trying to project a united face – not always successfully – at the national level since the first meeting of the opposition parties in Patna on June 23, the same cannot be said of their actions in Punjab.
Congress Punjab chief Amarinder Singh Raja Warring called the arrest “an attempt to intimidate the opposition”.
“The recent arrest of @INCPunjab MLA @SukhpalKhaira ji smacks of Political Vendetta, it is an attempt to intimidate the opposition and is a ploy of the @AAPPunjab govt to distract from core issues. We stand strongly with Sukhpal Khaira and will take this fight to its logical conclusion,” Mr Warring posted on X, formerly Twitter.
The Congress’ state unit also held a meeting to discuss the “vindictive” arrest and then a delegation met Governor Banwarilal Purohit to seek his “immediate intervention”.
The AAP also didn’t hold back any punches. “We will not form an alliance with a party that is already so discredited (badnam) in Punjab, a party that has engaged in significant corruption and provided patronage to gangsters,” AAP Punjab leader Jagtar Singh Sanghera said during a press conference after Sukhpal Singh Khaira’s arrest.
Tensions have been brewing even before the arrest, though. Punjab is one of the states that has been speculated as one of the toughest nuts to crack for the INDIA alliance in terms of seat-sharing for the Lok Sabha polls and, so far, it has lived up to that billing.
Days after the third meeting of the INDIA alliance this month, Punjab Minister Anmol Gagan Mann said the AAP will fight on all 13 Lok Sabha seats in the state and claimed this was the “direction” of Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann.
Congress Punjab chief Warring had also said the party is gearing up to fight on all seats in the state.
Impact on INDIA?
The first Opposition meeting in Patna had ended on a stormy note after the AAP had – during a press conference projecting unity – dropped a bombshell saying it would not be part of any future Opposition gatherings that include the Congress until the party publicly opposed the Centre’s contentious ordinance on the control of administrative services in Delhi.
While that particular difference had been resolved later, and AAP has attended the two subsequent meetings, seat-sharing between the parties in Punjab, Delhi and Gujarat is seen as a difficult task for the alliance.
While deciding on the seats that each party will contest is likely to be relatively easy in states like Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Bihar, states where the alliance is likely to face include Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. These states are immensely significant because, with 80 and 42 seats, they elect the highest and third-highest number of MPs to the Lok Sabha.
The Bengal conundrum deepened earlier this month when the CPIM decided against alliances in the state and Kerala, and said it would not name any representative for INDIA coordination meetings.
“There are differences (within INDIA Bloc), and it is a reality,” CPIM leader Nilotpal Basu had told NDTV.