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Punjab Cong in for leadership change
Prabhjot Singh
Tribune News Service

Chandigarh, June 6
Peeved at developments over the past few weeks, the All-India Congress Committee is caught in a piquant situation over changing the present party leadership in Punjab where three Assembly byelections are due before the close of the year.

After the rude shock of the Lok Sabha elections , the party has limited options in reasserting its mass base in this border state where along with its allies it had won a comfortable majority in the last Assembly elections in 2002. But in the Lok Sabha elections, it lost in 86 of 117 Assembly segments.

Amritsar, Faridkot and Phillaur were a complete washout for the Congress as it lost in all nine Assembly segments in each of these parliamentary constituencies.

In Bathinda and Hoshiarpur, where the main allies Communists and the Bharatiya Janata Party of the two major political forces of the State the Congress and the Shiromani Akali Dal had contested, the result was no better, with eight Assembly segments each going in favour of the SAD-BJP alliance and the Congress-Communists winning in the remaining nine.

Jalandhar brought the best result for the Congress as it won in seven of the nine Assembly segments while in Patiala, the home district of the Chief Minister from where his wife, Ms Preneet Kaur, won, victories came in six of the nine Assembly segments.

The overall victory margin in 2002 was 38,000 votes in favour of the Congress which has now changed to six lakh plus in favour of the SAD-BJP alliance - a gap which may be difficult to narrow down in the near future.

A sharp tilt towards the SAD-BJP alliance is a major cause of concern for the Congress which is now heading the UPA government at the centre. Since three sitting MLAs Dr Rattan Singh Ajnala, Mr Avinash Rai Khanna and Rana Gurjit Singh - have been elected to the Lok Sabha, elections to fill the vacancies caused by their quitting the State Assembly have to be conducted within six months. Of these only one is held by the Congress and other two belong to the SAD-BJP alliance. As such the Congress will have a tough time even in retaining Jalandhar.

The pace at which the anti-incumbency factor worked has shocked the national leadership of the party which has been using independent probe panels to reach the root cause of this debacle.

A probe panel, comprising of some retired bureaucrats who visited the State last week, will be with the high command this week.

Another panel, say sources, will be on its way to Punjab to assess what all can be done to improve the party's performance in the coming byelections.

The Lok Sabha elections debacle followed by the snub of the Supreme Court in the SYL case has acted as a catalyst as the party high command has now started looking for replacements.

The high command, including the President Sonia Gandhi, have started keeping a distance from either of the two major factions of the Punjab Congress Legislature Party (CLP) giving credence to the speculation that the hunt for a new leadership in the State has started. Even keeping political men out of probe panels has given credence to the impression that Mrs Sonia Gandhi now wants to take a decision. The high command is not averse to change the Pradesh Congress and Legislature Party leader provided he or she is able to keep the entire flock together and set out on a programme of development and assuage different sections who have been antagonised during the past 30 months of party rule in the State.

Other factors which may have forced the high command to think on the lines of change are continuous dissension within the CLP and the PPCC, non-implementation of some of the decisions taken at the patch-up meeting in December last year, and return of some to the coterie of the Chief Minister in spite of the demand of the dissidents for shifting them out. The failure of 10 Janpath to reach the state leadership on the SYL issue after the Supreme Court verdict may be the latest and act as a catalyst for change.

At one stage even the name of Mrs Ambika Soni had cropped for a possible CLP leader. Sources, however, reveal that she may not accept the assignment on the plea that the state needs a strong Jat Sikh as the CLP leader. In that case the search may narrow down to any prominent member of the CLP who wields good influence in either of the camps.

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