As poll stratagems go, this one may not be the most innovative, but is evidence enough of just how keen the electoral battle is between the Congress and the Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP alliance in Punjab. 

On Saturday, Manpreet Singh Badal, the Congress candidate from Bhatinda, received a jolt when the district electoral officer not only accepted the candidature of an Independent with the same name as his, but also gave the latter the ‘Kite’ symbol, which was once known in Punjab as that of the People’s Party of Punjab (PPP), still headed by Manpreet.

Manpreet is Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal’s estranged nephew, who broke away from the ruling SAD in 2011, floated his own outfit, the PPP, and contested the 2012 Assembly polls on the ‘Kite’ symbol.

The party has all but folded up, but conscious of Manpreet’s appeal in the Malwa belt, the Congress played a masterstroke by fielding him on its own symbol against his sister-in-law Harsimrat Kaur Badal, Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Badal’s wife, the sitting SAD MP from Bhatinda.

The Congress move to adopt Manpreet put the Badal pocket borough of Bhatinda in the danger zone, necessitating desperate counter-moves.

Manpreet has alleged that the situation has deliberately been created at the behest of Mr. Sukhbir Badal to confuse the voters and divide his votes.

String of woes

But Bhatinda is not the SAD’s only worry. Faced with a phalanx of Congress stalwarts in different seats of Punjab, all of whom are aggressively capitalising on the “misrule of the SAD- BJP government” in the past seven years, the ruling alliance has its hands full. Indeed, Punjab is one of the few States where the Congress may have something to smile about when the results are out.

Knowing well that the SAD- BJP alliance has become hugely unpopular in the past few years, and that the ground is fertile for bold initiatives, the Congress high command, persuaded its reluctant senior State leaders to go out into the field and fight it out.

Captain Amarinder Singh, former Chief Minister and the party’s candidate from Amritsar, admits that he was not at all keen to contest the election and had told Sonia Gandhi that as a senior leader, he would like to campaign across the State. “She told me that they will think it over, but a few days later called me and told me that I will have to contest from Amritsar. I told her that if you want me to fight for you, I will,” he says. In hindsight, that was Ms. Gandhi’s smartest decision for Punjab, because not only has Mr. Amarinder’s candidature infused enthusiasm into the demoralised and disunited Congress cadre, but has also made it hard for other senior Congressmen to avoid contesting.

Neck and neck

The BJP’s Arun Jaitley, who was given the Amritsar ticket on the assurance by the Akalis that it would be smooth sailing for him, is now engaged in a neck and neck fight with Capt. Amarinder Singh.

The Congress also fielded Rajya Sabha MP Ambika Soni from Anandpur Sahib, dropping its sitting MP Ravneet Bittu, CLP leader Sunil Jakhar from Ferozepur and PCC chief Pratap Singh Bajwa from Gurdaspur as part of the same strategy.

Recent disclosures about the alleged involvement of SAD legislators in the drugs business, a growing perception of having cornered the transport, cable network and sand mining businesses at the cost of local entrepreneurs, has added to the ruling party’s unpopularity and given the Congress ammunition.