Wednesday, 29 June, 2022
HomePoliticsWhat Sukhpal Khaira's ghar wapsi to Congress says about Amarinder Singh's politics

What Sukhpal Khaira’s ghar wapsi to Congress says about Amarinder Singh’s politics

By bringing back Sukhpal Khaira, Amarinder Singh has potentially tackled two issues — putting a strong candidate in SGPC chief Jagir Kaur's seat and countering AAP's revival efforts.

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New Delhi: Few in Punjab politics are publicly discussing this ghar wapsi or return to the Congress of a former defector. But Sukhpal Singh Khaira, former leader of the opposition in the Punjab assembly, has got the state’s political circles abuzz after Chief Minister Amarinder Singh brought him back to the Congress fold early this month. 

The 79-year-old CM, who has his back to the wall, with the party high command siding with his detractors, did what many thought was unexpected, if not unthinkable — bringing Khaira, once the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)’s face in Punjab, back into the Congress. 

And there is more than one reason for their surprise and disbelief about the CM’s move: Khaira had launched vicious attacks on Capt Amarinder Singh in the past, dragging his personal life into the political mud-slinging game. 

As an AAP legislator, he was also responsible for the resignation of a minister, causing embarrassment to the CM. The Enforcement Directorate raided Khaira’s premises in an alleged drug smuggling scandal last March. And he has also supported Referendum 2020,  the brainchild of Sikhs for Justice (SJF), a separatist Sikh organisation.

Yet, Capt Amarinder Singh welcomed him back into the Congress, along with two AAP legislators, before he left for Delhi to make his deposition before a Congress high command-appointed committee, constituted to look into the grievances of his Navjot Sidhu-led detractors in the party.

So, what was it that the Captain was seeking to achieve by endorsing his critic, someone who had even made abusive remarks about him in a press conference about five years ago?

Congress leaders say that the Punjab CM has killed the proverbial two birds with one stone — roping in a doughty challenger to Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) chief Bibi Jagir Kaur in Kapurthala’s Bholath constituency and blunting any efforts of the AAP to revive its fortunes in next year’s assembly elections. 

Bholath is one of Shiromani Akali Dal’s (SAD) strongholds in Punjab, with the party winning six of the last nine assembly elections in the constituency. 

Khaira and Bibi Jagir Kaur have had five electoral encounters since 1997 — including the 2017 battle when SAD fielded her son-in-law, Bhupinder Singh. 

Khaira won it as a Congress candidate in 2007 for the first time and as an AAP candidate in 2017. He is the best bet the Congress could have in the next election.

According to Congress leaders, only Khaira could put up a tough fight against Bibi Jagir Kaur in Bholath constituency. 

“He enjoys support there and the Punjab Congress can do with more of that right now,” said a state government official.

What makes Khaira’s comeback sweeter for the Congress is the fact that he was once the face of the AAP, which replaced the SAD as the principal opposition party in the 2017 elections. Khaira had, however, resigned from the primary membership of the party in January 2019 and had launched his own outfit, the Punjab Ekta Party, which has now been merged with the Congress. 

But his rejoining the Congress puts paid to any hope of the AAP rehabilitating him.   

Punjab Congress leaders say that AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal’s visit to Punjab early this week was a desperate attempt to boost the sagging morale of his party cadre as Khaira took two of the party legislators with him to join the Congress.        

Also read: Why Punjab CM Amarinder Singh is made to stand trial in Gandhi family court

‘Long way to go still’

Sources in the Congress and even those close to Sukhpal Khaira believe his decision to return to the party won’t make too much of a difference.

“This is the same person who attacked Captain Amarinder Singh in 2017 as leader of opposition and even took jibes at his personal life,” a close aide of Khaira told ThePrint.

The aide was referring to a press conference in 2017, which Khaira had called after being linked to a drugs case. 

Claiming he had been framed, Khaira blamed the Congress government for it, saying that he never thought that Amarinder and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Brahm Mohindra “could stoop this low”.

But what really caused a stir was the unparliamentary language that Khaira used against the chief minister, while making references to a Pakistani journalist friend of Amarinder’s. 

He didn’t stop even when his then fellow AAP MLAs Kanwar Sandhu and Aman Arora attempted to restrain him by pointing out that women party legislators were present at the press conference.  

“Let me say what I feel. I am not overstepping. I am stating facts only,” he had then said. 

Speaking to ThePrint, Khaira said the press conference got out of hand as he was angry. “I don’t deny that I did get abusive towards the Punjab CM earlier but that was an outburst because I was framed in a false NDPS (Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act) case,” he said. “I am human too and one gets angry when one isn’t at fault.”  

He also told ThePrint that his return to the Congress had been in the works, and that even ahead of the 2017 Punjab elections, political strategist Prashant Kishor had met him and urged him to return to the Congress. 

“The party’s high command was on the line over a phone call when he (Kishor) met me and I was even told I’ll be given the rank of a cabinet minister,” Khaira told ThePrint, adding that he didn’t do so as it was too close to the elections to quit AAP. 

Senior Congress leader Harish Chaudhary, the party’s former Punjab in-charge and one who is considered close to Rahul Gandhi, said Khaira’s induction is a boost for the party. “The proposal was sent by Captain Amarinder because the party realises that Khaira has support of NRIs and he is vocal about issues. Every party needs such people,” Chaudhary said. 

Political experts say that Khaira’s return is a victory for the chief minister. 

“I am not sure if there is an advantage as such for the Congress in his return but this is something Captain needs. Any sort of support would be welcomed (in his spat with Sidhu),” said Rahul Verma, fellow at Centre for Policy Research and co-author of The Changing Party System, told ThePrint.  

“At such a time, verbal spats also take a backseat as Captain needs people by his side plus Khaira leaving AAP also in a way shows the Congress’ victory,” he added. “Say if Captain wins over Sidhu and AAP eventually, then he might even decide to settle scores with Khaira, who knows.” 

Not everyone in the Congress, however, is enthused by Khaira’s re-entry. Among those upset are supporters of former Kapurthala Congress MLA Rana Gurjit Singh. 

Khaira had in 2018 strongly raised the issue of alleged irregularities in the allotment of sand mines, resulting in Rana Gurjit Singh, considered close to Amarinder, resigning as the state power minister. 

“It is this quality which has earned him more enemies than friends in his political career,” a senior leader in Congress said.

Khaira, however, isn’t letting any of this deter his spirit. “People are entitled to their opinions. I, for one, have returned to my home, to a party wherein people have stood by me through thick and thin and that’s all I care about,” he said. 

Also read: Amarinder scores one over Sidhu, set to lead Congress in 2022 Punjab polls

Opportunist, says opposition 

The opposition says that Khaira’s party-hopping reeks of opportunism. 

“There is no sense of loyalty in him,” said the Akali Dal leader Dr Daljeet Singh Cheema. “Moreover, he constituted the Punjab Ekta Party even though he had fought on an AAP ticket. So his party itself is illegal as per the law.” 

Kanwar Sandhu, also a dissident AAP leader who was suspended by the party along with Sukhpal Singh Khaira in November 2018, called the latter a “career politician”. 

“He is only looking at his own career as a politician at the cost of those who he claims he wants to serve,” Sandhu said. 

AAP MLA Harpal Cheema seconded the view. “He only thinks about himself and is in search of power. He is so hungry for power and so there is no room for any ideology,” the AAP legislator told ThePrint. 

Jatinder Pannu, social activist and columnist based out of Punjab, told thePrint that even when Khaira was vocal about AAP being a one-man party, he simply wanted to take over the party’s reins in the state.   

“He was eyeing the state leader post but Mann (AAP MP and state unit chief Bhagwant Mann) is a political heavyweight that AAP needed to make good use of and as has been proved,” Pannu said. 

Pannu also said that Khaira blamed AAP’s central leadership in Delhi for giving “him no role to play”. 

“He always wanted the decisions to be taken under him since he felt those in Delhi didn’t know what people in Punjab wanted,” Pannu added. “But how will that change now with him joining Congress since some decisions will again only be taken by the leaders in Delhi.” 

On his part, Khaira maintained that joining AAP was a mistake. “Joining AAP in 2015 was the biggest blunder of my life. Arvind Kejriwal is a dictator, something I only learnt about when I worked in the party,” he told ThePrint. 

He also dismissed the charges of him being a political opportunist. “Who isn’t an opportunist these days? So why just label me, besides, at least, I haven’t been corrupt in this journey.”  

No stranger to controversy

Born to the late Sukhjinder Singh Khaira, a veteran Akali leader and former education minister of Punjab, Khaira began his political career in 1994 from his home district of Kapurthala. 

He was elected as a member of the Ramgarh village panchayat, before he joined the Youth Congress in 1997 and was appointed its vice-president.  

The 56-year-old political leader, from Bishop Cotton School, Shimla, and Chandigarh’s Panjab University, is no stranger to controversy.  

In 2015, his name was linked to a drug seizure case in which nine people were convicted in October 2017. In the same order, the trial court had summoned him as the “additional accused”, a decision subsequently stayed by the Supreme Court. 

It was in this case that he had held the press conference. In March this year, the Enforcement Directorate (ED) raided his premises in the case under provisions of the PMLA (Prevention of Money Laundering Act), in connection with the drugs case.

Khaira and his associates have time and again insisted that the ED action was due to his support for the farmers protesting against the Modi government’s farm laws. He has been a vocal supporter of the farmers and in November last year, had even appealed to people in Punjab to mark a ‘Black Diwali’ to protest against the new farm laws.

The Congress leader also courted controversy in 2018, when he supported Referendum 2020, propagated by Sikh separatists looking to create a separate nation of Khalistan. 

He later changed stance, claiming that he was never in favour of it, but not before he had angered the AAP’s top leadership. 

Multiple Punjab Congress leaders ThePrint spoke to maintained that on this matter, the CM would not tolerate such views. 

“Khaira would have to mend his ways to match the party line and not the other way round,” a Punjab Congress leader said.  

(Edited by Arun Prashanth)

Also read: How diet, lifestyle & attitude have led Punjab to record India’s highest Covid death rate


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