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Gurdaspur bypoll a challenge for CM Amarinder Singh

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Expectations among veteran MLAs and Rahul Gandhi’s youth brigade are running high, as hectic lobbying has given way to impatience.

The Gurdaspur parliamentary by-election, expected to be announced soon, will be the first real test of Chief Minister Capt. Amarinder Singh since the Congress came to power in Punjab five months ago.

For Independence Day celebrations, the CM hoisted the national flag in Gurdaspur announcing a slew of sops for the district. The Opposition too has gotten its act together. The BJP’s core committee met the leadership of its ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), Wednesday to outline a joint strategy. The Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) leaders also held a meeting in Gurdaspur the same day. However, none of the parties have declared their candidates.

The seat fell vacant following the death of BJP MP Vinod Khanna in April this year and elections must be held before October.

While opposition parties are trying to ensure that the bypoll does not become a cakewalk for the Congress, for Amarinder the biggest challenge comes from within his party. A storm has been brewing in the state’s Congress ever since the chief minister said three months ago that he would expand his cabinet “soon.” The 117-member Punjab assembly can host as many as 18 ministers, though currently, apart from the CM, there are only nine.

Expectations among veteran MLAs who have won multiple elections, as well as within Rahul Gandhi’s youth brigade, are running high and hectic lobbying for positions has given way to impatience. The fact that two ‘outsiders’—Manpreet Singh Badal and Navjot Singh Sidhu—have been made ministers for the first time has added to the growing resentment.

Interestingly, the toughest fight for ministerial berths comes from the Majha region, of which Gurdaspur is a part. Though Amarinder’s cabinet already has three ministers from the region, other Majha natives seeking positions include Dera Baba Nanak MLA Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa, Amritsar (west) MLA Raj Kumar Verka and Amritsar (central) MLA O.P. Soni. While Randhawa is a staunch Amarinder loyalist, Verka is known more as a key Dalit leader. Soni, on the other hand, could balance out the largely Sikh cabinet.

Current Minister Sidhu hails from Amritsar (east), while Education Minister of State Aruna Chaudhary comes from Dina Nagar, and rural development minister Tript Rajinder Singh Bajwa is from Fatehgarh Churian. Another minister from the region could threaten representation for other regions.

In Malwa, which gave the Congress 40 out of its 77 winners, six-time MLA from Ludhiana (north) Rakesh Pandey and three five-time MLAs—Amrik Dhillon from Samrala, Rana Gurmit Sodhi from Guru Har Sahai and Balbir Sidhu from Mohali—are all vying for cabinet berths. Besides them, Amarinder is expected to include at least two young MLAs from the Rahul Gandhi camp.

Those in the running include Gidderbaha MLA Amarinder Singh Raja Warring, Sangrur MLA Vijay Inder Singla, Bharat Bhushan Ashu and Fatehgarh Sahib MLA Kuljit Nagra.

Frustration is also growing among those hoping for second-rung berths as chief parliamentary secretaries. The posts were struck down as unconstitutional last year by the Punjab and Haryana High Court, forcing the SAD-BJP government to remove its parliamentary secretaries. While the Punjab CM is toying with the idea of bringing in legislation to circumvent the court’s orders, the move might still run into legal problems.

Meanwhile, dissatisfaction among the MLAs is also on the rise because many believe the CM has empowered the bureaucracy and kept a tight leash on his administration. Many MLAs say that they do not know what is happening in the government.

“Out of 77, 50 MLAs don’t even know whom to go to for their works,” said an MLA who requested anonymity.

Critics within the party add that having a half-full cabinet has affected the government’s work and the Gurdaspur bypoll could be close.

“The impression that has gone out is that Congress is not serious about anything. Be it its leaders or workers. Administratively also, the government failed to make the first most important impact on the public mind,” a young MLA of the party said on condition of anonymity.

“SAD leaders are already holding election meetings. Their leaders have been moving across the state ever since the election results. They are now preparing hard for the bypoll because they think they have a chance.”

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