Eyeing the 2014 parliamentary election, the BJP central leadership on Tuesday reposed faith in former Congress veteran and a formidable Hindu face by appointing Sunil Jakhar, the three-time MLA and one-time MP, as the party president in Punjab to strengthen organisational structure and base at grassroots.
Jakhar, 68, replaced party legislator Ashwani Sharma, who was handed over the party’s helm in January 2020.
“The single point agenda to hand over the party’s state helm to Jakhar is to uproot AAP misrule. In the next 10 months, the party will make preparations both strengthening organisational structure and party’s base at grassroots, particularly in rural belts,” a senior party functionary told IANS.
Jakhar’s appointment comes at a time when the state ruling AAP has been cornered by the BJP’s central leadership over multiple issues, including deteriorating law and order, an agrarian crisis and misuse of central funds, among other issues, and the main opposition Congress is yet to re-emerge from its own shadows, first after losing the assembly polls and later its traditional parliamentary bastion.
After the mass exodus of leaders, comprising loyal and veteran lawmakers like two-time chief minister Capt Amarinder Singh, the weakened Congress is struggling for revival.
The BJP, which always played second fiddle in the state politics, seems to be banking largely on the grand old party’s deserters besides building on Modi’s narrative to strengthen its base.
To create a statewide niche for itself, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is currently trying hard to establish itself outside the shadow of its once ally — the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD).
In a border state, where the Hindus are in a minority, there has never been a BJP-led government unlike in neighbouring Haryana, where the party is now in power for the second consecutive term, and Himachal Pradesh.
Jakhar had quit the Congress in May 2022 after slamming former chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi, saying he was “not an asset” as portrayed by the party leadership.
He was removed from all party posts by the Congress following allegations of anti-party activities levelled against him by certain Punjab leaders.
A former Lok Sabha MP from Gurdaspur, Jakhar, also served as the leader of opposition in the state assembly from 2012 to 2016. He became state Congress chief in 2017 and was made the head of the campaign committee for the 2022 assembly polls.
In 2021, he was asked to step down as state Congress chief to enable Navjot Singh Sidhu to take the helm.
Before the assembly polls, Jakhar had announced that he had retired from active politics.
Sunil Jakhar, the son of Congress veteran late Balram Jakhar, was the frontrunner for the post of Chief Minister after Capt Amarinder Singh resigned in 2021. At that time, the Congress was planning to project non-Sikh face ahead of polls to counter AAP which had gained ground in the state.
Launching the state election campaign from Pathankot town, Union Home Minister and BJP leader Amit Shah on June 18 asked Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann, “Is he a Chief Minister or a pilot?”, saying the state’s law and order situation went “from bad to worse as CM Mann spends all his time touring with Arvind Kejriwal.”
He also questioned the state government over its poll ‘guarantee’ of giving Rs 1,000 per month to every adult woman.
The Home Minister was outlining the nine-year achievements of the Modi government at the Centre.
Saying that the AAP is an advertisement party, Shah, whose 20-minute address was focused mainly on attacking the AAP, slammed the helm as law and order and drugs emerge as key challenges for the state government.
Union ministers Hardeep Puri, Arjun Meghwal, Mansukh Mandaviya and Gajendra Singh Shekhawat have been camping in Punjab.
In all previous parliamentary polls, the BJP was given three Lok Sabha seats to contest in Punjab by the Akalis out of the state’s 13. Its tally in both the 2019 and 2014 polls was two.
Despite its differences with the Akalis, which ruled the state for two consecutive terms from 2007 to 2017, the BJP was compelled to partner with it for its own survival.
But BJP leaders always refused to admit officially that their party was forced to be in the shadow of the regional force.
Despite the narrative set for the BJP with its Brand Modi once again in 2024, political analysts feel that the BJP still needs time to build solo inroads to the grassroots.
In a legislative House of 117, the Congress in Punjab, which won 77 seats in 2017, managed to win only 18 in March 2022 with most of its stalwart faces like former Chief Minister Charanjit Channi and then state party chief Navjot Singh Sidhu facing humiliating defeats in their strongholds.
The BJP, which had won three seats in 2017 when it had contested in alliance with the Akalis, secured only two seats in 2022, while the SAD won four and the others won one.