Punjab saves face for the Congress

Congress returned to office in Punjab after 10 years with a near two-third majority, riding the popularity of its veteran functionary, Captain Amarinder Singh. The scion of the erstwhile Patiala royalty could not have asked for a better present on his 75th birthday. Both Amarinder and cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu, who won the Amritsar East seat, projected the Congress sweep as the beginning of its revival across the country and challenged BJP's bid to make India “Congress-mukt“.

However, the party's tally of 77 out of 117 seats is surprising because it garnered just 38.4% of the total votes compared with 40.90% it had got in 2012. SAD bagged 25.2% and AAP just 23.8%.

A lot was at stake for Amarinder once he had publicly announced that 2017 would be his last poll after which he would like to retire from politics. What the former chief minister was looking for was personal redemption after losing the 2012 elections when most pollsters had predicted a majority for Congress. Even after scripting one of the biggest upsets of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections by defeating BJP's Arun Jaitley in Amritsar, Captain Amarinder Singh appeared uninterested in carving out a space for himself in national politics. His only wish was to become chief minister one last time and he even threatened to quit Congress if the central leadership did not declare him chief of the Punjab unit, ahead of this year's assembly elections.

The party's decision to finally relent and make Amarinder the face of the campaign in the state, a strategy suggested by Prashant Kishor and his IPAC team has paid off.

Amarinder, who contested from two seats, won his pocket borough of Patiala Urban by more than 52,000 votes, the biggest victory margin in the state. He lost against SAD's Parkash Singh Badal in Lambi, bu many believe his sheer presence in the crucial Malwa helped Congress cut into AAP's popularity in the region.

AAP, which ended up with just 20 seats was banking heavily on winning a majority of the 69 constituencies in Malwa, but managed 18 Congress won 39 seats in Malwa and crushed the opposition. In Majha, Congress romped home in 23 of the 25 seats. AAP's ally Lok Insaaf Party won two seats. AAP found itself caught on the wrong foot on many issues, including being branded as outsiders by other parties, alienating Hindus by allegedly getting close to some Sikh groups and not projecting a CM candidate. Among the setbacks for AAP was the defeat of its heavyweights, LS MP Bhagwant Mann in Jalalabad and Punjab AAP convener Gurpreet Waraich in Batala.

Outgoing CM Parkash Singh Badal and his entourage will not even be the main opposition party in the assembly now with AAP snatching that space. The Akali Dal-BJP combine got 18 seats, its worst performance ever. SAD drew a blank in Faridkot and Moga, the two districts in Malwa, where incidents of sacrilege of Guru Granth Sahib in 2015 had become the epicentre of mass protest.

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