Deft politics is behind Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee chief Amarinder Singh’s decision not to contest the 13 February Assembly byelection in Khadoor Sahib. Amarinder Singh made the decision public just hours before nominations were to close for the byelection, necessitated by the resignation of party MLA Ramanjit Singh Sikki in November last year.

Any ruling party always has an edge in bypolls, considering that it is backed by the state might. A defeat just months ahead of the big fight in the Assembly elections, would have sent both the Congress and Amarinder Singh on the backfoot. Singh chose not to play the game instead. But he also played a clever panthic card, usually deployed by the Akalis, as he spelt out the reason for the boycott. He reasoned that Ramanjit Singh Sikki had resigned from the post of MLA in protest against the shocking incidents of sacrilege of the Guru Granth Sahib across the state and the same situation prevailed even now. This is one issue that turned even strong supporters of the Badals against them. Amarinder Singh has kept the issue alive and burning, to use it during the Assembly elections due early next year.

The old Congress warhorse went a step further by announcing that if voted to power, he would constitute a commission of inquiry to get to the bottom of the sacrilege incidents.

The move has made it a rare occasion when Punjab, which has traditionally been witnessing Akalis-versus-Congress contests, will not have the latter contesting the polls. The decision has drawn sharp reactions from the Shiromani Akali Dal, whose leader Sukhbir Badal, the state Deputy Chief Minister, described it as a “categorical admission of defeat by the Congress”. The Aam Aadmi Party, a strong contender in the Punjab battle this time, although not contesting in Khadoor Sahib, lashed out at Amarinder Singh.

The Akalis would have preferred a direct contest with the Congress in Khadoor Sahib. A win over Congress would have boosted the beleaguered Akalis’ confidence. A contest with the Congress would have given the Akalis a chance to gauge the mood of the voter and then use the remaining term to try and undo the damage as much as possible.

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