Manpreet, post the assembly poll loss in March 2022 and later with the elevation of his bête noire Amarinder Singh Raja Warring as the Punjab Congress president, had made up his mind to quit the party and was exploring his options. A top leader in the BJP confirmed that the state unit was not taken into confidence before his induction and is now giving him the cold shoulder.
The resentment and fissures were apparent when on January 24 Union minister Gajendra Shekhawat reached Bathinda on a two-day visit, neither the local BJP unit invited the central leader nor Manpreet visited him. Shekhawat is the in-charge of three Lok Sabha seats in Punjab, including Bathinda, and has been tasked with building the party’s organisational structure before the 2024 general election. Bathinda is also the home turf of Manpreet Badal. In 2014, he unsuccessfully contested the Lok Sabha election from this seat. He later won the Bathinda Urban assembly seat in 2017, only to lose it in 2022.
What’s more embarrassing for the BJP is that Manpreet is on the radar of the Punjab Vigilance Bureau (VB), that too on the complaint of Sarup Chand Singla—the district BJP chief. Singla has not only refused to welcome Manpreet into the party’s fold, but also maintains that he will pursue the case against him. Singla said that he would share details of the issue with the party leadership at an opportune time. “I will record my statement as and when asked to do so [by the VB]. I am firm on standing with the people of Bathinda against the wrongdoings done by Manpreet and his brother-in-law Jaijeet Johal,” he added.
“The issue is between Singla and Manpreet Badal; BJP has nothing to do with the case,” remarked a senior BJP leader in Punjab.
The hostility is not limited till Singla; Manpreet faces an uphill task in finding acceptability within the BJP’s state unit with many local leaders not happy with the development. Unlike in the past, when the BJP used to flood social media upon any turncoat entering into the saffron fold, this time the state unit went silent. And the party hasn’t even planned any welcome event for Manpreet.
BJP leaders in Punjab say they have conveyed the sentiments to the central leadership in New Delhi. Along with Singla, those who are not on board with Manpreet’s induction are BJP’s Bathinda Rural chief Ravipreet Sidhu, state general secretary Gurpreet Kangar and vice-president Kewal Dhillion. “The sentiment that New Delhi’s diktat always prevails doesn’t work in Punjab,” says another BJP leader from the state. “The issue could have been dealt with differently.”
Despite possessing polished oratory skills, Manpreet neither has a massive mass base nor high-profile political friends, and relies mostly on some of his old-time loyalists, who moved with him from the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) to the People’s Party of Punjab (PPP)—the political front floated by him in 2011 and later merged with the Congress. Now, he may even struggle to keep his loyalist Raman Goyal perched on the Bathinda mayor seat, as he is finding it difficult to convince the 41 Congressmen in the local body, of whom he had already met 18, to join the BJP with him.
A scion of the Badal clan, Manpreet is the cousin of Shiromani Akali Dal president Sukhbir Badal and won his first four assembly elections from the Gidderbaha seat—consecutively from 1995 to 2007—on the Akali ticket. In 2012, he lost his traditional seat as a PPP candidate to the now state Congress chief Warring, and their rivalry accelerated thereafter. In the 2022 assembly election, both leaders openly worked against each other, despite being in the same party. Warring had, in fact, appealed to the voters to defeat all Badals, including Manpreet. Manpreet was targeted by other factions within the Congress as well, including those led by Ludhiana MP Ravneet Bittu and former deputy chief minister Sukhjinder Randhawa, who treated him as an outsider.
Unlike his other family members, who continue to dominate the Panthic politics (concerning the Sikh community), Manpreet never played the religion card, so much so that when he launched the PPP in 2011, it was not pitched as a splinter Akali group. The present Punjab chief minister, Bhagwant Mann, was his partner in this venture. However, Mann remains one of Manpreet’s fiercest critics, especially on the way he handled the PPP. In 2014, while Manpreet joined the Congress, Mann moved to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).
Now, as he begins his stint in the BJP, Manpreet is again finding it difficult to shrug off the ‘outsider’ tag. The onus is on him to win more friends than create new enemies.
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