Chandigarh: It seems Congress is unable to find a single uncontroversial figure as its Punjab in-charge with less than a year to go for assembly elections. A fortnight after the party took widespread flak for naming Kamal Nath as its general secretary in-charge of Punjab, it kicked up a storm again on Sunday by appointing Himachal Pradesh MLA Asha Kumari as his replacement.
If Nath drew flak for his alleged role in 1984 anti-Sikh riots, Kumari was slammed by rival parties for her conviction in a land grab case. Her appointment came after Nath stepped down on June 15. Kumari was convicted by a Chamba court on February 22 and is now out on bail. An MLA from Dalhousie, she had been accused of illegally transferring 60 bigha forest land in her husband Brijender Singh's name 18 years ago.
Singh belonged to the royal family of Chamba. She had to resign as minister after the court had framed charges against her.
Talking to TOI, Kumari said, "Regarding the charges against me, the case pertains to land owned by my father-in-law and was under litigation even before my marriage. There was an adverse order from the lower court that has been suspended by the high court while admitting my appeal. It is my family property and not something that I got using influence of being a politician. I am my husband's wife and I can't wish it away," added Kumari, a former Himachal education minister.
AAP spokesperson Himmat Singh Shergill, however, said Kumari's appointment shows that the Congress party is left with no leader with a clean image to take charge of the Punjab affairs. "There are corruption charges against the state leadership of the party as well. Kamal Nath too was tainted and had to beat a retreat. The fact that she's convicted cannot be denied," he alleged.
SAD leader and Union minister for food processing Harsimrat Kaur Badal said it appeared Congress was running short of clean persons to head the Punjab unit. "How else can you explain the recent appointment of Kamal Nath.... Will he (Capt Amarinder Singh) now step up and give a clean chit to Kumari as he had done in the case of Kamal Nath recently," she added.
Punjab BJP president Vijay Sampla said, "Appointment of Kumari who is currently out on bail, after Kamal Nath, is a clear signal that Congress doesn't have clean faces. It is a party whose national president too is out on bail."
AAP leader and in-charge of the party's affairs in Punjab Sanjay Singh said though it was an internal matter of Congress, it appears as if it has completely gone bankrupt of choices for finding a clean person with unblemished record to lead the party in Punjab. "The party seems to have no option but to bank on tainted or corrupt leaders who are either involved in anti-Sikh massacre or have been jailed by court for land grabbing," he said.
AAP's Punjab convener Sucha Singh Chhotepur said, "Asha Kumari was accused of manipulating revenue records, fabricating wills and transferring forest land in the name of her late husband. A court found Kumari guilty of criminal conspiracy and handed down the jail term besides slapping a fine of Rs 8,000."
Congress faces a crucial assembly election in Punjab next year and has been trying hard to get rid of infighting among its senior leaders in a bid to put its best foot forward. As it is, unlike its traditional fight with SAD-BJP, this time the state is set to witness a triangular fight with AAP emerging as a force to reckon with.
"Congress has bright prospects of winning the next Punjab assembly election in 2017 and I will give it my best. The party has tall leaders like Capt Amarinder Singh and Ambika Soni in the state. I had been working closely with the previous party in-charge Shakeel Ahmed and have been keeping a tab on goings-on in the state. As a five-time MLA myself who has risen from grassroots, my priority will be to make the party more participatory for the workers as they are the backbone. I am looking back to cooperation from senior leaders so that the party comes back to power in the state," Kumari said.
AAP and SAD had raised a storm over Nath's appointment on June 12. He had to later step down, saying that he was "hurt" by the developments wherein an "unnecessary controversy" had been created around the "tragic" 1984 riots.
Congress leader Asha Kumari was trending at No. 4 on Twitter on Sunday evening. Supporters of rival parties dug out news reports pertaining to the alleged land grab case against her and posted it with comments that criticised Congress for making another 'wrong' choice after Kamal Nath in poll-bound Punjab.
Compared to her predecessor Kamal Nath or other probable like Sheila Dixit, Asha Kumari is relatively a lightweight. However, some Congress leaders looked at it differently. Congress chief spokesperson Sunil Jakhar said, "Asha Kumari's appointment seems to be part of the party vice-president Rahul Gandhi's plan to empower regional leaders. With this, he (Rahul) has given a clear indication that Punjab Congress president Captain Amarinder Singh will have more say in the larger scheme of things and thus carry a bigger responsibility to see the party through."