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Amarinder toils to regain grip

Chandigarh, Aug. 11: Shaken by the recent mini-revolt led by cabinet colleague Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh has decided to use the Congress conference at the Rakhar Punia festival tomorrow to test his strength.

Rakhar Punia, celebrated on full moon, is one of the largest festivals of the Majha region and coincides with Raksha Bandhan. The festival will be held at Baba Bakala — the chosen venue of all parties, barring communists, to hold conferences.

Tomorrow’s meetings are significant as both the Akalis and the Congress would be testing their popularity.

The Shiromani Akali Dal is set to begin its jail bharo agitation from tomorrow. NDA convener and defence minister George Fernandes will address the Akali conference. Fernandes’ decision has come as a blessing for party chief Parkash Singh Badal who has been reeling under vigilance bureau raids on his residences. The defence minister, however, has not commented on the raids.

Congress sources said the chief minister has “ordered” party legislators to be present tomorrow in full strength. Amarinder has been touring the state to garner support after “managing” to placate some of the 22 MLAs who thronged Sonia Gandhi’s residence last week complaining against his autocratic style of functioning. He has also decided to make sweeping changes in his office.

Principal secretary, finance, K.R. Lakhanpal, is expected to be removed for advising the government to withdraw non-practising allowances of doctors and hike college fees, sources said. Sonia has reportedly asked Amarinder not to take the advice of his officers seriously and think twice before implementing them.

Amarinder’s directive follows reports that some Congressmen met Shiromani Akali Dal leaders to strike a deal in case the party splits and a separate group is formed.

“Some disgruntled Congressmen have opened a dialogue with us. But we are against toppling any government. We want the Amarinder sarkar to fall under its own weight. He is ruining Punjab and Congressmen are well aware of his motives,” former finance minister and Shiromani Akali Dal general secretary Kanwaljit Singh said.

The state Congress has not acted against Bhattal for engineering a near split in the party mainly due to the clout she enjoys vis-à-vis the high command, but the axe is likely to fall on Kharar legislator and deputy speaker Bir Devinder Singh for his continued outbursts against Amarinder.

Sources close to party chief H.S. Hanspal said Bir Devinder would be issued a showcause soon, asking him to explain why disciplinary action should not be taken against him.

Bir Devinder had been made deputy speaker to stop him from criticising the chief minister. But that did not deter him. Recently, he even publicly rebuked Amarinder and forced him to apologise to the family of a boy who was shot dead by a policeman in Patiala — the chief minister’s hometown.

In yet another blow to Amarinder, a local court today adjourned a case of corruption against Bhattal to August 21. The case pertains to embezzlement of the chief minister’s relief fund during her tenure in 1996. Amarinder loyalists were waiting to pounce on any adverse remark against Bhattal by the court as justification of the chief minister’s drive against corruption during the previous Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP regime.

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