Sukhpal Singh Khaira was arrested by Punjab Police during a Facebook Live at his home (File).
Congress MLA and office-bearer Sukhpal Singh Khaira has been sent to two-day police custody after his arrest this morning on charges of drug smuggling and money laundering. Police action against Mr Khaira has triggered a bitter squabble in Punjab where the ruling Aam Aadmi Party and the Congress are believed to be working out a seat-sharing agreement in the state for next year's Lok Sabha election.
The Congress leader has accused the AAP and Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann of being "thirsty for blood". "I will not be surprised if he gets me physically eliminated also," he declared.
The AAP government has claimed "fresh evidence" - in a 2015 case - led to Mr Khaira's arrest, and Health Minister Dr Balbir Singh said "law is same for everyone... whichever party member".
READ | Congress MLA Arrested In Drug Smuggling Case In AAP-Ruled Punjab
The Congress' state boss Amarinder Warring called the arrest "an attempt to intimidate the opposition" ad "a ploy of the AAP government..." "We stand strongly with Sukhpal Khaira," Mr Warring posted on X.
AAP Vs Congress = Bad News For INDIA?
Significant in all this is the fact that while AAP and Congress' regional leaders see themselves as rivals, the parties are partners on the national stage; both are members of the INDIA bloc bidding to defeat Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP in five state polls due this year and the 2024 Lok Sabha election.
READ | "Will Contest Polls Together As Far As Possible": INDIA Bloc's Resolution
The AAP and the Congress' national leadership may be pulling for the INDIA bloc but Mr Khaira's arrest has thrown open regional rivalries that could make it difficult, if not impossible, for the two to work together, particularly on the campaign trail, in the build-up to next year's general election.
Ahead of the election, much of the talk surrounding INDIA has been on seat-sharing and whether the AAP and the Congress can overcome differences to amicably divvy up Punjab's 13 Lok Sabha seats.
The emphasis is on 'amicably' because, so far, state leaders have opposed any attempt to divide seats.
READ | "No Alliance": AAP, Congress Leaders Not Keen On INDIA Tie-Up In Punjab
Punjab Minister Anmol Gagan Mann claimed "directions" from the Chief Minister to insist the AAP would contest all 13 seats on its own, and Mr Warring said the Congress wouldn't act "without our consent".
Mr Khaira's arrest is significant because he is one of those most vocal against any alliance with the AAP in the state. He is also Chairman (at national level) of the Congress' Kisan Cell and is therefore both a party office-bearer and lawmaker. The Congress' central leadership hasn't yet commented.
Impact On INDIA Bloc Beyond Punjab?
But it isn't just Punjab's seats that are in focus. The AAP and Congress were also expected to divide seven seats in Delhi and 26 in Gujarat. That is 46 seats - 8.47 per cent of the total available.
Importantly, the BJP won 33 of 33 seats in Delhi and Gujarat and four of 13 in Punjab. The Congress may have won 8 in Punjab but since then the party was also routed by the AAP in last year's state poll. And the AAP has been under heavy fire by the BJP (and the Congress) since that win.
If the AAP and the Congress can't overcome Mr Khaira's arrest and collaborate, then the BJP will be favourite to win a majority of seats in Punjab and Delhi, and more than likely sweep Gujarat again.
READ | As Election Nears, INDIA Seat-Sharing In This State May Be Issue: Sources
The INDIA bloc's appeal - a viable and cohesive non-BJP alternative - is increasingly being seen as a challenge given rifts like this. The CPIM, for example, has ruled out seat-sharing in Bengal and Kerala.