From Punjab to Karnataka, it is the season of change and a show of assertion by the central leaders of political parties to set their house in order, their sights trained on the upcoming elections.
In Punjab, Rahul Gandhi and his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, have asserted their authority to appoint Navjot Singh Sidhu as president of the Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee, completely disregarding the views of Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh and a host of other senior Congress bigwigs.
In fact, the Gandhi siblings have not only cut him down to size but also shown that a majority of Congress MLAs are fully backing their choice of Sidhu as the PCC chief and if not, as the next CM face. After initially resisting Sidhu's appointment, Captain Amarinder Singh has made a tactical retreat, giving a boost to the decision of the Gandhi siblings.
Hardball and softball
But in Karnataka, the game of changes is fraught with consequences. The authority of the central BJP leadership is under severe test when it comes to finding a successor to Chief Minister B S Yediyurappa. Though initially, he was not ready to leave his ‘gaddi’ to make way for a younger leader, Yediyurappa put the ball in the court of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah and BJP chief J P Nadda, to find a successor who would fit the bill. In his own style, Yediyurappa has played hard and soft in his tussle with the central BJP leadership.
First, he made it known that he was willing to hang up his boots only if he had a way in naming his successor and finding a key role for his son, B Y Vijayendra. Later, the 78-year-old flew to Delhi to meet Modi and other central BJP leaders, clearly indicating that he had no qualms about stepping down on completion of his two years on July 26 but they would have to find a suitable successor, taking into account the concerns of the BJP’s core electoral strength in Karnataka.
Knowing well that the BJP was in no mood to accept his son as his successor or in any key role (as it would fly in the face of Modi’s frequent assertion that the party does not believe in dynastic politics), Yediyurappa has made his last days in office as dramatic as possible--to earn sympathy and support among different sections.
The hard fact is that the BJP cannot do without the support of the Lingayat community, particularly its influential mutt heads who strongly back Yediyurappa and whomever he chooses to be his successor. Of course, when public assertions of support for Yediyurappa by the religious leaders set alarm bells ringing in Delhi, he despatched his son Vijayendra to assuage the central BJP leaders, assuring them that he was not staging a revolt.
Yet, the party realises that it needs a leadership change if the BJP is to be in the reckoning in 2023 when the next assembly polls will be held. A non-Lingayat leader cannot be an easy option. Also, as many BJP leaders believe, Vijayendra, under the grooming of his father, has emerged as the young face of BJP among the Lingayat community, which accounts for 17 per cent of Karnataka's population and remains one of the most committed vote bases of the party. Vijayendra has to be given an important role.
On their part, Modi’s aides are hoping that their choice of Yediyurappa’s successor will be one who will not antagonise the Lingayat voters but, at the same time, help in reaching out to other voters and present a credible face for the future.
Yediyurappa became CM in July 2019 after 17 Congress legislators resigned their seats to topple their government due to internal rivalry and feuds with the Janata Dal (Secular). These MLAs got elected as BJP nominees. They are now worried about their future under the new dispensation.
As age catches up with him, Yediyurappa agrees that he cannot possibly lead the BJP to win the 2023 elections and his tenure has had its quota of controversies. Yet, without the support of Yediyurappa, the task cannot be accomplished. Also, the BJP central leadership as well as Yediyurappa know the cost of him leaving the BJP again.
In 2012, Yediyurappa had left the BJP to form the Karnataka Janata Party (KJP). This development hugely impacted the party’s prospects in the 2013 assembly polls, reducing its tally to 40 seats in a House of 228 legislators. But his own fledgling party did not fare well either. The voter base of both parties got divided, proving the point that both need each other for a saffron victory in Karnataka. Yediyurappa returned to the BJP before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, merging his party with the parent organisation. Till date, Yediyurappa and the BJP have remained synonymous in Karnataka.
Clear message in Punjab
On the other hand, through the changes in Punjab, Rahul Gandhi and his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra have sent out a clear message with the appointment of Navjot Singh Sidhu as Punjab Pradesh Congress committee chief. Firstly, they are determined to steer the course of the Congress party in different states in the direction they think is right. They are not going to take any more pressure from the old guard like Captain Amarinder Singh, however powerful he may be.
Secondly, Rahul now wants to groom a leadership that owes allegiance only to him and not to his mother Sonia Gandhi, who, of course, remains Congress president--because he is not ready to assume the role again.
Rahul and Priyanka think that more than Captain Amarinder Singh, Sidhu has his own brand of mass appeal. He can draw crowds. Therefore, he is the ideal candidate to be nurtured.
Punjab is to go to the polls in February-March next year, along with Uttar Pradesh. Of course, everyone expects the uneasy truce between Captain Amarinder Singh and Sidhu to give way as the date of election nears.
The ‘Captain’ made a tactical retreat only after realising that a majority of 77 Congress MLAs supported Sidhu’s appointment and the anti-incumbency factor against him was a serious issue.
Challenges for Priyanka
Sidhu’s biggest challenge will be handling ticket distribution. Every Congress MLA expects to be re-nominated. If Sidhu succeeds in Punjab, it would also be a test case for the Gandhi siblings. With this being the case, Punjab continues to present more challenges for Priyanka. She is already facing a tough situation in UP where Congress has been out of power consecutively for three decades now.
The big question is whether Priyanka will agree to project herself as the CM face in UP? Some Congress leaders think that she may not get fully involved in UP because the prospects are very bleak. But we also hear that Rahul Gandhi wants her to remain in charge of UP.
If the Congress returns to power in Punjab, Priyanka can try to take credit for that. Punjab may be a facesaver in the event of the party’s failure in UP.
Can the Gandhi siblings sort out the Rajasthan tussle on similar lines? Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot is still resisting Sachin Pilot and his group. But unlike the Punjab CM, Gehlot enjoys the trust of Rahul and Priyanka.
Despite all the assurances given to him by Priyanka, Pilot does not think that he will be as lucky as Sidhu. His efforts to get ministerial berths for his group of MLAs has remained a difficult task. Gehlot is keener to oblige some BSP MLAs and Independents backing his government, rather than Pilot’s men!
The writer is former Senior Associate Editor, Hindustan Times, and Political Editor, Deccan Herald, New Delhi
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