You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. That’s true of political transitions as well. If the myth about Punjab Congress being all about Captain Amarinder Singh had to be exploded, there would be consequences. And Captain being what he is, candid and upfront, no attempts were made to hide the displeasure. The chief minister went so far as to demand a public apology from Navjot Singh Sidhu for his direct attacks and subtle insinuations, if the younger challenger expected any cooperation from him. He even refused to put out a tweet welcoming the new party chief. After all, a leader whose free reign was about to end will feel the angst, whether he demonstrates it or not.
If Sidhu’s elevation was a rude awakening for the chief minister, it couldn’t have been an easy task for the Congress high command either – be it Sonia Gandhi, who has strong family bonding with the Maharaja of Patiala, or Rahul Gandhi, who so desperately intends to restructure the party. It was Sonia who forced Sidhu to reach out to Congress leaders, as personal charisma cannot be a substitute for organisational muscle.
Though the farmers’ agitation has turned the political climate favourable for the party, Sidhu’s success will depend on the ability of the Congress to harmonise conflicting interests and work with a unity of purpose in the election-bound state. Captain’s cooperation will be vital, as he has been the pivot of Congress politics for decades and continues to be the chief minister. Sidhu’s gesture of reaching out to all important leaders, visiting their homes to seek cooperation, may be critical in forging solidarities. It would be politically wise for Captain to let bygones be bygones and bless Sidhu for future challenges. He has, after all, had a successful and fulfilling political career.
The vital question is what triggered these changes. While the overriding agenda of rebuilding the party by creating new leadership is of course a factor, the party’s internal assessment about the chief minister’s declining popularity must have pushed the decision. Captain’s age – he is pushing 80, his failure to deliver on promises made in the last election, his alleged soft approach towards the Badal family, inaction in the sacrilege case, overdependence on the bureaucracy to run the administration and personal disconnect with party workers compelled the central leadership to think of offering something new to the voters.
By bringing Sidhu to the forefront, the Congress has tried to change the narrative and blunt the anti-incumbency factor. While an old and ageing leadership doesn’t inspire hope, Sidhu, along with a bunch of younger leaders, is promising a new Punjab, shifting focus from Captain’s legacy and failures. Sidhu is seen as a challenger, a new factor in state politics that pushes the entrenched opposition Akali Dal further aside.
With a new team, the Congress also deals with the rising Aam Aadmi Party on new terms, nullifying the stinging attacks of Arvind Kejriwal on Captain for not acting against the Badals. Sidhu’s anti-Badal credentials are no less strong and the AAP will now have to deploy fresh tactics to confront the Congress.
Sidhu comes with the advantage of a clean image, powerful oratory and full backing of the high command. He has also adopted an aggressive posture on farmers’ agitation and doesn’t carry the burden of not delivering adequately on the promise of farm loan waiver, a burden that Captain carries. His celebrity stature has helped him create a huge buzz, which no other party president would have been able to generate. In fact, any other person becoming party president would have been dwarfed by Captain’s larger-than-life image and people would have treated this as a routine intra-party reshuffle.
Sidhu’s elevation has acquired much bigger dimensions, attracting national attention and presenting the Congress in a new light in the state. Any party would be tempted to exploit such an asset to the hilt and the Congress has smartly played the card to reinvent itself before the assembly election. Punjab is one important state in Congress kitty and the leadership would like to retain it, to preserve its national heft.
If Captain doesn’t come out in open revolt, and senior leaders, particularly the MPs who too expressed reservations against Sidhu, avoid internal sabotage, the Congress should be able to not only retain the state but also succeed in establishing a leadership for the future. If Captain revolts, the journey will become somewhat difficult. It is for Sonia and Rahul to ensure that Captain and Sidhu bury the hatchet and work together.