The Punjab imbroglio is far from over, given the continuing rancour between Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh and his bugbear and newly-appointed PCC president Navjot Singh Sidhu, which highlights the magnitude of the risk that the Congress leadership has chosen to take in Punjab.
The Gandhi siblings, to whose patronage Sidhu owes his elevation, are banking on him to justify their strategy of undermining the Captain - arguably the tallest among members of the Congress old guard still standing. Not only has Sidhu been elevated in the teeth of strong opposition, but of the four working presidents appointed to assist him, not one is of the Captain’s choice. Rather, the reverse.
The fact that Punjab was the only state to have beaten the Modi wave in 2019 (the Congress was flattened everywhere except Kerala) renders the move an even bigger gamble. Only if the Congress manages to pull off Punjab yet again in the 2022 assembly elections will the party high command stand vindicated. If not, it’ll be chalked up as yet another misadventure sponsored by the first family.
A lot is riding on Sidhu, a Johnny-come-lately who has managed to beat back stalwarts like Pratap Singh Bajwa and Manish Tewari, to gain the Gandhis’ trust. His preferment has annoyed a section of Congressmen, who feel that in promoting a ‘dal badal’ who was a loyal soldier of the BJP for 12 years, the party has ignored their service.
Sidhu has a quirky sense of humour going for him, which makes him a very good campaigner. But he is also seen as volatile, impetuous and not much of a team-player and lacks administrative experience, besides. He’s no stranger to controversy, having been convicted by the high court of culpable homicide and later let off by the Supreme Court, which nonetheless held him guilty of ‘causing hurt’.
Scarcely less controversial was his cosy encounter with Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan and the warm embrace of its army chief, Qamar Javed Bajwa, for which he was roundly ticked off by Amarinder Singh, a war veteran. Sidhu retaliated by saying his real ‘captain’ Rahul Gandhi had forwarded no objection.
First Bajwa, now Sidhu
He will also need to watch his back. Until now, Pratap Singh Bajwa has been the Captain’s principal rival. Indeed, the Punjab CM had clashed with Rahul Gandhi over Bajwa in 2016, refusing to accept him as PCC president. Amarinder had his way, as the 2017 elections were just around the corner. But now, it is the much younger Sidhu who represents a threat to the Rajya Sabha MP’s ambitions.
Amarinder Singh’s independence renders the Gandhis uncomfortable. He is his own man and unlike other members of the old guard, has never bent the knee to the high command. As a soldier and an erstwhile maharajah of Patiala, he has always met the first family on equal terms. He understands the value of discipline, but abhors sycophancy.
Of late, the Captain has invited criticism for lacklustre governance and remoteness from party legislators. He has been unable to take the bold decisions needed to fix the state’s ailing economy and infrastructure, as evidenced by the power crisis in the state. Most of all, the alleged mishandling of the probe into the police firing after the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib at Bargari in 2015 has afforded his detractors some leverage.
Anti-incumbency is being cited as the rationale for appointing Sidhu. If so, Bajwa certainly has more traction within the Jat Sikh community and Tewari could possibly have been the ‘Hindu’ face of the party. Both were suggested as viable candidates by the Captain. As for Sidhu, he will have to go far beyond crowd-pleasing theatrics if he wants to be seen as a credible alternative to the Captain. To that end, he has been playing the identity card for all he’s worth and has sought to woo party MLAs, 60 of whom showed up at his house in Amritsar on Wednesday.
For the AAP and the Akali Dal, the tensions within the Punjab Congress are good news. As recently as February this year, both were trounced in the local body elections. The best-case scenario for them would be if the Captain were to split the party. Failing that, he might adopt an après moi, le déluge strategy, by not exerting himself in the upcoming assembly polls. While the AAP never seriously sought to woo Sidhu, it did manage to spook the Congress into accommodating him as PCC chief.
The uncompromising approach of the Gandhi siblings sends a clear signal to party workers and leaders that it’s their way or the highway, regardless of the consequences. Throwing caution to the winds in Punjab could result in disaster, but equally, it could yield a big payoff. Either way, the high command culture is here to stay.
The writer is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author