The Punjab’s entanglement is far from over, given the lingering resentment between Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh and his scarecrow and newly appointed CPC Chairman Navjot Singh Sidhu, which highlights the scale of the risk that the leadership of Congress chose to take in the Punjab.
The Gandhi siblings, to whose patronage Sidhu owes his elevation, rely on him to justify their strategy of undermining the captain – arguably the tallest among the members of the Old Guard of Congress still standing. Not only was Sidhu raised despite strong opposition, but of the four sitting presidents appointed to assist him, none are chosen by the captains. Rather the opposite.
The fact that Punjab is the only state to beat the Modi wave in 2019 (Congress has been flattened everywhere except Kerala) makes the move even more risky. Only if Congress succeeds in removing Punjab once again in the 2022 parliamentary elections will the party’s high command be defended. Otherwise, it will be another mishap sponsored by the first family.
Much is straddling Sidhu, a lately Johnny-comer who has managed to push back mainstays like Pratap Singh Bajwa and Manish Tewari, to gain the trust of the Gandhis. His advancement annoyed some members of Congress, who felt that by promoting a dal badal who was a loyal BJP soldier for 12 years, the party was ignoring their service.
Sidhu has a quirky sense of humor which makes him a very good activist. But he is also perceived as volatile, impetuous and not very much of a teammate and, moreover, lacks administrative experience. He is no stranger to controversy, having been convicted by the High Court of culpable homicide and later released by the Supreme Court, which nonetheless found him guilty of causing harm.
Hardly less controversial was his intimate meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and the warm embrace of his army chief, Qamar Javed Bajwa, for which he was deeply annoyed by Amarinder Singh, a veteran. Sidhu retaliated by saying that his real captain Rahul Gandhi had made no objection.
First Bajwa, now Sidhu
He will also have to watch his rear. Until now, Pratap Singh Bajwa has been the captains’ main rival. Indeed, the Punjab CM clashed with Rahul Gandhi over Bajwa in 2016, refusing to accept him as CCP chairman. Amarinder had what he wanted, as the 2017 election approached. But now it is the much younger Sidhu who poses a threat to the ambitions of the Rajya Sabha deputies.
The independence of Amarinder Singhs makes the Gandhis uncomfortable. He is his own man and, unlike other members of the Old Guard, has never bent his knee to the high command. As a soldier and former Maharajah of Patiala, he always met the first family on an equal footing. He understands the value of discipline, but hates sycophancy.
Lately, the captain has drawn criticism for poor governance and the estrangement of lawmakers from the party. It has been unable to make the bold decisions necessary to repair the state’s ailing economy and infrastructure, as evidenced by the state’s electricity crisis. Above all, the alleged mismanagement of the investigation into the police shootings following the desecration of guru Granth Sahib in Bargari in 2015 has given its critics some weight.
The captain’s choices
Opposition to power is cited as the justification for Sidhu’s appointment. If so, Bajwa certainly carries more weight within the Jat Sikh community and Tewari could 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 theatrical directing if he is to be seen as a credible alternative to the captain. To this end, he plays the identity card thoroughly and seeks to seduce the party’s deputies, 60 of whom showed up at his home in Amritsar on Wednesday.
For AAP and Akali Dal, tensions within the Punjab Congress are good news. As recently as February of this year, the two were defeated in local elections. The best scenario for them would be for the captain to split the group. Otherwise, he could adopt a strategy after me, the Deluge, by not exercising in the next ballots of the Assembly. Although the AAP never seriously sought to woo Sidhu, he managed to scare Congress into harboring him as the head of the CCP.
The Gandhi siblings’ uncompromising approach sends a clear signal to workers and party leaders that this is their path or the highway, whatever the consequences. Trying to be cautious in Punjab could lead to disaster, but also, it could pay off big. Either way, the culture of high command is here to stay.
The writer is a seasoned journalist with 35 years of experience working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now a freelance writer and author
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