THROUGHOUT the day yesterday, Punjab was abuzz with rumours of a big political development, one that would have an impact on the next year’s Assembly elections.
From the possibility of the state being brought under President’s Rule to the chief minister quitting his party along with his supporters to either form a new regional party or join hands with the BJP, the rumour mills went into overdrive. There also were whispers of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) MP and its biggest face in Punjab, Bhagwant Mann quitting the party for not declaring him the CM face, while some said Navjot Singh Sidhu, the recently appointed Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee (PPCC) chief, was quitting the party along with his supporters to join AAP. It was also being said that 48 Congress MLAs, including ministers, purportedly writing to Congress interim president Sonia Gandhi to immediately remove Captain Amarinder Singh as chief minister if the party wanted to return to power next year.
Former diplomat KC Singh, who recently got together with other like-minded Punjabis to establish the Sanjha Sunehra Punjab Manch (SSPM), a supposedly apolitical platform to discuss issues pertaining to Punjab but who, many say, has political aspirations of his own, lent heft to the rumours when he tweeted about the same.
In the end, nothing happened, at least yesterday.
Welcome to the conspiracy-laden political scene of Punjab, one where a new conspiracy theory or rumour materialises out of thin air, is fuelled by WhatsApp forwards and some Youtube channels, almost every day, only to die down as quickly.
The only certainty is: Sukhbir Badal and his kin aren’t leaving the Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal). For an answer, look at the full name of the party.
“Punjab is like that only. Earlier rumours would travel through word of mouth, now since we are technologically advanced, we use WhatsApp. But in most cases the rumours die down as quickly as they start, only to be replaced by new rumours. Having said that, the rumours that gained traction yesterday about the state being brought under President’s Rule, Congress MLAs writing to Sonia Gandhi or Bhagwant Mann leaving the AAP are not new. The only difference is they are not dying down. The question is, one that will be answered in time: Are they true?” observed a senior Congress leader, who admitted he was part of the group which wants Captain Amarinder to be “shunted out”.
Why? And who would take his place? Sidhu?
“He (Capt) is refusing to mend his ways. He remains surrounded by his coterie, doing little to listen to elected representatives to solve problems of the common man. As for his replacement, there is none so far. Sidhu is not a leader as he is too full of himself (the leader actually used an unprintable word in Punjabi to describe Sidhu),” he said.
This – absence of a ready replacement to Captain Amarinder – is a quandary, and, many say, a bigger problem for the ruling Congress. Even Sidhu’s biggest supporters tell you he isn’t ready to don the mantle. “He is not a team player and hasn’t learnt the art of nurturing relationships,” you are constantly told.
As for AAP, it isn’t exactly a state secret that Bhagwant Mann, popular with the rural voters, especially in the Malwa and Majha belts, fancies his chances as the prospective CM face of his party. But the party hasn’t so far indicated that it feels the same way. Till a few months ago, the national leadership of AAP was trying to get Sidhu to jump ship, but without promising the CM post to him too.
In recent weeks, Capt Amarinder, ensconced in his farm house at a stone’s throw from the majestic five-star hotel owned by the Badal family, is learnt to have reached out to friends-turned-critics like Cooperation and Jails Minister Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa, Technical Education Minister Charanjit Channi and Rural Development Minister Tript Rajinder Bajwa. But his efforts have yielded nothing positive and were rebuffed.
Bajwa was recently at the forefront of a signature campaign to ask interim Congress president Sonia Gandhi to direct holding of a Congress Legislature Party (CLP) meeting soon to discuss outstanding issues.
“The main grouse, and not entirely baseless, of these leaders is that they stood by him when his own chips were down. But he hasn’t listened to them in the last four and a half years, and has done nothing to assuage their feelings of hurt. Why should they help him now?” observes another senior Congress leader.
And, what about rumours that Capt Amarinder – another rumour has it that he has some kind of underhand deal with the BJP to ensure the defeat of the AAP as well as SAD – is planning to leave the Congress and, either, form his own regional party, or join the BJP?
“Maharaja sahib (Capt Amarinder) is a very smart politician. He knows better than to commit hara-kiri, especially at this stage in his life,” said the Congress leader quoted above.
The same leader, however, did say that recent statements of some BJP leaders like Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar, most of which could be seen as helping Capt Amarinder’s standing with the agitating farmers, do suggest that there could be more than just rumour to a Capt Amarinder-BJP deal.
As for the biggest rumour: that the border state, which is on high alert following the arrest of several members of an ISI-backed terrorist module for their attempt to blow up an oil tanker with an IED tiffin bomb, may be brought under Centre rule, very few are buying it.
“It will be foolhardy and will send the state into a fresh round of crisis,” said a senior state government functionary.
In the meantime, the entire Punjab waits for the next round of rumours.
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