The war between Punjab Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh and his current bete noire cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu is refusing to show any signs of ending. Apart from Amarinder and Sidhu, the blame for the battle dragging on for such a prolonged period will also have to be laid on the doorsteps of the so-called and ineffective Congress Party high command.
The High Command, it seems, isn’t even alive to the fact that every day the conflict drags on, the chances of Congress retaining power become slimmer.
While the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has already begun its campaign in the state and is said to be in talks with other smaller parties for a tie-up, the Congress Party is busy fighting with itself.
The problem for the High Command is that it doesn’t know how to handle the situation. Captain Amarinder is too powerful to silently accept whatever the High Command decides.
Till he was alive, Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s key aide Ahmed Patel was the main trouble-shooter for the party, effectively intervening to sort out intra- as well as inter-party quarrels. He was effective largely because he had perfected the art of political deal-making, offering something to everyone, smoothening frayed egos while also at the same time not letting any state leader become too big for his or her boots. In the AP stylebook, the mysterious high command was the last word on everything and you either fell in line or fell out.
There are many within the Congress Party who say they miss Ahmed Patel every time a fresh crisis hits the rudderless party these days.
Had he been alive, Ahmed Patel might have spoken to both Captain Amarinder and Sidhu, offered each of them wise counsel, given some, taken back some before, finally, allowing the Congress president to step in for the final scene.
Unfortunately for the Congress, there is no Ahmed Patel now. KC Venugopal, the man many feel is closest to Rahul Gandhi when it comes to handling political crises, is not even a patch on Ahmed Patel.
Consider this: recently, when Congress president wanted to seek the views of the heads of various departments of the party as to whether they wanted to continue in their posts – many of them have been there for 4-5 years – or take up some other assignment, a small-time Congress leader, a former MP, called up these heads, claiming to be speaking on behalf of Venugopal.
“Madam wants to know if you think time has come for you to give up the post,” was this person’s opening line.
When one of the heads asked him if he had the authority of the Congress president to pose such a question, this former MP said he had been given the task by “Venugopalji”.
Now how busy, one may wonder, is Venugopal that he couldn’t have taken five minutes out to speak personally to the heads of the departments.
Coming back to Punjab, if one talks to supporters of Capt Amarinder, he is apparently upset with the manner in which Rahul Gandhi and Priyankya Gandhi-Vadra have allowed Sidhu such a long rope in trying to destabilise the party’s government in the state.
On the other hand, Sidhu and other dissidents also seem unhappy with the failure of the high command to rein in Capt Amarinder and tell him to control his coterie. Many of these leaders, including some ministers, accuse this coterie of being responsible for planting negative stories against them in the media at Amarinder’s behest.
They openly tell you that while their fight is to get Capt Amarinder to come good on the party’s poll-time promises on issues like corruption by the family of Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) chief Parkash Singh Badal, tackling the drug and mining mafia, punishing those responsible for desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib and deaths of protestors in police firing in Kotkapura in October 2015, Capt Amarinder wants everybody to believe these dissidents are fighting for better positions.
And both sides are right. Capt Amarinder is right when he opposes the suggestion that Sidhu be appointed Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee chief on the ground that Jat Sikhs heading the government as well as the party will not send the right signal to the Hindu voters.
To this, the high command, anti-Amarinder camp leaders suggest that Sidhu could be appointed campaign committee chief and Deputy Chief Minister along with a Hindu – preferably a Dalit.
With the Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) having stitched up a pre-poll alliance with the BSP, appointing a Dalit Deputy CM, even at this stage, observers feel, may augur well for the Congress.
But who will tell that to Capt Amarinder? More importantly, who will ensure that Capt Amarinder follows the diktats of the leadership knowing fully well that Sidhu and other dissidents will not stop at just posts?
The main tussle, everyone is aware, is for the future leadership of the party in the state.
Sidhu, while charismatic, doesn’t have the support of the party base as well as influential leaders in the state. He is viewed as a lone ranger who doesn’t feel the need to work with others.
Then there is Manpreeet Singh Badal, the current Finance Minister and a cousin of SAD chief Sukhbir Singh Badal. His entry into the Congress from the Akali Dal was facilitated by the Congress’s first family and he has so far maintained a low profile, refusing to get openly involved in the ongoing factional fights. His supporters think that his best play is to work alongside Capt Amarinder and hope, when the time comes, Amarinder will support him as an acceptable alternative to himself. But, knowing Capt Amarinder and his durbar style of functioning, this scenario falls in the easier-said-than-done bracket.
Rajya Sabha MP Pratap Singh Bajwa, till recently the Punjab government’s most vocal critic till he buried the hatchet and is now seen to have switched camps, is also somebody who fancies his chances. But the problem with him is that despite being a former PCC chief, he doesn’t have too many followers among state leaders.
And then, finally, there is Sunil Jakhar, the current PCC chief. Will he become a casualty to the ongoing Capt-versus-Sidhu battle? He was Capt Amarinder’s choice as PCC chief but in recent times seems to have lost the confidence of the Captain.
So, what happens later this week, when the much-awaited meeting between Capt Amarinder and the High Command finally happens? Will the High Command force Amarinder to remove the functionaries who have attracted criticism from the dissidents? Will Capt be asked to take decisive and visible steps against the drug and mining mafia? Will he, despite clearly not wanting to, be forced to initiate proceedings against members of the Badal family?
With less than eight months remaining before the state goes to polls, time is running out for the Congress to put its house in order if it wants to put up a semblance of a fight to retain power in the state.
Maneesh Chhibber is a Consulting Editor with India Ahead News. The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author.