The high command culture in the Congress has historically worked to its detriment, progressively narrowing its footprint and vote base across the country. Punjab is the latest scene of Congress-style durbar politics, with the elevation of Chief Minister Amarinder Singh’s most trenchant critic, Navjot Singh Sidhu, as PCC president.
The CM’s public acceptance of the high command’s fatwa is being taken with a bucket of salt, given that he had demanded the volatile Sidhu apologise for conducting a social media campaign against him. Several legislators had rallied to Captain Amarinder Singh’s cause (an indication of their resentment against Sidhu rather than loyalty to the CM).
The Captain has attracted criticism of late for a lackadaisical approach to governance, mishandling of emotive issues and aloofness from party MPs and MLAs, not to mention rumours alleging surreptitious dealings with the Akali Dal. Despite anti-incumbency, however, he is still perceived as the Congress’ best bet in the 2022 Assembly elections.
Why then would the Congress leadership choose to undermine its prospects in Punjab by appointing Sidhu in the teeth of strong opposition? It appears that, regardless of Amarinder’s successive electoral victories, the Gandhi siblings would prefer ‘their’ nominees in the party organisation.
Amarinder Singh is no one’s nominee. Very much his own man, he is not just any member of the Congress old guard. A war veteran and erstwhile maharajah of Patiala, at whose palace Congress president Sonia Gandhi had sojourned after her marriage, he has always stood apart from the sycophantic courtiers clustering around the first family.
Sidhu, on the other hand, adapted quickly to the high command culture after he quit the BJP and joined the Congress just before the 2017 assembly elections. He made it clear that he considered the then party vice president Rahul Gandhi his ‘Captain’ and not Amarinder Singh. Secure in the family’s patronage, he has consistently targeted the CM.
This is the second time that the Punjab CM and Rahul Gandhi have clashed over the question of the PCC presidency. Back in 2016, in the run-up to the state elections, the Captain had refused to accept Pratap Singh Bajwa as state unit chief, lest he become a contender for chief ministership.
Bajwa was the Captain’s principal rival until Sidhu appeared on the scene and ingratiated himself with the Gandhis. With the threat of Sidhu escalating, the Captain reached out to Bajwa. For Sidhu, the ambitious Rajya Sabha MP will bear watching.
Sidhu has thus far relied on crowd-pleasing theatrics and will need to enhance his public credibility. After all, he was a loyal soldier of the BJP for over 12 years, was let off by the Supreme Court after being convicted of culpable homicide by the High Court and attracted criticism for cosying up to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan and army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa.
The Punjab CM’s nationalist credentials, by contrast, are impeccable. He stood firmly with the defence forces after the Pulwama attack, even as the Congress questioned the veracity of the Balakot air strike. If he has an Achilles’ heel, it is the High Court ruling quashing the probe into the police firing after the alleged desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib at Bargari in 2015. Added to that is the power crisis in the state. Sidhu has leveraged both to attack the Captain.
The Bargari setback is attributed to poor handling of the probe. Punjab’s current power woes, however, indicate that relentless dissidence has already taken a toll on the Captain, in that he has been unable to take the bold decisions needed to fix the state’s ailing economy and infrastructure.
Three outcomes are possible and only in one of them does the Congress stand a fighting chance – an entente between Sidhu and Amarinder Singh. Otherwise, a split is not inconceivable, although the Captain’s age seems to rule that out. Another possibility is that he may go with the flow, but will not exert himself in the assembly polls, to the advantage of the Akali Dal and the Aam Aadmi Party.
The Punjab imbroglio reinforces the impression that proprietorship of the Congress vests not with the party as a whole, but with the first family. Rahul Gandhi’s statement last fortnight urging “scared” Congressmen to “join the RSS” signals that this is unlikely to change.
Bhavdeep Kang is a senior journalist. Views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author.