The disquiet in the Congress is getting shrill by the day. In poll-bound Punjab, the good news is that it cannot get worse. Navjot Singh Sidhu was brought in as Punjab Congress chief amid much fanfare and expectations. Sidhu’s oratory skills, his stand on the Kartarpur Saheb corridor, clean image, and spontaneity were huge assets overcoming the anti-incumbency factor against the Captain Amarinder Singh government. The Gandhis, particularly, Priyanka Gandhi worked hard, often treading on thin ice, to broker peace between the former Indian army captain and former Indian test cricketer. Just as peace and a sense of purpose were achieved, Sidhu’s advisers, who are technically not members of the Congress party, made some politically incorrect and atrocious remarks bringing disrepute to the grand old party.
AICC general secretary Harish Rawat, who has been in the party since the Sanjay Gandhi era, tried to intervene, asking Sidhu to remove his advisers. Sidhu dithered even refusing to condemn the remarks. When a word from Priyanka Gandhi, who was reportedly in the USA, was delivered to Sidhu, the satirist-cricketer-politician relented but not before firing a salvo – “Main eent se eent baja doonga.” Basically saying if he is not allowed to function independently, he would cause damage. This amounts to crossing the Laxman Rekha of party discipline in the Congress Parivar. Rawat again tried to humour Sidhu even as he went public saying Sidhu needed time to get into the ‘Congress system’ and culture. Sidhu remained somewhat defiant seeking Priyanka’s intervention. But Sujan Singh Park, Priyanka’s residence near the Khan Market, New Delhi, has remained indifferent.
Rawat, 73, a seasoned warhorse is not a happy man these days. He is heading the election campaign committee in Uttrakhand which is slated to go to polls along with Punjab. The deliberations of Punjab are consuming a lot of time and energy and affecting his projection as a chief ministerial candidate in the hill state. Rawat’s alleged failure to tame Sidhu or strike a balance between him and Captain Amarinder Singh is exposing him a bit in Uttrakhand. This is a time and age where even minute details of Punjab happenings are available to voters in Uttrakhand through 24×7 TV news channels and hyperactive social media platforms like the WhatsApp groups, Facebook among others. Rawat has been wanting to quit as AICC general secretary but the Gandhis have not found his successor so far. Many at 24, Akbar Road think Priyanka should be given direct charge of Punjab and taken off as AICC general secretary in charge of Uttar Pradesh where the Congress story is a non-starter. With each passing day, pulling out Priyanka from battle of Uttar Pradesh is becoming more and more daunting.
In Chhattisgarh, AICC general secretary P L Punia is perhaps finding himself worse off than Rawat. Punia seemed clueless when Congress Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel was summoned to Delhi, reportedly to force a change of guards in the state. Days before August 21, 2021, Punia had been denying the existence of any rotational, power-sharing formula between Baghel and aspirant T S Singhdeo. The AICC’s point man for Raipur appeared every bit out of depth when Baghel supporters, numbering over 50 Congress MLAs thronged New Delhi. Punia kept saying the party MLAs were not called or encouraged to be at the national capital. The defiance was loud and clear. But the former Uttar Pradesh chief secretary is pretending as if nothing has happened.
The third Congress-ruled state of Rajasthan is witnessing a protracted battle of wits between Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and archrival Sachin Pilot. It has been 13 months when Pilot called off his rebellion in exchange for a set of promises which remain unfulfilled. Gehlot is in no hurry to do the basics – expanding his council of ministers to accommodate Pilot supporters. The otherwise genial and politically sharp Ajay Maken is the AICC general secretary in charge of Rajasthan. Maken has been at his wit’s end to force Gehlot to do the needful. But the former magician seems to have many cards up his sleeve to thwart central leadership’s designs. Personal health issues have kept the much-awaited cabinet expansion on hold for the past four months. Like Rawat and Punia, Maken is never short to expressing himself as a representative of Delhi durbar or Gandhis, but Gehlot does not seem interested. There is every likelihood of more trouble for Maken as Pilot now wants to get into Sidhu mode, wanting to head Rajasthan Congress, an assignment that was given to him in 2014 and he kept it till July 2020 till he turned a rebel.
Party insiders say much of Maken’s problems arose due to the untimely death of Ahmed Patel in November, 2020, AICC treasurer and a respectable figure in Congress. The Rajasthan peace accord was brokered by Ahmed Bhai, as he was popularly called, without a written document. Patel alone had the stature to prevail upon Gehlot-Pilot, Captain Amarinder Singh-Sidhu, Bhupesh Baghel- Singhdeo and thrash out a lasting compromise. It is an open secret that Patel was an architect of the party’s alliance with Shiv Sena and NCP in Maharashtra when very few, including Rahul Gandhi, was keen to crown Udhav Thackeray.
Patel’s stature as Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary during the eventful 2004-2014 UPA years had given him requisite stature and powers to be the first among equals in the Congress hierarchy after the Gandhis. With his death, party managers are appearing to be minions. Regional satraps have little or scant regard for AICC general secretaries. They wish to deal directly with the Gandhis. The lack of Patel-like buffer is exposing the Gandhis too. In the faction-ridden party which is out of power at the center, the Gandhis are always reluctant to act decisively fearing things to boomerang. This tendency, coupled with the absence of a Patel-like cushion or barrier, is the root cause of the drift, disquiet, and helplessness in the grand old party.