Politics is as much about perception as it is about performance. And less than nine months away from Assembly elections, Punjab Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh and the Congress are battling a huge crisis of credibility, in a sense losing the battle of perception.
Travel into the interiors of Punjab and the common refrain is “mile hoye ne (they are in cahoots)” – they being Capt Amarinder and the family of Shiromani Akali Dal patriarch Parkash Singh Badal. In fact, even die-hard Congressmen have started believing and articulating it.
While it may not be necessarily true, the perception is gaining traction, and quickly.
Adding to woes of both Capt Amarinder and the Congress is Navjot Singh Sidhu, who simply refuses to be silenced. Sidhu isn’t alone though – even Punjab Congress chief Sunil Jakhar isn’t exactly a fan of his own party’s Chief Minister and is seen as part of the anti-CM camp.
The Amarinder government’s recent decision, even though at least five senior cabinet ministers opposed it, to grant out-of-turn government jobs to the close kin of two sitting party MLAs – one of the appointee is, apart from being the son of a party MLA, the nephew of Rajya Sabha MP Partap Singh Bajwa, who was, till recently in the forefront of anti-Amarinder campaign, has also resulted into a war of words.
While news reports, refuted by Bajwa, have suggested that Bajwa and Amarinder had a secret meeting last week, one where they decided to bury the hatchet, the jobs to the two Congress MLAs kin have attracted criticism from within the party as well as outside. Leading the charge on this count too is Sidhu.
The Navjot Singh Sidhu conundrum
The first front-ranking Congress leader who raised questions about the Capt Amarinder government’s failure to address poll-time promises made to the people of Punjab was Navjot Singh Sidhu. When he refused to heed warnings from Capt Amarinder and others to stop behaving like the opposition, Sidhu was relegated to a less important ministry. He soon walked out of the government.
A free bird, Sidhu then upped the ante and sharpened his attacks on his party’s government. His main grouse was that the Amarinder government was going slow in taking action against the Badals and their supporters.
In an interview published today, when he repeatedly blames the “system” for many problems that Punjab is facing, everyone in Punjab understands who Sidhu is referring to.
“A system run by two powerful families who are controlling Punjab, belittling the legislature, overriding the interests of the state and purely for their vested, selfish interests and businesses as collusion. They have controlled everything. They have fended for each other, defended each other. My fight has been against that system,” he says in the interview to HT.
In doing so, he effectively paints the families of Capt Amarinder and the Badals with the same brush. Unfortunately for Capt Amarinder, there are many others like Sidhu who believe the same.
Sidhu, who was rumoured to be in touch with the Aam Aadmi Party leadership, has been a thorn in Capt Amarinder’s side ever since he joined the Congress after jumping ship from the BJP. Considered close to the scions of the Congress’s first family – Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra, Sidhu is an established crowd-puller. However, there are many who believe that his ability to pull the crowds doesn’t necessarily translate into votes for the party.
He is also seen as somewhat of a loose cannon, one who doesn’t know how to take others along. And that is possibly why, so far, the Congress high command has not given him a better responsibility in the state and allowed a free hand to Capt Amarinder.
“The problem with Sidhu is he is only interested in himself. While it is good that he endears himself to the people of Punjab by repeatedly raking up issues that matter to the people, his biggest failing is that he doesn’t have a loyal group in the party. Barring one or two MLAs who may support him due to the issues raised by him, he can’t depend on any minister or MLA to support him if it comes to an open battle against the Capt,” a senior Congress minister told me.
The same minister says, unlike Sidhu, Capt Amarinder is more balanced, even if, often, inaccessible to his own cabinet colleagues. He is a charismatic, seasoned politician, who is adept at playing the how-to-cut-your-opponents-to-size game.
Is history repeating itself?
But, in recent times, in what could be seen as a repeat of the events of the last time Capt Amarinder was heading a Congress government in the state (2002-2007), many influential Congress ministers and MLAs are up in arms against him, especially over his style of functioning and failure to take action against the Badals.
His government is in the dock for its failure to punish the accused in the cases pertaining to desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib and deaths of protestors in police firing in Kotkapura in October 2015. Sidhu and many other MLAs have also been accusing the Chief Minister of failing to check the powerful mining mafia.
Another important charge against the Chief Minister is that he is completely cut-off from elected representatives from his own party and running the government through a coterie led by Principal Secretary Suresh Kumar, a controversial but very powerful bureaucrat, who is the target of attack by Amarinder’s opponents within the party.
And here is the similarity with the last time Congress was in power in the state.
Just like recent weeks, in November-December 2003, many Congress ministers and MLAs led by former Chief Minister Rajinder Kaur Bhattal revolted against Captain Amarinder at that time. Their target was SK Sinha, the then Principal Secretary to the Chief Minister, and Capt’s close associate and then Media Adviser BIS Chahal, who is now political adviser to the CM.
On the intervention of the high command, both sides agreed to a truce, Amarinder promised to mend his style of functioning, Bhattal was made Deputy CM and some officers were shunted out.
Now that Amarinder has met Congress president Sonia Gandhi in New Delhi today, over 10 days after a three-member panel comprising AICC general secretary in charge of Punjab Harish Rawat, Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Mallikarjuna Kharge and senior Congress leader JP Aggarwal, given the task of interacting with all leaders, including the dissidents, submitted its report, all eyes are on the high command?
Will history repeat itself? Will Capt be cut to size? Will he be asked to get rid of members of his coterie? Will the high command give some prominent role to Sidhu, even make him Pradesh Congress Committee chief, something that many in the party feel Capt may never agree to?
Whatever be the outcome of the meeting, unless Amarinder takes drastic steps and is able to effectively counter the perception that he has some kind of deal with the Badals, the Congress may end up losing more public support.