If you have ever wondered what made the Congress appoint riot-tainted Kamal Nath as the general secretary-in-charge of the Sikh majority state of Punjab and then drop him within days amid attacks from all sides, you are not alone. That such a decision was taken at a time when the Congress is wrestling with ideas to lift itself up makes the party high command’s wisdom seem doubtful at best.
The Congress is hoping to capitalise on the strong anti-incumbency sentiment against the 10-year-old rule of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) in the state, specifically in time for the assembly polls next year. Punjab is one of the prestige states for the Congress, which was hoping for an easy win until a year ago. However, the strong entry of the Aam Aadmi Party into the political ground has complicated the situation for the grand old party and exacerbated its already nervous state of being.
Everyone in the state knows that the Congress unit in Punjab is deeply divided. Amarinder Singh, the potential chief ministerial candidate, and Pratap Singh Bajwa, the party’s state president, are known to be bitter rivals. The rivalry at the top also reflects on the ground as cadres, depending upon their loyalties, stand divided and contemptuous against each other on almost all issues. If mass opinion is considered, Singh stands tallest among the state leadership, but Bajwa is the more respected one among the party’s rank and file.
The Kamal Nath fiasco
The Congress high command knows that in order to ensure the party’s progress, it has to diffuse this tension. So it thought of bringing in Kamal Nath, known for his peacemaking skills, as the state-in-charge. In the process, it either completely ignored his alleged role in the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 or conveniently pretended to have forgotten about it.
But it took a rap on its knuckles when the the opposition ganged up against the party by raking up the sentimental issue of 1984 anti-Sikh riots and the Congress’s obvious role in them. This forced Kamal Nath to recuse himself of the responsibility, a plea that the party high command readily accepted.
Most political observers say that Singh, much like his counterpart Ajit Jogi in Chhattisgarh, has always used his popularity in the state as a bargaining tool with the Congress. Last year, exactly like Jogi, he hobnobbed with the BJP and threatened to float a new party. In the run-up to the last assembly polls in 2012, Rahul Gandhi, the party’s vice-president, conducted elections for the Youth Congress and tried to neutralise the patronage politics that the party leaders practice in the state. But that effort hasn’t really taken off properly despite throwing up some new young leaders like Ravneet Singh Bittu or Vjay Inder Singla.
High stakes for the Congress
According to sources in the Punjab Congress, Gandhi is virulently against Singh. But the party is left with no other alternative at a time when Punjab is its only hope in terms of electoral performance. The party high command is completely invested in this one state – so much so that it has asked its political strategist Prashant Kishor to concentrate on Punjab.
Singh, despite his public denial, is said to have recommended Nath’s name as the general secretary of the state. Nath, Singh’s juniour at the Doon school, has been fairly close to him. And Nath fit the bill well enough in Singh’s books for the latter to boot out the state previous in-charge Shakeel Ahmad, a supporter of Bajwa.
Naturally, Singh ended up defending Nath against critics who pulled him up for his role in the riots. Evidently, he underestimated the sentimental impact of the 1984 riots in Punjab. On being asked how he did not see it coming, Singh told the media that leaders are chosen on the basis of truth and not myths.
Nath’s appointment miffed the Punjab Congress, and since Singh was the only one defending him, it laid bare the divisions within the party once again. Despite all this, Singh, who has the full backing of Prashant Kishor at the moment, is confidently sailing through as far as his position in the party is concerned.
A series of mistakes
A triangular fight in on the cards next year – probably for the first time in the last few decades. And this new mode of contest has forced all three parties in the fray – the Congress, the SAD and the AAP – to use fresh ideas and tactics. In this uncertain and anxious space, all three have shown recklessness. The Congress party’s move to appoint Nath is the latest example of this.
Pramod Kumar, political analyst and the director of the Chandigarh-based Institute for Development and Communication told The Wire: “This is a season of self-goals. Every party is competing with each other to score against itself, the reason being all the parties lack a clear ideological position and a well laid-out agenda. Nath’s appointment is Congress fourth mistake in last one year – first, it involved itself in the controversial Sarbat Khalsa, second, it stayed out of the Khadoor Sahib by-election and finally it, like the other two parties, gave most strategic responsibilities to political managers like Prashant Kishor. (The AAP has hired Durgesh Pathak as strategist and the SAD has hired a Hyderabad-based firm).”
As the election draws closer, only time will tell whether the grand old party will mend its ways or decide to be wayward.