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Chandigarh: After days of intense drama that saw Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh writing an angry letter to Congress president Sonia Gandhi and warning her of a split in the party if Navjot Singh Sidhu is elevated to the post of Punjab Congress chief, the party on Sunday night finally formally announced Sidhu’s much-awaited elevation.
In order to balance caste equations within the party, given that Punjab has sizeable population of Dalits, OBCs, Jat Sikhs and Hindus, the Congress also put in place four working presidents including the party’s Hindu leader Pawan Goyal, backward community MLA from Hoshiarpur’s Urmar constituency Sangat Singh Gilzian, Dalit MLA from Jandiala Sukhwinder Singh Danny and Jat Sikh MLA from Fatehgarh Sahib Kuljit Singh Nagra.
Here too, the party snubbed Amarinder as none of his choices were named as working presidents. Two of them – Nagra and Danny – are Rahul Gandhi’s men, making it amply clear that Rahul had a role in the rejig.
Sidhu’s elevation is also being credited to the Gandhi siblings – Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi – who played a vital role in his elevation, setting the foundation for the change of guard in Punjab’s politics.
Amarinder did everything in his power to stop the move, including reaching out to the MPs closer to him. These MPs held a meeting in Delhi on Sunday in order to oppose Sidhu’s elevation and make one last effort to convince the high command. Those who attended were Lok Sabha members Manish Tewari, Ravneet Bittu, Jasbir Gill and Perneet Kaur, Amarinder’s wife. Their efforts, though, were unsuccessful.
Many see the move as the end of the Amarinder era in Punjabi politics, as the Congress is banking upon Sidhu to lead the party ahead of crucial state assembly polls due early next year.
“Captain Amarinder Singh was the first mass leader of the Congress in Punjab, who had ended the careers of the likes of Shamsher Singh Dullo, Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, Jagmeet Brar and Partap Singh Bajwa in his 24-year hegemony over the Punjab Congress. It had to end sometime and it happened now,” said Professor Harjeshwar Pal Singh, a political analyst based in Chandigarh.
Sidhu, a former cricketer, has been in politics for nearly two decades now. His rise in the Congress, though, was very quick – he rose to prominence in Punjab’s power corridors just a few years after joining the Congress in 2017.
The message in Sidhu’s elevation is loud and clear – Sidhu has the full backing of the Gandhis, which will help him have a say in finalising candidates as well as the overall party strategy in the run up to the elections.
Whether Sidhu is able to work magic for the party in the upcoming polls remains to be seen. The immediate concern for the leadership, though, was to bring Amarinder on board and avoid a split in the party, given that the annoyed Captain still enjoys the support of a majority of party MLAs and MPs in the state.
That is why on Saturday, Punjab Congress affairs in-charge and former Uttarakhand chief minister Harish Rawat flew from Delhi to meet Amarinder in Chandigarh. Sources say that the meeting was meant to pacify Amarinder, who was bitterly opposed to Sidhu becoming the party chief.
Soon after the meeting, Amarinder issued a statement saying any decision made by the Congress president will be acceptable to all. He also reportedly conveyed to Rawat that if the party wants him to work with Sidhu, he should continue to be involved in important decision-making processes. Amarinder also asked for a public apology from Sidhu for making personal attacks on him on Twitter.
This does not appear to have happened even as the Congress went ahead to promote Sidhu.
After meeting Amarinder, Rawat appreciated the chief minister’s comments that he would abide by the party president’s final decision. But whether Amarinder stays true to his words is anyone’s guess, given that his Friday letter to Sonia Gandhi was quite critical of her plan to elevate Sidhu.
He alleged that high command was unnecessarily interfering in Punjab’s matters, besides highlighting that Sidhu’s working style would hurt the Congress. “Old party members will be angry, and the Congress will be split due to this,” he said in the letter.
Even as Rawat hoped that peace will now last in Congress’s Punjab unit, those who know Amarinder believe that the tensions are far from over.
There is no official statement yet from Amarinder after the announcement.
The road from here, many believe, will not be easy for Sidhu. He will have to deal with Amarinder on one hand and then convince the voters of his government’s sincerity to resolve issues that he himself believed his party could not deliver under Amarinder’s chief ministership.
“For people, more than leadership they want issues to be resolved. Earlier Sidhu took shelter in claiming that he was not a key member of the government. Now he can’t make such excuses. He is now the chief of the party in power. How he deals with sacrilege issues or illegal sand mining or liquor trade will decide his legacy as party leader,” said political analyst Ashutosh Kumar.
Political experts say Amarinder himself is responsible for Sidhu’s prominence in the party
Senior journalist and author Jagtar Singh said that the Amarinder era had to end either way, for which the chief minister himself is responsible.
“He refused to govern in his second term as chief minister despite such a huge mandate. He outsourced the government to a retired officer and operated from his private farm house rather than from an official residence or office. He did not even meet his own party MLAs. This brewed tension in the party. Only he can answer why he acted in that manner but needless to say he wasted a huge opportunity,” said Jagtar.
Jagtar said Amarinder was lucky to have had a string of electoral success as the opposition in Punjab was very weak. But things are different now. The infighting in the Congress and Amarinder’s non-performance have revived the opposition.
“With Sidhu’s elevation, one fears that infighting within the Congress is set to rise further as Amarinder will not easily give up. This means that Navjot has a tough challenge ahead. How he deals with it and neutralises the anti-incumbency is a huge job that is a break or make moment for him,” said Jagtar.
Pramod Kumar, political analyst and director of the Chandigarh-based Institute of Development and Communication, said that the clash of personalities in the Congress has its roots in the party’s non-performance in Punjab.
Amarinder, in the run up to the last assembly elections, promised “Ghar-Ghar Naukri (a job for each household)”, which was not practically possible. Even the most developed economies can’t make sure there is employment in each household. Then Amarinder, after becoming chief minister, surrendered the government to the bureaucracy while making the elected leaders of his party defunct and creating a major conflict in the party, Kumar said.
The Congress government could not even deliver reasonable standards of governance, as reflected in the power shortage in the state and high levels of corruption. “The visionless high command has made things even difficult for the party. They let the fight between Sidhu and Captain simmer to the point that opposition parties were again alive in Punjab.”
“The fresh peace formula devised by the Gandhis is also faulty. They want both Sidhu and Captain to work together, which is a recipe for nothing short of disaster and bound to backfire given that it is impossible for both of them to work together,” said Kumar.
However, Professor Khalid Mohammad of Panjab University said that it is too early to write Amarinder off. But one thing is clear – that he does not have that kind of position he once had in the party.
“The ticket distribution is the key. If Sidhu manages to give more tickets to his supporters who end up winning the election, it is then very difficult to stop him from replacing Captain,” he said.
In the last two days, Sidhu called on incumbent PPCC chief Sunil Jakhar and more than 30 MLAs of the party by touring different districts. The move is seen as Sidhu’s effort to take everybody along in the party after being appointed as the PPCC chief.
Jakhar has called an all party MLAs for a meeting at party headquarter in Chandigarh on Monday where Sidhu is likely to be officially passed the party’s batons.
After this, he is likely to pay obeisance at the Golden Temple and Durgiana Mandir in Amritsar. Following which, he is expected to take out a rally from Amritsar and pass through Hussainwala and Khatkar Kalan, two historical places associated with martyr Bhagat Singh. He is also planning to halt at Bargari, the epicentre of sacrilege politics in Punjab.
His supporters are in a jubilant mood. Even before the announcement, supporters were distributing sweets in Amritsar as well as in his home town Patiala – which also happens to be Amarinder’s home town.
Even as the party high command was yet to make an announcement over Amritsar (East) MLA Sidhu’s new role, hoardings projecting the former minister as the PPCC president had surfaced in Amritsar on Friday, with his supporters even celebrating his “appointment” in the city.