Restraint Is Good For Both Sides: Sunil Jakhar on Punjab Congress's Internal Crisis

In an interview to The Wire, the party's Punjab unit chief said the ongoing crisis could help get the Congress's house in order before the elections.

New Delhi: Elections in Punjab, one of only three states where the Congress has a chief minister, are less than eight months away. While the government of chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh was expected to be in an electorally strong position – given that its key challengers Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) parted ways last year, internal troubles have hit the Congress.

Last week, a three-member committee constituted by party chief Sonia Gandhi met all the prominent leaders of Punjab in the national capital, including Singh, state unit chief Sunil Jakhar and senior leader Navjot Singh Sidhu, among others, to seek their views on the ongoing troubles and preparations for the assembly elections.

At the heart of the controversy is a public spat between Singh and a section of senior leaders including Sidhu over the probe into the 2015 sacrilege issue, after the high court recently quashed the probe report by a Special Investigation Team (SIT). Sidhu has questioned and criticised the state government over the delay in dispensing the sacrilege case. The issue has now got entangled with broader concerns over factionalism and infighting ahead of the assembly elections.

Jakhar, a former Lok Sabha member who has been president of the Congress’s Punjab unit for four years now, is one of the top functionaries of the party in the state. In a telephonic interview with The Wire, Jakhar spoke in detail about the ongoing crisis, need for leaders on both sides to have a degree of restraint and added that it was better to resolve all issues in the run up to the elections than going into poll mode with the house not in order.

Edited excerpts follow.

The panel formed to look into Punjab issues has met a series of leaders till now, including you and the chief minister. How do you look at it?

The committee has had a broad-based interaction to get a real sense of the situation. I think it is like a fact-finding kind of commission to gauge which issues should be tackled, which policies should be focused on ahead of the elections and what are our strengths and weaknesses. I think they will submit a report to the Congress high command to act upon.

What is your key takeaway from it?

It was an exhaustive exercise. Everyone’s views, including their reservations, suggestions and objections if any, were taken. I think something good should come out of it to strengthen the party. Its key benefit is also that certain people who were only trying to further their own personal agendas have been exposed.

There are two sets of people – one genuinely interested in improving the party’s electoral prospects and the other opportunistic, criticising their own state government in order to exploit it for their personal advantage. Those people have been identified in this wide-ranging exercise.

The panel has seen genuine concerns of some leaders, but these so-called ‘visiting leaders’ of Punjab who drop in from Delhi whenever it suits them and criticise our own government, they have been exposed. For them, every aapda (crisis) is an avsar (opportunity). Some are genuine, of course, like Sidhu. But those visiting leaders have been exposed.

Were you and the party’s state leadership taken into confidence before the announcement of the committee?

No, this committee was formed by the Congress’s high command. After the high court judgment came on the sacrilege issue and the SIT that was formed to look into this issue and the firing at Kotkapura, there was a sense of disquiet within the party. The general perception was that somehow the government was soft towards the perpetrators of the sacrilege. I think this is what started it and later on, larger issues were also taken up.

There has been a public spat between Captain [Amarinder Singh] and Sidhu. How do you view it, particularly given that elections are less than eight months away?

It is definitely unfortunate, irrespective of whether the elections are eight months away or three years away – that does not make any difference. I believe there is always a difference of opinion, particularly between people who have a larger-than-life kind of image. Captain is one of the senior-most leaders in the Congress and on the other hand, Sidhu has his own following among youngsters and others as a pan-India face. I think a modicum of restraint is good for either side.

Sidhu has been part and parcel of the Congress for the past four-and-half-years. Even though he is no longer a minister, he is by no means an ordinary member of the Congress. He has a privileged position by virtue of being inducted into the party by the high command itself. He has direct access to them: that itself makes it incumbent upon him to toe the party’s line. I think the larger interest of the party has to take centre-stage over your own disagreements. Whatever reservations or disagreements he might have had, I think they can definitely be resolved. He has access to the high command and that is the forum to discuss these issues, rather than making them public, which undermines the party.

Amarinder Singh (L) and Navjot Singh Sidhu. Photo: PTI/Files

Do you expect any prominent changes in the state government or state unit ahead of elections? There was a growing demand that Sidhu should be accommodated…

Captain has always been very vocal about accommodating him. But I think there is a difference of opinion on what portfolio or capacity he should be in. I don’t know what kind of promise he was made when he was inducted, that is for the high command to settle. We should go into the battle as a united team and not with fractured views. We should do whatever it takes to put the house together, otherwise, this whole exercise will be futile.

What could be the impact of ongoing developments on state elections including the likelihood of opposition raising these issues?

Of course, they are likely to take it up. This should not have happened in the first place. What’s done is done, but I think it is still better than going in with a fractured house and dissent brewing inside. It is better to fix it now than later. That is why it is a blessing in disguise.

Even when the high court judgment came, my view was that if this judgment came a few months later, then we would have been left with no option. Now we have the option of fixing all the problems which were pointed out by the court, whatever flaws or lacunas or technical issues can be fixed now and we can come up with a clean slate. [We can tell the people,] ‘Here are the culprits and we have taken action.’

Going ahead, what is the party’s view on the sacrilege issue?

All the issues were pointed out very specifically in the court judgment, we are armed with that and we have the advantage of knowing what the court’s view is. This is how they want us to proceed. We will follow that line because there were certain technical issues like multiple FIRs etc. All these things can be fixed now.

Why do you think is the reason that several state units of Congress face internal troubles, including factional fights, like in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and now Punjab?

This is a very broad question. There are many issues and one can be the problem of plenty. We have too many people who consider themselves to be competent and capable to hold the reins of power.

I also feel that in the new generation, patience is eroding. People want to achieve everything in a hurry. This is a problem that all parties face but maybe it gets more enhanced because we are not in power (nationally). Eventually, with sagacious leadership, such issues will be resolved.

Anuja is an independent journalist based in New Delhi who reports on the intersection of policy and politics. She can be reached at @just_anuja.