It is true that MLAs were unhappy with Singh’s lack of access. But that has been his style of functioning for decades, even as it has made it easier for the Congress central leadership to act against him. It is hardly a secret that the Congress ‘high command’ was not happy with his ‘autonomous’ ways of functioning — not attending meetings for which he was called in Delhi, etc. The leadership in Delhi obviously wanted to clip his wings.
Till six months ago, a Congress victory in Punjab in 2022 was seen as a foregone conclusion. The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) was not picking up despite its de-hyphenation with the BJP and tie-up with the BSP. The BJP was a non-starter and the Aam Admi Party (AAP), while making progress, had no clear face to lead it. Today, it turns out, it is Congress MLAs who are full of trepidation.
If there is a message coming through the Punjab developments, it is this: the writ of ‘high command’ has to run. And that the Gandhis are in no mood to relinquish the party’s leadership, even if it means control of only one or two riyasats instead of the whole country. Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi appear to have been advised that they should establish the central Congress’ supremacy first. Only then can other changes follow.
The Punjab Plan seems to be the brainchild of election strategist Prashant Kishor. His meetings with Rahul, Priyanka and Sonia Gandhi, and the buzz that he will be advising the party — or even joining it — tagged with his resignation as Singh’s advisor, and the decision to parachute the forever ‘commentating’ Navjot Singh Sidhu into Punjab to take on and upstage the Captain, all point to this possibility.
Gandhi & Co. Very Ltd
All the Punjab MLAs would not have attended the last Congress Legislative Party (CLP) meeting, called to oust Singh, if not for the backing of the central leadership. Singh saw the writing on the wall and resigned. As a result, the message is clear for ‘rebellious’ Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel and for Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot, who has not heeded the high command’s advice to accommodate MLAs loyal to Sachin Pilot.
Narendra Modi can send three chief ministers packing in a row and get rid of the entire cabinet in Gujarat because his writ runs in the party. That is possible because he keeps winning elections for the BJP — when the party wins them. The Gandhis no longer win elections for the Congress. For that reason, they should adopt a different approach — to take everyone along, to be more accessible, and be accommodative. But…
After much toing and froing, Charanjit Singh Channi — a Dalit Sikh — will be the new CM of Punjab. Dalits constitute 33% of Punjab’s population. Though Sidhu didn’t get chief ministership, Channi had worked with Sidhu to dethrone Singh. How Jat Sikhs, who have normally led the state, react to this development remains to be seen.
A khichdi has been put in place of a leader with stature and 52 years of political experience. A lesser-known CM, assisted by two deputy CMs, a party president who is assisted by four executive presidents and four advisors — this is the new Congress team that will now take the party into elections in four months’ time in Punjab. What is the extent to which the Captain can damage Sidhu? And the Congress? If Sidhu via Channi takes the party to victory, he will clearly be a front-runner for chief ministership.
On The Cards
Amarinder Singh has played two cards. One, he has decided to play the victim. He talked repeatedly about his ‘humiliation’ at the hands of Delhi’s Gandhis. It remains to be seen whether it garners him popular sympathy. He has not, importantly, ruled out quitting the Congress. He can always join hands with the BJP, which is playing up his woes. If the BJP decides to heed his voice in resolving the farmers’ issue, things could start to look up for both — he a Jat Sikh ‘wronged leader’, and the BJP representing urban Hindu Punjab.
But then does Singh have the appetite to create a new party at his age — 79 — now that he has prevented Sidhu from becoming CM?
Calling Sidhu ‘anti-national’ is the second card Singh has up his sleeve, highlighting the former’s ‘embrace’ of Pakistani army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa at Imran Khan’s swearing-in ceremony in August 2018. What is to prevent the BJP, say, using photos from that occasion to paint the Congress as ‘anti national’ (read: ‘pro-Pakistani’) and create a narrative that becomes emotive even beyond Punjab, say, in a poll-going state like UP?
There are many imponderables in Punjab today. Only poll results will decide the victor and the vanquished. But one thing is clear: the Congress has shot itself in the foot.