Congress party’s ‘first family’ must be seeing in Punjab what people living outside 10, Janpath and 12, Tughlak Lane in Delhi can’t. After Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement about repealing the three contentious farm laws, there is near-unanimity in political circles that it may take the wind out of Congress’ sails.
Former chief minister Capt. Amarinder Singh, who is set to enter into an alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – and, possibly, an implicit understanding with the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) — has emerged as a formidable force in Punjab today. Talk to Congress leaders in private, they are already looking at a hung assembly as their best scenario. And it’s early days yet. If Punjab Congress president Navjot Singh Sidhu’s love for his ‘bada bhai’ or big brother, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, grows in coming weeks, their best scenario may change.
The Gandhis, however, seem to have a very different assessment of the Punjab political situation. They must be convinced of the political wisdom of destabilising the Capt. Amarinder Singh government. For the process they initiated in Rajasthan Sunday seems to lay the groundwork for a Punjab-like crisis and showdown in the desert state in coming months.
Cabinet revamp — Seeds of a fresh crisis
Five Sachin Pilot loyalists swearing in as ministers in the Ashok Gehlot government Sunday afternoon is not the end of the stalemate between the two. Rather, it’s a fresh beginning. Neither will be happy with this solution.
Pilot may have got ministerial rewards for five of the 18 MLAs who had rebelled with him against Gehlot. A few more may be accommodated in boards and corporations. But what has Pilot himself got? Just a promise of rewards in future!
Jyotiraditya Scindia had also lived with that promise for years before he lost patience in Madhya Pradesh. Pilot doesn’t have limitless patience either. He was the deputy chief minister and headed the state Congress unit. He risked all that to go for his dream — the chief ministerial chair. As it is, he may not want to leave Rajasthan to become an AICC general secretary in charge of some other states. The high command wants him to do that, with the promise of re-visiting the chief ministerial issue next year, say Congress insiders. Pilot may have reconciled for now, but he will keep needling the CM in Rajasthan and pressuring the Gandhis to ‘keep their words’ about giving him his due. So, prepare for a fresh political drama in Rajasthan Congress after the next round of assembly elections.
As for Gehlot, the Gandhis’ formula is embarrassing. Five ministers owing their position and loyalty to the CM’s chief rival are likely to queer the pitch for the him. Gehlot is likely to soon find himself in Capt. Amarinder Singh’s shoes; the latter was left embarrassed every day with his Cabinet colleagues, who had joined forces with Sidhu and publicly attacked the CM. Imagine Gehlot having to re-induct two ministers who he had sacked last year after they joined hands with Pilot and attacked him! These ministers aren’t going to listen to the CM because they don’t owe their chairs to him. The Gandhis have just created dual power centres in the Rajasthan government.
Also, by forcing Gehlot to accommodate Pilot loyalists, the Congress high command might have sent out signals that they have a sunset plan for the CM. In coming weeks and months, many MLAs and ministers are likely to salute who they perceive as the rising star, Pilot.
This is exactly what had happened in Punjab, which helped nobody’s cause — neither Amarinder Singh’s, nor Sidhu’s and nor the Congress’.
What’s in store for Gehlot-Pilot
On the face of it, drawing a parallel between the situations in Punjab and Rajasthan may sound like a bit of a stretch. After all, the casts of characters are different. To start with, the challenger in Rajasthan, Pilot, is a true-blue politician, unlike Sidhu, a maverick who wants to live up to his ‘Sixer Sidhu’ image in politics. He was out hit wicket in the BJP and could be stumped in the Congress, too, but for an over-indulgent third umpire at 12, Tughlak Lane. Pilot led the state Congress for six years and was instrumental in bringing it to power in 2018. He might have shown impatience when he led 18 Congress MLAs to revolt against Gehlot last year, but he has learnt his lessons. He looks prepared to bide his time.
Besides, Ashok Gehlot enjoys the confidence of the Gandhi family, unlike Amarinder Singh who mistakenly believed that his friendship with Rajiv Gandhi would save him.
There are, of course, many differences between the cast of characters and circumstances in Punjab and that in Rajasthan — including the fact that the latter have been Congressmen all their lives and so the Gandhis may be more sympathetic while dealing with them. But if one looks at the Gandhis’ purported objective—generational change in leadership— there is a case for drawing parallels between Punjab and Rajasthan.
First, Capt. Amarinder Singh is 79 and Sidhu 58. Gehlot is 70 and Pilot 44. But for the ungraceful way of ousting a party veteran and the political wisdom—or the lack of it—of unnecessarily jeopardising the Congress’ poll prospects due to personal whims and fancies, not many would question the move to go for a generational change in the Punjab leadership. Gehlot is a Gandhi family loyalist but he is part of the Old Guards Rahul Gandhi is so eager to dispense with.
Second, the Gandhi siblings’ calculation behind their oust-Singh gambit was based on the fact that the Congress looked well-ensconced, with opposition BJP-SAD reduced to political margins and the AAP looking splintered and rudderless. The equations on the ground in Punjab have changed since then. But the opposition in Rajasthan, mainly the BJP, is looking like those in Punjab a few weeks back. Former CM Vasundhara Raje has fallen out with the high command and the saffron party has no other mass-base leader to lead it.
The Congress high command would, however, make a Punjab-like blunder to underestimate the opposition in Rajasthan. Raje would be mistaken in believing that the crowds she drew were her supporters. She is a mass leader, for sure. But so was Bhairon Singh Shekhawat. When the BJP decided to replace Shekhawat with Raje as the party’s face in the 2003 assembly election, the people went with her. Shekhawat was resentful but could see the change in tide. He went with the party’s decision, howsoever unwillingly, choosing to broker a compromise with Raje to get ministerial berths to his loyalists, including son-in-law Narpat Singh Rajvi. Much would depend on whose example Raje would choose to follow: Those of Kalyan Singh or Uma Bharati, mass leaders who found themselves in political wilderness after quitting the party, or that of B.S. Yediyurappa, the ex-Karnataka CM who floated his own party to deny the BJP power in the 2013 election.
A section of Pilot supporters pointed out to me a trend they spotted since the 1993 assembly election — when Bhairon Singh Shekhawat got the BJP a renewed mandate — every election has seen a change in the government. Would a change of face—Sachin Pilot—be able to reverse the trend in the 2023 polls? Or will the 72-year-old tried-and-tested Gehlot be a better bet in 2023?
The Gandhis must find an answer—in favour of one or the other—sooner than later. Keeping both Gehlot and Pilot on tenterhooks till the end will place the Congress in a Punjab-like situation. Or, maybe, the Gandhis would seek an answer in Punjab poll results.
The author tweets @dksingh73. Views are personal.