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Sidhu has a clean image but that’s not enough to be the captain in Punjab

In the months ahead, Sidhu and Amarinder would try their best to undermine each other's position, especially at the time of ticket distribution.

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Watching the recent developments in the Punjab unit of the Congress brings a sense of déjà vu as there appear striking similarities from the party’s past — the way the high command has handled the Sidhu-Amarinder feud, notwithstanding obvious differences on the ground and also how it is playing both ruling party as well opposition. The entire saga reminds one of what Marx wrote in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, about how historical entities tend to reappear, first as tragedy, then as farce. The Punjab case appears both.

Consider the profile of the fall guy.

The two-time chief minister, belonging to the dominant Jat Sikh community and a former Patiala royal, Captain Amarinder Singh reminds of the regional satraps of Nehruvian India. As a leader, he has always projected himself as someone who stands up for the state and also for the cause of the Sikh community as evidenced in his resignations, first as a Congress MP and then as an Akali Dal minister over Operation Blue Star and Operation Black Thunder. In his earlier stint as the CM, Captain was instrumental in getting the Punjab Termination of Agreement Bill passed by the assembly in 2004, which annulled the 1981 pact Punjab had signed with Haryana and Rajasthan on sharing of Ravi and Beas waters.

Captain was also the party face of the campaigns in the 2017 assembly and 2019 Lok Sabha elections, both won by the Congress. More recently, the Congress also won the local elections. It was Captain who handled the ongoing Sikh farmers’ agitation, turning their anger away from him and towards the BJP-led NDA government. In fact, the party seemed in good space till recently when the the BJP and the Akali Dal were facing the farmers’ wrath.

Also read: Punjab Congress battle isn’t about Navjot Sidhu or Amarinder Singh. It’s about Gandhis

Newcomer vs the Captain

So if the going seemed so smooth, why did the party high command intervene and precipitate the simmering tension, and publicly undermine the position of one of its most senior leaders, by calling him twice to the national capital and making him appear before a panel of leaders much junior to him? The dissident MLAs and ministers were also called before the panel to list out their grievances against the CM in full media glare. The dissidents and Captain both reportedly submitted dossiers against each other. In order to quell the revolt, Captain was accused of resorting to underhanded practices like digging old cases against ‘rebels’ and doling out jobs to MLAs’ sons.

Why a newcomer to the party, Navjot Singh Sidhu, who for long has been openly critical of his own government and the chief minister, be allowed frequent audience with the Gandhi family scions, a ‘privilege’ not accorded to Captain, himself a Sonia loyalist? The CM had a solitary meeting with Sonia Gandhi where the decision to appoint Sidhu was simply conveyed to him. His opposition to Sidhu’s elevation, later supported by the party MPs and a few MLAs, did not help. Amarinder’s suggestions on the appointment of working presidents were also ignored. The decision has virtually signalled an abrupt end to the political career of the Punjab CM beyond 2022 elections, despite his unwillingness to retire. Comparisons are already being made with the happenings in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh where the high command sided with the incumbent CM, and how they were never called to Delhi despite the rebel leaders having genuine grievances. The fact that Amarinder had openly criticised Rahul Gandhi’s leadership abilities in the past and threatened to break the party if not declared the CM candidate in 2017 could explain the high command’s current treatment of him.

Also read: Punjab Congress MLAs say CM didn’t fulfil promises, but they don’t want to bat for Sidhu either

Charge against Captain

To be fair, there have been genuine grievances against Captain for quite some time now. His government’s failure to fulfil the poll promises — of employment, farm debt waivers, power sector reforms, bringing back industries to the state, ending corruption, and transport, sand and land mafia raj — has been obvious. Amarinder Singh’s leadership style, which is characterised by over-dependence on a few trusted bureaucrats and inaccessibility even to his own party leaders, had been a contentious issue even in his earlier stint.

The issue that triggered the present crisis has been Captain’s failure to bring to justice the culprits responsible for the 2015 sacrilege and the subsequent firing on agitating Sikhs, a highly emotive issue in Punjab that may cause the Congress collateral damage because the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is going to raise it in a big way. The failure to check the drug menace and punish the Akali bigwigs allegedly involved in illegal trade has given rise to the popular perception about Captain being in tacit understanding with the Badals. These issues were also raised by other dissidents such as Pratap Singh Bajwa but Sidhu being most vociferous got the credit, turning it into a leadership fight when in reality, it is the dissidents’ concerns about their electoral future.

The question being raised is why did the high command not ask Captain to take corrective action earlier rather than staging a public hearing, much to the merriment of the opposition? It amounted to an open admission by the party leadership of its own government’s failure and yet allowing Captain to remain in office. Appointing four working party presidents from different social groups, ostensibly to redress the long-standing narrow social basis of political power in the state, looks like a clumsy effort to hoodwink the electorate from marginal political groups.

Also read: Anger at Amarinder’s ‘broken oath’ of 2015 still felt in epicentre of sacrilege row Faridkot

Sidhu and his limitations

So what is it that Sidhu brings to the table for the Congress that has enticed the Gandhi family to dump Captain? Was it the fear that Sidhu might have crossed over to the AAP? Or, is it the hope that he would help in mitigating the anti-incumbency factor against the Captain government? Sidhu, to his credit, has had a clean image as a politician, a rarity in a state where most, including Amarinder Singh, have faced corruption and other criminal charges. His public image as a celebrated cricketer, a media personality and a powerful orator has endeared him to the youth of Punjab, making him a crowd puller. Sidhu got much limelight during the Kartarpur ceremony, bringing him the Panthic support even when Amarinder Singh also deserved sharing credit. However, Sidhu hardly has any experience in organisational or governance matters. He has been seen as a rank opportunist, shifting his political affiliations. His credibility as a team man has also been suspected in the past.

It is obvious that the crisis in Congress is far from over, given the studied silence of Captain and his refusal to meet Sidhu. In the months ahead, the two leaders would try their best to undermine each other’s position, especially at the time of ticket distribution. Now, as the Gandhi family has sided with Sidhu, they would have personal stakes to ensure the party wins in the forthcoming election. Also, the high command would be under great pressure to resolve the Rajasthan issue where Sachin Pilot has been waiting silently and has a better claim than Sidhu.

Ashutosh Kumar is Professor, Department of Political Science, Panjab University, Chandigarh. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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