Chandigarh: Captain Amarinder Singh had his much-awaited meeting with Congress president Sonia Gandhi Tuesday over the ongoing turmoil within the Punjab unit of the party. At the end of the 80-minute long meeting, Singh emerged tight-lipped, reiterating just one thing: whatever Sonia Gandhi decides “would be acceptable to him.”
But in Punjab, the Congress’ state unit is increasingly growing restless, disgruntled and frustrated with the “lack of decision making.” Congress came to power in 2017 winning 80 of the 117 assembly seats — a feat at a time when the party’s performance had only declined nationally.
ThePrint spoke to close to two dozen Congress MLAs from various constituencies of Punjab, and several among them echoed a sense of “seeing victory move farther away with each passing day”, with barely eight months before the next state polls. The public infighting — with Navjot Singh Sidhu leading one camp, and CM Singh leading the other — does not seem to bear well for the party, the MLAs lamented.
But beyond the unforgiving optics of two of the party’s tallest state leaders at loggerheads with each other, the MLAs raised concerns on what they referred to as “very real issues”. These pertained to a long list of unfulfilled promises over the course of five years, inaccessibility of the CM, and lack of transparency within the government.
“There is a full list of promises that the Captain made ahead of the state polls. Cracking down on drugs mafia, ensuring that there is a conviction in the Bargari sacrilege case,etc. Not one of these have been fulfilled. With what face do we go back to the public then,” Pargat Singh, a former hockey player and Congress MLA from Jalandhar, told ThePrint.
However, when asked to suggest an alternate, not many MLAs want to put their money on Sidhu either.
“Sidhu is a popular face but that popularity cannot translate into votes for the party. Deepika Padukone is a very popular figure too, but that doesn’t mean that if she enters politics tomorrow she will turn the Modi wave,” said a senior office bearer of the party, who is a critic of the CM’s politics too.
Anger over unfulfilled promises
On Tuesday, when CM Singh was in Delhi to meet Sonia Gandhi, there were close to 5,000 government school teachers protesting in Mohali. They say they have been working as contractual employees in government schools for 15-20 years and were hopeful they would be made permanent and given better pay after the Congress made that promise during the 2017 polls.
“Some of us have salaries as little as Rs 6,000 per month. It’s been five years since Congress promised to make us permanent teachers, but nothing has been done,” said Sartaj Singh, a 45-year-old teacher at a government school in Gurdaspur.
This is only one of the promises that the Captain has been accused of falling short of fulfilling. The Congress government has been accused of not proactively dealing with the Bargari sacrilege case and subsequent police firing against the protesters in 2015.
“It is a very big and emotional issue. After all, the SAD suffered and lost an election over this very issue, we can’t afford to do the same,” said Kushaldeep Singh Dhillon, MLA from Faridkot, the epicentre of the protests in 2015.
The other issue that Sidhu has been raising aggressively is that of power cuts in the state, owing to the shortage of power supply during the peak paddy transplantation season. “Power shortage is common in Punjab, yes. But when it is added to the list of other unfulfilled promises, it can make matters worse,” said an MLA from the Malwa region.
‘Sidhu should know politics is not a T20 game’
For most MLAs, however, the biggest issue within the government is the “inaccessibility of the CM.” “Even for the simplest of things, it is so cumbersome and difficult to set up a meeting with him. This isn’t how a democratic government is supposed to function,” another MLA from a constituency in Malwa said.
Despite this lack of faith in the CM, many of his critics in the government aren’t willing to back Sidhu either.
“It’s been 20-25 years since Sidhu played cricket. Even then, you can argue he is still a popular face. But he has no governance record. Just a certain quarter in Delhi is overhyping him,” said a former MP and MLA who did not wish to be named.
Then, the allegations of inaccessibility levelled against the CM are also articulated against Sidhu. The former cabinet minister went completely off the radar for nearly two years since quitting the cabinet in 2019, re-emerged with a new gusto two months back, leading the charge against the CM.
“He can’t keep playing politics like it is some T20 match, he needs to decide if he is in this for the long run,” the leader added.
There are also some staunch supporters of the CM who don’t think anyone compares to him in terms of competence. “Who can beat the Captain? No one. Not in matters of competence or anything else,” said Kuldeep Singh Vaid, MLA from Ludhiana’s Gill constituency.
Even among those who are unhappy with Singh’s performance, there is a desire to find a solution “with Amarinder still on board.”
“If the high command snubs him the wrong way, a message will be sent that Congress doesn’t respect seniority. Then, the CM might even form his own outfit, or do whatever it takes to get his due. The repercussions of this will be felt in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh too,” the MLA from Malwa quoted above said.