Chandigarh: The Gandhi family intervened to dissuade Sachin Pilot from rocking the boat in Congress-ruled Rajasthan, but it has remained a mute spectator to a concerted attack by Rahul Gandhi’s trusted lieutenants on Punjab Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh, causing him and his government immense embarrassment.
Leading the attack on the Congress government over the recent hooch tragedy is Congress MP Partap Singh Bajwa, a known detractor of the chief minister. Supporting Bajwa are two other former Youth Congress leaders who are known to be close to the former Congress president — Ludhiana MP Ravneet Singh Bittu and Gidderbaha MLA Amarinder Singh Raja Warring.
Another leader who has joined Bajwa in attacking the government is MP Shamsher Singh Dullo.
Bajwa and Dullo had got Rajya Sabha nominations in 2016 with the support of the party high command, which had chosen them over the then Punjab Congress chief Amarinder Singh’s nominees.
Consumption of spurious liquor led to the death of 121 people in three border districts of Punjab earlier this month. While the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) has gone on an offensive against the Congress government, what is generating more news is the support the opposition party is getting from Singh’s detractors in the Congress.
Political analysts say the whole episode should be seen in the context of the 2022 assembly elections, noting that there might be a message to the Gandhis’ silence.
Rahul vs Amarinder
On 3 August, Bajwa and Dullo met Governor V.P. Singh Badnore to seek CBI and ED investigations into the “existence of liquor mafia” in the state. In their letter to the governor, they highlighted that two illegal distilleries had been discovered in Rajpura and Ghanaour, both of which are in Patiala, the home district of Chief Minister Amarinder Singh and the parliamentary constituency of his wife.
“The functioning of illegal distilleries in the home district of the Chief Minister speaks volumes of lawlessness and administrative failure of the government,” the two wrote.
A day before that, Ravneet Singh Bittu pointed out in a tweet that “this nexus is not limited to a handful of officers”. “The real roots (sic) of this problem are some political people involved in this illegal activity,” he wrote.
— Ravneet Singh Bittu (@RavneetBittu) August 2, 2020
Congress MLA Amarinder Singh Raja Warring demanded stricter action against the erring officials.
Although Punjab party chief Sunil Jakhar has come out in defence of the state’s Congress government, Rahul Gandhi has refrained from instructing his lieutenants in Punjab to not attack the CM, who remains the party’s best bet in 2022 assembly elections.
It’s an open secret in Congress circles that there is no love lost between Gandhi and Amarinder. The high command has reservations against the CM’s independent style of functioning.
According to sources, when a Congress leader suggested to Amarinder once that he should start addressing the former party president as “Rahulji”, Amarinder quipped, “But, why? I was senior to his father (late Rajiv Gandhi) in Doon School. In fact, he should call me ‘uncle’.”
After Congress leaders started attacking their own government, the state unit chief said he will be writing to interim president Sonia Gandhi to act against the “brazen indiscipline” of Bajwa and Dullo.
“It is time to stem the rot and save the Congress from the petty machinations of the likes of Bajwa and Dullo who had no shame in biting the hand that feeds them,” Jakhar said at a press conference last week, adding that the attack of the two MPs was a “copy-paste job” of what happened in Rajasthan in January in the wake of 107 infant deaths at a Kota hospital.
At the time, Sachin Pilot, who was then the Deputy Chief Minister of Rajasthan, had flayed his own government for not showing enough compassion in response to the tragedy. “Had action been taken against Pilot then itself, what is happening today in Rajasthan could have been avoided,” he said, referring to Pilot’s rebellion last month that has now been buried.
In response, Bajwa lashed out against Jakhar on Twitter.
"This is my official comment on the press conference held earlier today by PPCC President, Sh. Sunil Jakhar. I fundamentally disagree with belief of ignoring or glossing over the deaths of 117 innocent individuals in the name of party discipline. 1/n" https://t.co/piAaDoZldf
— Partap Singh Bajwa (@Partap_Sbajwa) August 4, 2020
“Sh Dullo and I had no personal agenda but, if we did not have the courage to raise this issue, then we would have failed in our duty as representatives of the people of Punjab in the Parliament of India. I had not bartered away my conscience for a seat in a former Maharaja’ s durbar,” wrote Bajwa.
“I thought Captain Amarinder Singh alone was enough to cause harm to the interests of Punjab; sadly now he has received much needed help and support from Sh Jakhar also.”
Some cabinet ministers Thursday (6 August) pitched for the MPs’ “dismissal… without any laxity or delay”. “Indiscipline could not be tolerated at any time, least of all when assembly elections in the state are less than two years away,” they said in a joint press statement.
The cracks exposed by the hooch tragedy now seem to be extending across other fronts.
On Saturday, the government withdrew the security cover provided to Bajwa by state police. Bajwa had the cover because his family has been on the hit-list of Sikh militants.
The government said “an assessment has shown” that Bajwa has “virtually no threat perception” and is, in any case, getting central security from the union home ministry.
Bajwa has described the move as an act of vendetta. “I had spoken openly against the failure of the administration in the state and the improper functioning of the chief minister,” he said on Twitter 8 August. “Obviously Captain Amarinder Singh in his usual manner has had to resort to hitting below the belt by withdrawing my security and exposing my whole family to risk.”
My response on security withdrawal by the Punjab Government. pic.twitter.com/sKYNZb6xuZ
— Partap Singh Bajwa (@Partap_Sbajwa) August 8, 2020
In a letter to Punjab Director General of Police (DGP) Tuesday, Bajwa described the decision as “complete abdication of professional integrity and impartiality in the discharge of your duties”.
— Partap Singh Bajwa (@Partap_Sbajwa) August 11, 2020
Amarinder had Monday defended the decision in a government communique, saying it was inexplicable why Bajwa was attempting to link the review with his confrontation with the state government. Bajwa, he added, had himself “chosen to trigger” the confrontation “without any basis”.
Friends turned foes
Bajwa and Amarinder had fallen apart in 2012 after the Congress lost the assembly elections for the second time in a row, and the former blamed the Captain for the party’s debacle. In 2013, Amarinder was replaced with Bajwa as Punjab Congress chief, a move that is said to have deeply upset him.
An ugly tussle for the party’s leadership in the state continued for two years and Amarinder was finally made the chief in 2015. Bajwa is believed to have been given the Rajya Sabha seat in lieu of this. For the second RS seat up for election that year, Amarinder batted for singer-turned-politician Hans Raj Hans but Dullo protested. Bajwa’s closeness to the party high command helped Dullo pip Amarinder’s choice to the seat.
Amarinder went on to lead the party in the 2017 assembly elections, which the Congress won. Bajwa has been publicly vocal in criticising the chief minister ever since.
In September last year, Bajwa had accused Amarinder of “hoodwinking” the people into believing that action will be taken in the 2015 sacrilege cases.
Speaking to ThePrint, political scientist Dr Kanwalpreet Kaur of DAV College, Chandigarh, said she sees “the spat as the beginning of a change that will be more visible in the days to come”.
“Firstly, it is two years to the Punjab elections and Bajwa is looking for a larger role to play in state politics. Secondly, in supporting Bajwa, the high-command might also be thinking of sending a strong signal to Captain Amarinder and Sunil Jakhar that they need to pull their socks up,” she added.
“Third, such episodes bring out the latent or simmering discontentment and potential weak links in the chain. From the point of view of the party high-command, this is a good thing if they want to strengthen the party ahead of the elections.”
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