New Delhi: On Saturday, 44-year-old Amarinder Singh Raja Warring beat many senior contenders to be named the new president of the Punjab Congress, replacing Navjot Singh Sidhu, who was asked to resign in light of the party’s disastrous performance in the recently held state assembly elections.
Warring, a former president of the Indian Youth Congress (IYC), served as transport minister in the previous state government under Charanjit Singh Channi. The Congress was ousted from power in March, as the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) swept the polls.
Channi and Sidhu failed to win the three seats they contested between them, as the Congress secured just 18 seats in the 117-member assembly. It also suffered defeat in the other four states that went to polls — Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Goa, and Manipur.
Sidhu, who was asked to resign along with the Congress chiefs of the other four states in order to “facilitate reorganisation” in state units, is yet to be given an organisational post in the Punjab Congress.
Sources in the party told ThePrint that the decision to make Warring the Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee (PPCC) chief was taken after multiple rounds of deliberations between the central leadership, led by party president Sonia Gandhi, and leaders from the state.
Warring’s appointment, a month after Sidhu resigned, comes at a time when months of infighting threaten to weaken the Congress’ organisational structure in Punjab, and there could be further upheaval due to the recent appointments.
Last week, Congress’ Lok Sabha MP from Ludhiana, Ravneet Bittu, met Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Delhi. In a tweet, Bittu said he had “discussed issues of Punjab” in the meeting, causing a stir within the party and in political circles.
A section within the Congress had told ThePrint at the time that this may have been a “signal to the high command” as they deliberated upon who would be the next PPCC chief. Others said it may indicate that Bittu is looking to jump ship to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Bittu is yet to make any further statement on the meeting. However, keeping him within the Congress fold may just be Warring’s first task as PPCC chief.
‘From Sotha to Warring’
Warring is a three-time MLA from Gidderbaha constituency in Punjab’s Muktsar district. Once mentored by former Congress MP Jagmeet Brar (who is now part of the Shiromani Akali Dal), the 44-year-old began his political career in 2000 with the Youth Congress in Muktsar.
Warring was reportedly known as ‘Raja Sotha’ before he entered politics. Interestingly, he was called ‘Raja’ in his childhood as he was the namesake of former Punjab CM Captain Amarinder Singh, whom his family looked up to. Ironically, when the turmoil between the Captain, Sidhu and the Gandhis came to the fore in 2021, Warring turned out to be one of Amarinder’s biggest critics in the Punjab Congress.
‘Sotha’ is the name of the native village of Warring’s maternal family in Muktsar. He reportedly started adding ‘Sotha’ to his name after his maternal uncles took him in and brought him up following his parents’ deaths when he was a child. He was advised to start using the name of his paternal village, Warring, as his surname when he entered politics. Raja Sotha thus became Raja Warring. However, amongst some sections of the All India Congress Committee (AICC), he is still referred to as Raja Brar, Brar being his maternal surname.
‘Handpicked by Rahul Gandhi’
Warring held several posts in the Youth Congress in Punjab before he was handpicked by Rahul Gandhi to contest from Gidderbaha in the 2012 state assembly elections.
He won the seat, handsomely defeating Manpreet Singh Badal — the estranged cousin of SAD chief Sukhbir Badal and then chief of the People’s Party of Punjab (PPP) — on his home turf. Manpreet has since joined the Congress and served as finance minister in the Amarinder Singh and Channi-led governments. However, a public rivalry between Warring and Manpreet Badal continues.
Warring then went on to serve as IYC president from 2014 to 2018, again at Rahul Gandhi’s behest, during which time he won the Gidderbaha seat for the second time during the 2017 Punjab elections.
In 2019, he contested the Lok Sabha elections from Bathinda against SAD’s Harsimrat Kaur Badal, but lost by a narrow margin.
Warring continues to be considered close to Rahul Gandhi, and his appointment is being seen as a part of the Gandhi scion’s efforts to reduce the influence of the party’s old guard in the central leadership as well as its state units.
Tough task to keep flock together
Apart from Warring, there were many other leaders in the running for the top post, including 65-year-old Partap Singh Bajwa, who has been named leader of the Congress Legislative Party (CLP) in the Punjab assembly. Names of former food minister and two-time MLA Bharat Bhushan Ashu (51), ex-deputy CM Sukhjinder Randhawa (63), former public works minister Vijay Inder Singla (50) and Ravneet Bittu (46) were also doing the rounds.
Ashu has been appointed as working president under Warring, while Chabbewal MLA Dr Raj Kumar has been made deputy CLP leader under Bajwa.
In the weeks after the election defeat, Sonia Gandhi met with MPs and leaders from Punjab to assess reasons for the loss and take their inputs on possible organisational changes.
Warring was thereafter tasked with holding together the party in the state while placating the aspirations of senior and junior leaders alike.
The decision to choose the Punjab Congress chief was a little more difficult for the high command, considering how a tussle amongst its top leadership in the state is seen as one of the reasons for the party’s poll loss.
In an internal power struggle that began in the second half of 2021, the Gandhi family offered support to Navjot Sidhu over Amarinder Singh. Singh thereafter resigned as chief minister and from the party, going on to form his own party called the Punjab Lok Congress. The party fought the assembly polls in alliance with the BJP, but Amarinder lost his seat.
While Sidhu was made Punjab Congress chief, replacing senior leader Sunil Jakhar, the CM’s chair was offered to Charanjit Singh Channi, a mere six months before polls. As Channi’s popularity as a leader of Dalit Sikhs grew, an internal war began once again, this time between the Sidhu, a Jatt Sikh, and Channi. A ceasefire was temporarily put in place just weeks before the elections, with the Gandhis announcing Channi as the party’s CM face.
At a March meeting of the Congress Working Committee (CWC), the party’s highest decision-making body, Sonia Gandhi had reportedly said that she “kept protecting” Amarinder “despite complaints against him”.
(Edited by Gitanjali Das)