Opinion

Congress In A Bind As Infighting Threatens To Derail Amarinder’s Re-election Bid In Punjab

Despite the BJP heading for a near-rout in one of the three states governed by the Congress, retaining power won’t be easy for Amarinder Singh

Congress In A Bind As Infighting Threatens To Derail Amarinder’s Re-election Bid In Punjab
info_icon

Less  than nine months before Punjab votes a new government, commonsense dictates that the Congress focuses its energy to retain power in one of the three states it governs. But then, political pragmatism is anathema to the party’s praxis. For months, the party’s central leadership has been dousing factional fires in its Punjab unit that were left simmering for nearly three years without decisive and pre-emptive intervention.

The power game within the Congress is now in its final lap with the party’s central leadership—Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra—having held separate discussions with almost all stakeholders. The meeting between chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh and party chief Sonia a fortnight ago indicated that the Punjab impasse may finally end. The party’s general secretary in-charge of Punjab, Harish Rawat, insists that an “amicable resolution” is in the offing, with a revamp of Singh’s cabinet and the party’s state unit likely soon.

The mutiny by Punjab’s Congress leaders forced Sonia to set up a three-member panel headed by Mallikarjun Kharge. The panel met over 150 leaders and made an avoidable public spectacle of summoning the CM twice to Delhi. While Congress sources insist that most dissenters have been pacified, they also concede that a ­formula to rein in cricketer-turned-­politician Navjot Singh Sidhu remains elusive. Sidhu’s long meeting with the Gandhi siblings earlier this July was supposed to pacify the mercurial leader who had quit the BJP to join the Congress five years ago. But, the former cricketer has continued with his broadside against the CM. The Amritsar East MLA’s rebellious ways, say sources, have irked the high command. Rahul aide and Ludhiana MP Ravneet Singh Bittu says Sidhu “is damaging the party by repeatedly attacking the government when our leadership is trying to resolve the crisis...there should be no place in the party for such indiscipline”.

Singh is learnt to have told Sonia that he would urgently employ all the correctives that the high command has suggested, but “cannot be held responsible” for anything that Sidhu does. “We discussed internal matters of the party and whatever decision she takes as far as Punjab is concerned, we are ready to accept. We are geared up for the ­elections and we will collectively strengthen the party,” Singh told ­reporters after meeting Sonia.

info_icon

The public posturing aside, Congress sources admit that the proposed ­revamp in Punjab will be tricky. A ­senior party leader says: “Sidhu is ­insistent on being named the Punjab Congress chief and has rebuffed the offer of deputy chief minister, but the CM and most other leaders are opposed to him being made the state unit president.” Singh, a Jat Sikh like Sidhu, has informed Sonia that the state unit chief must be a Hindu to balance caste/community equations in Punjab. The Congress, sources say, is open to naming Sidhu as chairman of its campaign committee for the election, but he hasn’t warmed up to the idea. There are others in the party who believe Sidhu is just another tweet away from quitting the Congress and joining the AAP ­despite the renegade leader repeatedly dissing Arvind Kejriwal’s promise of replicating his famously populist Delhi model of governance in Punjab.

As Congress leaders fight among themselves, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and AAP are already in election mode. They are going after Singh’s ­allegedly autocratic conduct and his government’s unfulfilled poll promises. In rural Punjab, anger is growing against inflated power bills and ­frequent outages, threatening to derail possible gains the Congress may have made due to the farmers’ anger against the BJP and SAD over the three ­contentious farm laws. Rising ­unemployment, continuing menace of drugs and sand mining mafia, and the government’s failure in securing ­convictions in the 2015 sacrilege cases against SAD leaders have collectively brought the Captain under fire.

Sidhu has accused Singh of working “in cahoots with the Badals” (Akali Dal patriarch Parkash Singh Badal and Sukhbir Singh Badal) and protecting controversial Akali strongman Bikram Majithia. AAP MLA Harpal Singh Cheema, leader of Opposition in the Punjab assembly, echoes the same view and accuses the CM of giving “huge ­advertisements claiming his government has fulfilled all its promises.... Everything has been done on paper, while the situation on the ground is worse than it was when the Congress came to power in 2017.”

AAP is in the process of unveiling its poll manifesto for the state, a glimpse of which Kejriwal gave recently by ­promising 300 units of free electricity to every Punjabi household. The party made an impressive debut in the Punjab polls in 2017 by winning 20 of the 117 seats and displacing SAD as the main opposition party against the 77-MLA-strong Congress. In the state’s Malwa region, a traditional Akali ­bastion, AAP won 18 of the 69 seats. However, the party has been in ­disarray since. Over half of its MLAs have either quit or turned rebels. The party is now trying to lure disgruntled BJP and Congress leaders, including Sidhu, to its fold.

To offset the impact of AAP’s populist pronouncements, the Congress is likely to promise similar sops and assert that the Amarinder government’s power subsidy model is better than Kejriwal’s. Congress leaders insist that the current public anger over overblown electricity bills is the legacy of the power purchase agreements (PPA) of the previous SAD-BJP government that spelt windfall for private thermal power plants at the ­expense of the public. SAD chief Sukhbir Badal dismisses allegations of his party’s largesse to private power companies. “If cancelling the PPAs will give Punjabis cheap power, the Amarinder government must do so,” Badal says, accusing the Congress and AAP of “playing politics” on the issue.

The Congress is also somewhat rattled with the aggressive outreach that its ­rivals are planning to win over Punjab’s nearly 32 per cent Dalit vote bank. Both AAP and the Akalis have promised a Dalit deputy CM if voted to power. A desperate BJP has gone a step further by questioning why the Jat Sikh-dominated state can’t have a Dalit CM. The Congress may appoint a Dalit ­deputy to Singh when his cabinet is ­revamped in the coming weeks. The Akalis, who until 2017 were the Congress’s main rivals in Punjab, have clinched a pre-poll alliance with Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). The alliance is an attempt to offset loss of Hindu and Khatri Sikh votes in urban areas that the Akalis counted on in the past owing to their alliance with the BJP. The SAD-BJP ­alliance ended ­following the Centre’s decision to ram through three ­controversial farm laws in Parliament that have enraged farmers.

Advertisement

info_icon
Delhi Model

Kejriwal has promised 300 units of free electricity to every household in Punjab.

Veteran journalist and rebel AAP MLA Kanwar Sandhu says simply promising the deputy CM’s post for Dalits won’t guarantee poll victory. Sandhu says the Congress government’s performance has been “below par on most counts”, but the party still has the best chance of winning the 2022 polls. “If BSP’s vote share increases from the 2017 tally of 1.5 per cent to about three per cent, the conversion in terms of seats won can be huge and benefit the Akalis too,” says Sandhu. Congress MP Manish Tewari disagrees, stating that the “SAD-BSP alliance is a non-starter.… The BSP stands little chance of victory in the 20 odd seats allotted to it; we don’t even know if this alliance will last till the assembly polls because of the resentment within Punjab BSP over seat sharing.”

Advertisement

The only electoral certainty in Punjab that almost all parties agree on is that the BJP is heading for a near-rout. The party was always a marginal political player in the state, piggybacking on SAD. However, it had electoral clout in pockets of the state’s Majha and Doaba regions that account for 25 and 23 seats respectively. The wrath of the farmers against the BJP in ­predominantly agrarian Punjab has now left the party with no allies.

The coming weeks are crucial for the Congress. It needs to display dexterity in dealing with internal turmoil and putting voters at ease. For its rivals—AAP and SAD—the next nine months will be a test of reinvention and revival, while the BJP may finally realise that muscular policies don’t always pay electoral dividends. The Congress is hopeful of retaining the state because of a splintered Opposition and the farmers’ anger against both SAD and BJP. But there’s a possible twist too. Congress leaders are wary that with the Centre not budging on the farm laws, the more ambitious and aggressive farmers ­unions may branch out of the ‘apolitical’ conglomerate of the Samyukta Kisan Morcha and prop up ‘independent kisan candidates’, thereby damaging not just the Akalis and the BJP, but even the Congress. Bhartiya Kisan Union leader Gurnam Singh Chaduni’s exhortation to farmers for making an electoral foray through “Mission Punjab” is a new political challenge for an already beleaguered Captain to deal with.

Advertisement

(This appeared in the print edition as "The Forced Hand")

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement