Opinion

Can Amarinder And Sidhu Lead Congress To Poll Battle As A United Army?

“We wanted a resolution but are moving towards an explosion.” That’s a party MP from Punjab on the situation in the local Congress after New Delhi snubbed Amarinder for Sidhu.

Can Amarinder And Sidhu Lead Congress To Poll Battle As A United Army?
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Throwing caution to the wind, interim Congress president Sonia Gandhi overruled chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh to make Navjot Singh Sidhu (in pic) the chief of the party’s Punjab unit. The decision follows Sidhu’s flagrant public display of disaffection towards Singh for months. Sidhu’s elevation marks a significant departure from Sonia’s hitherto practice of accommodating concerns of Congress satraps while making key organisational appointments. It signals an aggressive resolve, electoral risks notwithstanding, of the high command—Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi—to brandish authority anew over regional strongmen.

For months, the Congress’s central leadership was clamouring for an amicable resolution to the conflict. But what started off as a rebellion by leaders, including Sidhu, against Singh’s working style and his government’s alleged unfulfilled poll promises had, in recent weeks, narrowed down to a clash of two personalities. Sidhu was adamant on being made the party’s chief in Punjab, a proposition Singh opposed resolutely. Singh even shot off an angry letter to Sonia cautioning her that Sidhu’s appointment may split the party ahead of assembly polls due early next year. A chunk of Congress MLAs and 10 of the party’s 12 MPs from Punjab, several of them bitter critics of the CM until recently, backed Singh’s case against Sidhu.

Perhaps realising that dissension wasn’t yielding the result he desired, the Captain changed tack in the 48 hours preceding the final announcement. When he met party general secretary Harish Rawat in Chandigarh on July 17, he is learnt to have agreed to accept Sidhu as the PCC chief, but on some conditions. Singh wanted the Gandhis to grant him his choice of PCC working presidents. Also, Singh wanted Sidhu to publicly apologise to him for every criticism he had hurled at him.

The Gandhis weren’t looking for any more negotiations with Singh, who had single-handedly returned the party to power in Punjab in 2017 and delivered victories in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls and a series of bypolls and local elections. Sources close to Sidhu say there is “no question” of the former BJP leader who had joined the Congress in 2017 apologising to Singh. What’s more surprising is the Gandhis’ refusal to grant Singh the choice to pick working presidents. The four working presidents have been chosen according to the CM’s advice of respecting caste equations and regional representation, but none of them share a good rapport with him.

Congress insiders insist it was Rahul and Priyanka who prevailed upon the Congress matriarch to anoint the former cricketer as the PCC chief. With the Punjab assembly polls due in eight months and the internal squabbles ostensibly worse off than when Sonia first initiated her crisis-resolution exercise, Sidhu has a tough task ahead. For now, Singh has refused to even meet Sidhu and has excluded him from a lunch where all other party legislators were invited. Party sources say, with the exception of Amar Singh, the party’s Lok Sabha MP for Fathegarh Sahib and Rajya Sabha MP Ambika Soni, the other nine Congress MPs from Punjab remain opposed to Sidhu’s leadership.  

Sidhu is now on an overdrive to win over critics, except Singh, in the Punjab Congress by personally reaching out to them. The Captain, sources say, is in no mood to take the affront lightly. The possibility of Singh striking back to undermine Sidhu isn’t a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’. A party MP sums up the situation: “We wanted a resolution, but are now moving towards an explosion.” 

(This appeared in the print edition as "Captain and Skipper")

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