The Congress central leadership’s ambitious peace plan for ending the prolonged bickering between Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh and rebel MLA Navjot Singh Sidhu seems to have hit yet another hurdle. Hours after media speculations spiralled out of control in New Delhi, on July 15, over Harish Rawat, the party’s general secretary in-charge of Punjab, alluding to Sidhu’s imminent appointment as chief of the Punjab Congress, the Captain, it is learned, raised a red flag over the ostensibly ‘unilateral and arbitrary informal announcement’.
Singh, party sources say, made his displeasure over the possibility of Sidhu being made Punjab Congress chief known to interim Congress chief Sonia Gandhi. The CM is learned to have reiterated his reservations over Sidhu’s elevation in Punjab. In what could become for the Congress high command a problem far greater than Sidhu’s rebellion, sources close to Singh say, that should the so-called peace plan be rolled out, the erstwhile Maharaja of Patiala would not contest the assembly polls due in the state early next year as a Congress candidate. For the high command, this should give a sense of déjà vu as in the run-up to the 2017 assembly polls Singh had almost walked out of the party because Rahul Gandhi was not keen on projecting the Captain as the party’s CM face. Singh stayed back only after Sonia personally assured him that he would be made the CM if the party won and Rahul made an announcement to this effect just a week before Punjab voted.
“There is no question of him working under Sidhu or taking instructions from him on matters related to the party organisation, candidate selection, and poll campaign in the state,” an aide of the CM said. As reported by Outlook earlier, poll strategist and Singh's political advisor, Prashant Kishor, who met Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra earlier this week, is also said to have cautioned the Gandhis that a free pass to Sidhu on running affairs of the Punjab Congress may be counter-productive for the party ahead of the assembly polls. Kishor is learned to have told the Gandhis that Sidhu’s appointment as PCC chief may not just trigger defections from Congress to Opposition outfits like AAP and the Akali Dal but could indeed force Singh to declare that he won’t contest the polls under Sidhu’s leadership.
Party sources say that Priyanka’s insistence on giving in to Sidhu’s demand of being made the PCC chief is based on considerations for the future of the party in the state. “By the time we go to polls next year, Singh would have turned 80 years old. Priyanka seems to think that the party needs start working on a generational shift now and she sees Sidhu as a popular Jat Sikh face who has a strong appeal within his community and also the youth of Punjab. This is what is perhaps driving her to push so hard for accommodating Sidhu even though her advocacy for him is causing deep unrest within the state Congress and could ultimately cost us the election,” says a party leader.
Party sources confirmed that the high command was indeed keen on a formula that envisaged Singh continuing as CM and leading the poll campaign next year but with Sidhu as the PCC chief working in harmony with two working presidents from the Dalit and Hindu communities. However, leaders privy to these discussions maintain that the peace plan was still in the works as Singh’s views remained to be sought. Those close to the CM maintain that Rawat’s purported premature endorsement of the so-called peace formula has left Singh fuming at what he sees as yet another personal affront.
What gave the game away over the CM’s strident disapproval of the so-called peace formula, say Congress sources, was a tweet by Raveen Thukral, the media advisor to the Punjab CM. Thukral’s tweet read: “Media reports of CM @capt_amarinder resigning are humbug. He has neither quit nor offered to do so. He’ll lead @INCPunjab to victory in 2022 Assembly polls as he did in 2017. Urge media to stop speculating & spreading misinformation.” Interestingly, at the time Thukral posted the tweet no major media network had reported about Singh resigning. The discourse, until then had firmly been around Sidhu’s appointment as the PCC chief and Singh’s continuation as the state’s chief minister.
To undo the damage, Sonia summoned Rawat and directed him to clear the air. She also held discussions with veteran party leader and former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Kamal Nath on the Punjab impasse and other organisational matters. Nath shares a strong personal rapport with Singh and in 2017 was briefly made the party’s in-charge for Punjab before being hurriedly replaced with senior Himachal legislator Asha Kumari because the Akalis and BJP raked up old allegations of Nath’s involvement in inciting the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. Sonia, sources say, has asked Nath to pacify Singh and prevent him from taking any step that may damage Congress. It is a different matter that Nath’s meeting with Sonia triggered a completely different set of rumours – those about his possible elevation as the party’s national working president, which Nath stridently denied.
On his part, Rawat clarified that he had been misquoted. He asserted that in response to a query on whether Singh will continue as the CM while Sidhu may be made the PCC chief along with two working presidents, he had simply told the news channel that “something along these lines” could be rolled out soon.
Those close to Singh insist that since his meeting with Sonia earlier this month the CM has shown “great urgency” in addressing the concerns raised against his administration by his detractors, including Sidhu, during their discussions with the three-member panel constituted by the Congress president to iron out problems in Punjab Congress. “In just the past week, the CM has taken decisive measures about unfulfilled poll promises like farm loan waiver and sorting the mess created by the earlier Akali Dal-BJP government in the power sector. Other grievances of party leaders will also be addressed very soon,” says a Singh confidante.
On July 15, while news of Sidhu’s likely elevation was causing hysteria in the media, Singh announced his government’s decision to waive loans of 2.85 lakh farmers and farm labourers collectively amounting to Rs. 590 crore. A few days earlier, Singh had declared that his government was exploring legal options to “neutralize the ill-effects of the Power Purchase Agreements signed (with private thermal power companies) by the SAD-BJP government to burden the people of Punjab and fill their own pockets and those of the Badals.” The PPAs have been a source of much grief to Singh with his political rivals, including those within the Congress like Sidhu, repeatedly attacking him on the issue of inflated electricity bills, power outages, and other related matters.
Singh’s decisions, however, haven’t helped pacify Sidhu. The garrulous Amritsar MLA, it is learned, maintains that the CM was forced to take these steps because of his rebellion. Sidhu is learned to have told his supporters and other Congress colleagues who are unhappy with Singh’s leadership that he has Priyanka’s assurance on being appointed the PCC chief. Soon after Rawat’s purported statement triggered a fresh row in Punjab, Sidhu huddled into a meeting with some of Singh’s critics, including three senior ministers in the Punjab government. Singh, on his part, too reached out to his loyalists in Punjab Congress and also to other leaders with who he has had run-ins in the past but who aren’t happy with the idea of a Sidhu-led Punjab Congress.
A senior party leader told Outlook that the Punjab puzzle will take a while longer to solve and that all eyes are now on Priyanka, Sidhu’s principal advocate. “If Priyanka decides to override the CM and scores of other party leaders who have expressed strong reservations against Sidhu’s appointment as PCC chief then she risks pushing Singh out of the party. It is now up to the Gandhis to decide who they need more to win Punjab – a two-term CM who has pan-Punjab popularity and has a proven record of winning elections for the Congress or an unpredictable nuisance maker who left the BJP to join the Congress just five years ago and is now threatening to jump ship again. If the high command has any interest in reviving the Congress, it should not be a difficult choice to make,” he says.