Party veteran and CM Amarinder Singh or stormy petrel and former India cricketer Navjot Singh Sidhu? The Congress is seemingly torn between the two political poles within the party’s Punjab unit. Especially when the state is headed for Assembly polls early next year, the party needs to get its act together if it wants to hold on to power. But some commentators say that the upcoming polls may be the reason for the current crisis as state leaders look to get into position to secure their interests when election tickets are handed out. Here’s all you need to know about the troubles within Punjab Congress.
Why Is Sidhu Unhappy?
The Guru Granth Sahib sacrilege case that rocked Punjab in 2015 and was seen as a key cause behind the ouster of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) government in the 2017 polls can be considered to be the immediate trigger for the spat within Congress.
The Punjab and Haryana High Court had in April this year thrown out a report into the case of police firing on people protesting against the sacrilege of the sacred text in Kotkapura town in 2015, when the Parkash Singh Badal-led SAD government was in power in the state.
Quashing the report of the Special Investigation Team (SIT) set up by the Amarinder Singh government, the HC had asked for a fresh team to be constituted. Without doubt an emotive issue in Punjab, the failure of the Congress government to bring the culprits in the matter to book sparked fresh controversy. It was in reaction to HC’s order that Sidhu hit out against his own party and called for the report of the SIT to be made public amid allegations that Amarinder was protecting the Badals.
But there is background to Sidhu’s displeasure with Amarinder. In 2019, Sidhu had quit the Punjab Cabinet reportedly over issues regarding an election ticket for his wife and the decision by the CM to strip him of the portfolios of local government and tourism and culture ministry. Though Amarinder had then said that Sidhu was to get a key portfolio in a Cabinet reshuffle, the cricketer-turned-politician chose to leave the government. What had raised eyebrows at the time was his move to send his resignation letter to Rahul Gandhi.
What’s Fuelled The Turmoil Within?
The wisps of dissent that Sidhu sent up over HC’s Kotkapura firing verdict soon gathered more force as Congress leaders in the state expressed anger over several other factors at a time when the government was grappling with the Covid-19 crisis while farmers in the state were on the warpath against the Centre’s controversial farm laws.
Reports said that close to 40 Congress MLAs in the state — half of the party’s total in the Punjab Assembly — told the Congress high command that all was not well on the ground and people were dissatisfied with the Amarinder Singh government over issues like the failure to close the sacrilege and firings case and inability to rein in the drug mafia in the state.
Sidhu has openly accused Amarinder of being hand in gloves with the Badals and that the CM was ignoring his party’s MLAs. In a tweet on May 9, he said, “Consensus among MLAs, Badal Sarkar is ruling in lieu of Congress Govt… Bureaucracy and Police act as per wishes of Badal Family, more often than listening to our MLAs and Party workers. Govt run not for welfare of the People, but for continuing control of Mafia Raj."
Reports say that sections of Punjab Congress MLAs have also complained to the party’s top rung about what they claim is Amarinder’s high-handedness in dealing with junior colleagues. Moreover, complaints against the CM have also now touched upon issues of the alleged operation of land, sand, drug, cable and illicit liquor mafia in the state.
Where Does The High Command Stand?
Amid the brewing troubles among its netas in Punjab, Congress set up a three-member committee led by senior leader Mallikarjun Kharge to provide a report on the crisis. The panel is reported to have met the CM and all the Punjab Congress MLAs ahead of submitting its report this week to Congress president Sonia Gandhi.
The perception among political circles and commentators is that Punjab represents Congress’s best bet in the elections next year. The other four states — UP, Uttarakhand, Manipur and Goa — do not paint the prospects that Punjab presents. With the farm protests seen as having put paid to BJP’s chances and the SAD seemingly in a disjointed state, the state will be Congress’s to lose as the fledgling AAP appears to be its strongest opponent in the poll arena.
At this juncture, infighting will be the last thing the high command wants but here, commentators point out, it may be Sidhu’s perceived proximity to Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi that may have added another layer to the crisis. Among the solutions speculated upon in the media is for a Cabinet reshuffle to bring Sidhu back in the government as a deputy CM. There is also talk of a change in the post of the Punjab Congress president by shuffling out Sunil Jakhar.
But while a change in the government and party ranks may be seen as a tactic for beating away any anti-incumbency ahead of the polls, the view among experts is also that the party may suffer electorally if Amarinder is completely sidelined.