Punjab, which goes to polls in eight months, is a state where the biggest political adversary of the ruling Congress is the party’s own so-called ‘high command’ or top national leadership, and the biggest issue is chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh fulfilling his 2017 election promise of punishing the powerful Badal family for the sacrilege cases of 2015, an assurance that had then propelled him to power.
On the face of it, the state would appear set for a sure-shot victory and a third term for Captain Amarinder Singh as chief minister at the age of 79. The state in fact could act as a springboard for the party in its preparations for the 2024 general elections. The farmer protests have worked in favour of the party and the CM who had made all the right noises to endear himself to the agricultural community in the state which is a decisive vote bank. His chief political opponent, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), has lost much credibility among farmers after the farm law ordinances were passed while SAD was part of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government. The consequent exit of Akali Dal from the NDA was seen more as a damage-control measure. The perception in the sacrilege cases had also cost SAD dearly in the 2017 polls. The Aam Aadmi Party, which emerged as the number two party in those Punjab elections, is a pale shadow of itself with no credible leadership while the BJP has little to no hope in the state.
But trust the Congress high command to complicate a winning battle through a public spectacle. Singh had to appear before a committee set up by the high command in Delhi last week to explain his stand on the likes of Navjot Singh Sidhu who have picked up the banner of revolt against him with friendly support from Congress Rajya Sabha lawmakers Partap Singh Bajwa and Shamsher Singh Dullo who have targeted Singh for long. Sidhu, a popular orator, seems to be playing by the mantra of “when your boss is backing you, go to town" by challenging Singh on the back of support from the Gandhi sister-brother duo and aiming for the position of the state Congress chief ahead of the polls. The dyed-in-the-wool CM has been quick to spot the trap, as he had worked towards being declared the CM after becoming the state party chief before the 2017 polls, and has nipped Sidhu’s ambitions in the bud. The Gandhis may still ensure Sidhu a big role in the campaign committee, at the risk of slighting Singh who argues that a premium should be put on seniority and loyalty rather than untested charisma.
The biggest issue
Veteran political observers in the state, however, term the Sidhu-Captain fight as a minor sideshow and say the real issue of the upcoming elections is action in the sacrilege and police firing cases of 2015. The likes of Sidhu and Bajwa have also attempted to corner Singh using this issue, saying people are angry over no action against the Badals for the past four and a half years. The CM also seems to have realised that making political promises and public pronouncements before elections is one thing and following the matter legally to its logical conclusion is quite another. He has still assured the Congress committee that action would happen in these cases within a couple of months and which could virtually seal the election for the party.
But those in the CM’s camp argue it is not true that people are angry with the government. “The Congress in Punjab swept the recent municipal polls, indicating that it continues to enjoy popular support in the absence of any strong opposition,” a leader close to the CM said. Singh inducted three AAP MLAs into the Congress just before meeting the committee, giving a clear message that the state election will be a one-horse race under his leadership. He also turned the tables while meeting the committee last week, saying Sidhu, Bajwa, Dullo and some others should be reined in as they were acting like the actual opposition to the Congress government. So will the Congress high command let Singh run the show?
We will know soon.