Just a day ahead of a crucial meeting with Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh came a tweet from his bitter opponent Navjot Singh Sidhu. In it, Sidhu seems to be suggesting that he does not care for any post. But that’s what the battle for Punjab ahead of the assembly elections in February is actually all about: who is going to head the state and who is going to be the face of the Congress party in the poll matchup early next year.
In his tweet, Sidhu said, “17 Years- Lok Sabha, Rajya Sabha, MLA, Minister… Just one Motive, to change the system that runs Punjab & Give back the Power of the People to the People. But when the system said No to every attempt for reform, I rejected the system, though it kept offering me Cabinet Berths!"
The dissension in Punjab Congress began after a faction contended that the ruling party cannot win next year’s assembly polls under Amarinder Singh’s leadership. The chief minister’s detractors are unhappy over his alleged failure to take action against those responsible for the Kotkapura police firing on a crowd who had been protesting incidents of ‘sacrilege’ in 2015, under-representation of Dalits in the government, as well as the perceived inaccessibility of the CM.
One of the solutions that has been offered is of two deputy chief ministers and one of them could be Sidhu. This is to ensure that there is not one number two to Amarinder Singh. The move is, of course, an attempt to placate the Captain. But Sidhu’s latest tweets show, and sources confirm to News18.com, that he is not keen on being a deputy chief minister. He actually wants to be the face of the party in the state elections and also to be the state Congress president, which is something that the party high command may not easily agree to. The fight is actually all about the Congress’s state leadership. Sunil Jakhar has made it very clear that he is ready to quit the job if the top brass asks him to do so.
Jakhar is considered to be close to Captain Amarinder Singh. In a poll-bound state, a chief minister would either want to be the state unit head or have someone who is close to him on the post because the person with the job has sway over ticket distribution, among other things. Names like Vijay Inder Singla were thrown up, as he is seen as close to both the Captain and Rahul Gandhi is doing the rounds. There was speculation about Manish Tewari as well, but there is no clarity on it. What becomes a challenge for the Congress leadership is to maintain a balance between Dalits and Jat Sikhs.
Sidhu has strengthened his position vis-à-vis the Gandhis by making the fight not about the post. He is trying to send the message that he is not going to be placated by any top post. Sidhu has made it a fight for ‘asmita’ (pride) for the people of Punjab. He has accused the state government of going slow on the probe in the Kotkapura case, thereby shielding the Badals. Captain, in his defence, had said that the special investigation team (SIT) formed earlier had given them a clean chit. This is an argument that has not been accepted by Sidhu and now, under pressure, another SIT has been formed. With this, Amarinder Singh hopes to blunt the criticism coming in from Sidhu.
The other issue that Sidhu is raising is that of the farmers. While the Captain appealed to the farmers to not go out in protest publicly against the Centre’s farm laws because of the Covid crisis, yet promising them that they have his support, Sidhu unfurled a black flag on the terrace of his home, in an attempt to make the point that he’s the only one who is actually a sympathiser of the farmers. On the Kotkapura case too, Sidhu is trying to project himself as the sole possible saviour of Punjab, a card that had always been played by Captain Amarinder Singh till now.
The Congress top leadership now has to maintain a fine balance in new appointments, to please both Navjot Singh Sidhu, and the Captain who will meet party leaders in Delhi on Tuesday.
It’s clear that Sidhu is not ready for any compromise in the name of being made deputy CM. But the Captain is unlikely to yield space to his biggest opponent. And this is where the problem lies for the top leadership of the Congress: it can’t let go of either the Captain or Sidhu.