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Sidhu Gets Upper Hand vs Captain as High Command Asserts Dominance, Akalis & AAP Smell a Chance

Sidhu’s appointment as Congress state chief will make it a direct contest between Sidhu (57) and Sukhbir Badal (59), who is being projected by the Akali Dal as its chief ministerial face. (PTI)

Sidhu’s appointment as Congress state chief will make it a direct contest between Sidhu (57) and Sukhbir Badal (59), who is being projected by the Akali Dal as its chief ministerial face. (PTI)

The real grouse in Captain’s camp remains that Sidhu used his access to Priyanka Gandhi Vadra to get what he wanted and a seemingly winnable election till three months ago has been botched up with poor handling by the high command.

In the Captain versus Skipper tussle inside the Congress in Punjab, Navjot Singh Sidhu has now got the upper hand by being appointed as the Punjab Congress Chief against the wishes of Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh. This is set to spice up the three-cornered election in Punjab in 2022.

The party sees it as a smart move to bring a fresh face forward in Sidhu to blunt the anti-incumbency and general negativity against the Captain-led Congress in Punjab, attempt a generational change with Captain touching 80 as the oldest serving CM in the country, and most importantly assert the party High Command’s dominance and control. Captain, however, remains a master of underarm bowling with many tricks up his veteran sleeve and would look to trump Sidhu post elections to the CM’s chair if the party wins.

Congress Vs Congress

The manner in which the appointment finally came, amidst persisting acrimony, shows it is now Congress versus Congress first in Punjab. The chief minister has said he would meet Sidhu only after a public apology from him for his statements against the CM in tweets and media interviews.

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The CM’s letter and phone call to Sonia Gandhi to not make Sidhu the party chief has also fallen on deaf ears. The two may eventually share a campaign stage and have a photo-op soon with a customary Punjabi jhappi (hug) but their mutual mistrust and a bitter tussle on ticket distribution is imminent.

The real grouse in Captain’s camp remains that Sidhu used his access to Priyanka Gandhi Vadra to get what he wanted and a seemingly winnable election till three months ago has been botched up with poor handling by the high command.

But Vadra convinced Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi on Sidhu’s case that the party can win in Punjab only if Sidhu gets a top position or anti-incumbency will drown the party. Congress is attempting something it did not in Madhya Pradesh with Jyotiraditya Scindia or in Rajasthan with Sachin Pilot – making space right at top for young blood.

The high command has also sent a message that its decision matters the most. Captain may still be made the head of the campaign committee to soften this blow while Rajya Sabha MP Partap Singh Bajwa may get charge of the manifesto committee. But the creation of the two power centers, one in the party and the other in government, may mean the two will work at cross-ends rather than together as the moot issue now will be who becomes CM if Congress wins in Punjab. What does not help is Captain not having a high opinion about Sidhu’s electoral appeal or administrative skills and considering him unreliable and one propped up with no real support base.

Sidhu has tried to lately counter that criticism by meeting a battery of MLAs, ministers and former Punjab Congress chiefs to project a more accommodative version of himself, even as Captain made his moves to derail the impending appointment. Seeing the winds of change and the ‘future’, many MLAs and ministers have made a beeline for Sidhu now.

“His campaign will be high-voltage. He will take on the Badals like no one else. It will electrify the Congress cadre and set the tone for the elections after his visit to Amritsar and Golden Temple,” an MLA aide of Sidhu said.

Akali Dal Banks on a New Narrative under Sukhbir

Sidhu’s appointment as Congress state chief will make it a direct contest between Sidhu (57) and Sukhbir Badal (59), who is being projected by the Akali Dal as its chief ministerial face. The party has also stitched an alliance with the BSP that could hold it in good stead in the Doaba region.

However, what the Akali Dal really needs is a new agenda and repositioning itself around the issue of development as the party suffered heavy anti-incumbency in 2017 since it was seen as corrupt, privileged and indulging in growing its many businesses. The farmer issue is also weighed against it.

The Badals faced maximum anger of people in 2017 on the issue of the sacrilege-police firing incidents in Faridkot in 2015 and the drugs issue. With Sidhu now in the forefront with these issues top on his agenda, Badals could expect coercive action against them in both these matters before the elections, including possible arrests after the Badal father-son duo have been questioned by a Special Investigation Team (SIT) lately.

But such a development could also work towards generating sympathy for them and consolidate their cadre. The power crisis in Punjab also could not have come at a better time for the Akali Dal which claims it left the state with zero power cuts while going out of power. But the lopsided private power purchase agreements signed by Akali Dal still remain an issue against it.

AAP’s Second Shot

Aam Aadmi Party sees a real chance for itself in these elections amidst the infighting in the Congress and continued negativity amongst people against the Akali Dal. So far, the party has made all the right moves – like getting former SIT chief Kunwar Pratap Singh on board to give a fillip to the party’s chances in Amritsar’s Majha region where the sacrilege issue is big this time. The party has also promised a Sikh chief ministerial Face before the elections and is said to be on talks with the likes of senior farmer leader from Punjab, Balbir Singh Rajewal.

It has also promised free power up to 300 units for all households in Punjab and scrapping of the power purchase agreements if it wins. But AAP still has a lot of ground to cover in Punjab.

AAP also faces the challenge of being thwarted in every possible way by the BJP which though seems a bit player in these elections after the farmer protests and break up with Akali Dal, would leave no stone unturned to stop AAP from winning Punjab. Akali Dal MP Naresh Gujral in fact revealed to News18 earlier that BJP in the last elections had transferred its votes to Congress to stop AAP from winning in Punjab. This could mean BJP may still work behind the scenes with any party to stop AAP’s growth.

All this leaves one big question – Will Captain choose to realign after the public snub from the Congress high command and break ranks to float his own party or join another one? It may look unlikely but seeing what has happened in Punjab, one can only say politics is the art of the impossible.

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first published:July 19, 2021, 07:56 IST