For the Congress, humiliating a much respected, incumbent Chief Minister by forcing him out of office — as has happened with Punjab’s Captain Amarinder Singh — without giving him the opportunity to answer the charges posed by an upstart challenger is an act of political hara-kiri. It sends out a range of negative messages, not just to the redoubtable Captain, but to the rank and file.
Even in a party with a strong national leadership, this sort of cavalier behaviour would, in the long term, weaken its foundations. In the Congress, a mere shadow of the Grand Old Party it once was, and where the central leadership today lacks both gravitas and authority, it is nothing short of disastrous.
Today, Sonia Gandhi is interim President and remains in the background. Her heir, Rahul Gandhi, is not President, but he and, increasingly, his sister, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who is general secretary for Uttar Pradesh, run the party. They do so with the assistance of those referred to in Congress circles as “their staff members”, not seasoned veterans like the late Ahmed Patel, or the likes of Ambika Soni or Ghulam Nabi Azad, who command respect and have the experience to cool tempers and sort out factional fights. Indeed, Sonia Gandhi’s politics by consensus has been given a total go-by and been replaced with arbitrary decisions based on advice given by those with little experience, or worse, agendas that have nothing to do with the welfare of the party.
No Lessons Learnt
Indeed, the Punjab episode highlights what is wrong with the Congress today, especially as it comes close on the heels of the way in which the central leadership has fanned factionalism in the only other two states where it now has Chief Ministers — Rajasthan and Chattisgarh.
In 2020, it may be recalled, the inability of the leadership to find someone effective to mediate between the groups led by then Chief Minister Kamal Nath and Jyotiraditya Scindia (who has since joined the Bharatiya Janata Party and been made a Rajya Sabha MP) led to the collapse of the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh. It was replaced by a BJP dispensation in the state after Scindia’s dramatic exit led to an exodus from the Congress.
In Chattisgarh, the feud between Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel and state Health Minister TS Singh Deo continues unabated. On Monday, September 20, Singh Deo arrived in Delhi to continue with his campaign to replace Baghel as Chief Minister — as Rahul Gandhi had promised him that after two and a half years of Congress rule, he would take over the reins of the state.
As many as 36 Congress MLAs, who are Baghel’s followers, meanwhile, are threatening to resign their seats in the Assembly if that were to happen.
In Rajasthan, the now over a year-long tussle between Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and the faction led by Sachin Pilot continues unabated. Last year, a committee that included the late Ahmed Patel, the party’s then chief troubleshooter, had intervened, but the committee’s decisions were never implemented.
Two Views on Captain’s Exit
The personalities in Punjab and Rajasthan are not identical — Pilot has a long and enviable track record both as a legislator and as a Central Minister in the Congress unlike Navjot Singh Sidhu, who came to the party after a stint in the BJP and immediately plunged into trying to destabilise Amarinder Singh. But party sources are now predicting a similar outcome in Rajasthan, saying that Gehlot may not be replaced by Pilot but by a third individual.
In Punjab, for instance, there are two views on replacing Amarinder Singh with Charanjit Singh Channi. Those who have advised Rahul Gandhi to do so (and which group apparently includes poll strategist Prashant Kishore, who has fallen out with Amarinder Singh, who he had assisted in the last Punjab state election in 2017) say that Channi, a Dalit, will influence the vote overwhelmingly in 34 Dalit-dominated seats in the state, and influence another 44 — the total number of constituencies in Punjab is 117. This, they point out, will negate any gains the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) may make through its tie-up with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), and neutralise the Aam Aadmi Party in Malwa, a Dalit-dominated region where the latter has grown roots.
But other Congressmen say that this analysis demonstrates a lack of understanding of Punjab politics that has long been decided by the powerful Jat Sikhs, with both the Congress and the SAD representing their interests, particularly in the rural areas. The remaining communities, whether upper-caste Brahmins and Banias, the OBCs or the Dalits, would line up behind one or other Jat formations.
The Failed Experiment in Telangana
During the recent farmers’ agitation, Amarinder Singh had helped finance about 18 of the 34 farmers’ unions, bringing them on one platform, in return for which they would have helped him in the elections. Additionally, his exit from the Chief Minister’s office will now ensure there is only one Jat Sikh party in the fray, the SAD. “Amarinder Singh was the Congress’s best bet, even though the AAP is growing rapidly and is the new challenger,” said a Congress source.
While the results of next year’s state polls are still far away, it is not that long back when the Congress’s new advisors suggested that the party, which was regarded as a “Reddy-party” in the then newly formed Telangana, decided to re-invent it as a Dalit party in the state. The net result was a political disaster.
As a senior leader from the state told this writer at the time: “I am a strong believer in Mandal, as you know, and also want very much to promote the interests of the Dalits. But unless we win the elections, we can’t do anything. Once we are in power, we can promote the policies that we believe in. In this part of the world, the Congress is a Reddy party.”
(Smita Gupta is a senior journalist who’s been Associate Editor, The Hindu, and also worked with organisations like Outlook India, The Indian Express, TOI and Hindustan Times. She’s a former Oxford Reuters Institute fellow. She tweets @g_smita. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)