Even after the appointment of Charanjit Singh Channi as the chief minister of Punjab, the tussle in the state Congress doesn't seem to be over.
Former Punjab Congress President Sunil Kumar Jakhar wrote a tweet criticising the party's Punjab in-charge Harish Rawat.
"On the swearing-in day of Sh @Charnjit_channi as Chief Minister, Mr Rawat’s statement that “elections will be fought under Sidhu”, is baffling. It’s likely to undermine CM’s authority but also negate the very ‘raison d’être’ of his selection for this position," Jakhar tweeted.
However, in reality Rawat's comment was a bit more vague. Rawat said, "It (Congress face for upcoming state assembly polls) will be decided by the Congress president, but given the circumstances, elections will be fought with the Chief Minister's cabinet under Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee, whose chief is Navjot Singh Sidhu, who is very popular."
This exchange did expose a key dilemma for the Congress: should it project Navjot Sidhu as its chief ministerial candidate despite or Charanjit Channi now that he has become the chief minister?
When Jakhar says the "raison d'etre of Channi's selection" he means that it may be pointless to appoint a Dalit CM if elections are to be fought under someone else's name.
But not projecting Sidhu also has its share of risks, especially with Sidhu emerging as an astute politician at least as far as dealing with his rivals is concerned.
How Sidhu Helped Bring Down Captain
In his 17 year career as a politician, Sidhu has taken on big leaders and brought down a few of them as well.
He took on the Badals when they were at the peak of their influence. He helped Captain Amarinder Singh defeat senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader Arun Jaitley in Amritsar in the middle of a Modi wave in 2014.
Since 2018, he has been on a warpath against Captain Amarinder Singh – a leader who won the biggest majority in Punjab since the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) sweep of 1997. Earlier this year, Sidhu and other Captain critics managed to get him appointed as the Punjab Congress chief in place of Sunil Jakhar.
Then finally on Saturday, 18 September, Captain resigned after losing support of a majority of Congress MLAs as well as the high command.
Sidhu has emerged as one of the main leaders who has broken the Badals-Captain monopoly that had dominated the Punjab politics for the past two decades.
But Sidhu's moves didn't end with bringing down Captain. He joined forces with Captain's loyalists-turned-critics like Sukhjinder Randhawa, Tript Rajinder Bajwa, Sukhbinder Sarkaria, and Charanjit Singh Channi to block Sunil Jakhar's chances of becoming the CM. Ambika Soni's comment that "a Sikh should be CM" further sealed Jakhar's case.
Then when Randhawa emerged as the choice of a substantial chunk of MLAs, Sidhu put a spanner in the works. Like Sidhu, Randhawa is a Jatt Sikh and represents a constituency in the Majha region. Therefore, he would have been a direct threat to him.
This is where Channi came into the picture. The high command too preferred Channi, as a Dalit CM would help them send a national message. Captain Amarinder Singh's loyalists too thought of Channi as a lesser evil compared to Sidhu or Randhawa.
Leaders vs Navjot Sidhu
However, these moves have earned Sidhu more than his share of enemies. Captain for one is said to have threatened to leave the party if Sidhu becomes the CM. Jakhar too doesn't share a good equation with him.
Then there's Sukhjinder Randhawa, who joined forces with Sidhu to take on Captain. Randhawa and his caucus of MLAs, such as Tript Rajinder Bajwa and Sukhbinder Sarkaria, helped Sidhu become the Punjab Congress chief and gain the support of other MLAs. But the manner in which Sidhu is said to have scuttled Randhawa's chances of becoming the CM and insteading pushing Channi's case, may have created a divide between then.
Last but not the least, there's the new CM, Charanjit Singh Channi, himself. After becoming the CM for next three months until the elections, surely Channi won't be happy if Sidhu is projected as the party's CM candidate.
There's no doubt that with Captain out of the way, Sidhu may be the most popular leader in the Punjab Congress. He may be one of the few leaders who has an appeal that cuts across the state.
However, he suffers from a trust deficit among certain demographic groups. For instance, among Hindu voters, a perception has been created that Sidhu is a "Panthic" leader. This is strange because in reality, Sidhu conducts more Hindu rituals than even many Hindu politicians.
But his role in the opening up of the Kartarpur Sahib corridor and his strong stand for action on the Bargari sacrilege case has created a "pro-Sikh image".
More than these issues, it is the incessant attacks by Captain and his loyalists accusing Sidhu of being a "Pakistan agent" that has created a wrong perception among a portion of Hindu voters.
Then among Dalits too, Sidhu's popularity is comparatively less and he's seen mainly as a Jatt Sikh leader. This perception may get strengthened in case there is a power struggle between Sidhu and Channi.
What Sidhu, Channi and the Congress Need To Do
This is not the first time that the Congress is carrying out such an experiment. In 2003 they had replaced Vilasrao Deshmukh, a Maratha, with Sushil Kumar Shinde, a Dalit, as the chief minister of Maharashtra. The Congress-NCP alliance won the 2004 assembly elections under Shinde's leadership but after the poll results, it was Deshmukh who returned as the chief minister.
Though Channi is the CM, Sidhu as the Pradesh Congress chief will have a greater say in ticket selection. Therefore, if the Congress wins, chances are that more MLAs would be loyal to him.
The only way for the Congress to balance between Channi and Sidhu as individuals as well as the social groups they represent, would be to project some kind of a dual leadership – a bit like the Sarbananda Sonowal-Himanta Biswa Sarma duo that worked well for the BJP in the 2016 and 2021 assembly elections in Assam.
For that the Congress needs a strong narrative. The most important way of creating that narrative would be a strong crackdown against the Badals either in connection with the 2015 sacrilege cases or the allegations of drug trafficking. Congress would need to present itself as challenging the 'old order' in Punjab. It cannot be seen as representing the old order, as would have been the case with Captain at the helm. Retaining Captain would have worked to the advantage of the Aam Aadmi Party.
The second thing that could help Congress turn the narrative in its favour is a confrontation with the union government on the farm laws. The farm laws are extremely unpopular in Punjab and this is a big issue for the rural masses. The government would need to be seen as doing much more to take on the union government on this issue. It can't afford statements like what Captain made, telling protesters to take their stir outside the state.
Changing the CM on its own won't help the Congress. In the absence of a strong narrative, there is a clear possibility of another factional fight erupting before the assembly polls.