Captain Amarinder Writes to Modi, Sonia on Punjab: Desperation or Masterstroke?
News of Sidhu's elevation may be the immediate trigger behind Captain's letters. But there are other factors.
Each passing day seems to bring a new twist in the tussle within the Punjab Congress. The highlight on Friday was Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh sending two important letters - one to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the other to Congress president Sonia Gandhi.
In the letter to the PM, Captain is said to have urged him to revoke the farm laws and warned that the unrest against the central legislations could be used by Pakistan and pro-Khalistan elements to instigate trouble in a border state like Punjab.
His letter to the Congress president is said to have voiced concerns against appointing Amritsar East MLA Navjot Singh Sidhu as the president of the Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee and he is also said to have warned the party high command not to undermine the party unit and government in Punjab.
This article will try and look at the following questions:
What was the immediate trigger for Captain's letters?
What does the letter to Sonia Gandhi say about Captain's equation with the Congress?
What explains Captain's letter to PM Modi?
What is Captain's game plan?
WHAT WAS THE IMMEDIATE TRIGGER?
Captain's letters came a day after the Congress' in-charge for Punjab Harish Rawat hinted that Sidhu could be elevated as the PCC chief, though he later clarified his statement saying that he was talking about a larger organisational overhaul.
Following Rawat's statement, Sidhu held a meeting with Captain's loyalists-turned-detractors in the Punjab Cabinet - Tript Rajinder Bajwa, Sukhjinder Randhawa and Charanjit Singh Channi.
One version coming out of the Punjab Congress is that Captain had agreed to Sidhu's elevation but demanded the sacking of his detractors from the Cabinet, including the three ministers mentioned above with the possible addition of Sukhbinder Sarkaria. Therefore he saw Sidhu's meeting with them as an attempt to incite rebellion against him.
The other version from the party is that Captain never agreed to Sidhu's elevation as PCC chief in the first place.
In either case, it is clear that Captain didn't agree with the peace formula or its aftermath.
The result of the letter to Sonia Gandhi is that Rawat is now likely to reach out to Captain to mollify him and the peace formula may take some more time.
There's another aspect here. The party high command's support for Sidhu and the mobilisation of his dissenters like Randhawa, Bajwa, Channi and Sarkaria in Punjab, is eroding his own credibility in the government.
He fears being reduced to the status of a lame-duck CM with his own authority in question.
WHAT CAPTAIN'S LETTER TO SONIA GANDHI SAYS ABOUT HIS EQUATION WITH THE CONGRESS
There is a long term reason as well. Captain has consistently seen himself as somewhat independent of the Congress in Punjab. There's sufficient reason for this. He had resigned from the party following Operation Blue Star in 1984, clearly indicating that he is no Yes-Man even to a leader as authoritarian as Indira Gandhi.
This act helped him preserve his credibility among the public, especially among Sikhs. Captain's return to the party was instrumental in reviving the Congress in the post-Punjab conflict phase. He was the only major Congress leader not associated with the dark period of the 1980s and much of the 1990s.
Without Captain, Congress may have found it difficult to win Punjab in 2002 and 2017.
However, this autonomy vis-à-vis the party has had its side effects. Captain has been at loggerheads with almost every Punjab Congress chief - be it Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, HS Hanspal or Partap Singh Bajwa. The only exception has been the current state Congress president Sunil Kumar Jakhar.
Therefore, by writing to Sonia Gandhi, Captain is both asserting his autonomy and also warn against the appointment of his rival Navjot Sidhu.
WHAT EXPLAINS CAPTAIN'S LETTER TO MODI?
Captain's letter to PM Modi, especially the invocation of the national security angle is important. Though there may be genuine concerns, in Punjab, invoking the national security angle is often seen as an attempt to divert attention, escape criticism and preserve power.
Ever since he took over as CM, Captain has been rather hawkish on security. The number of UAPA cases in Punjab have increased manifold in the past four and half years. Captain also took a hawkish position on the opening of the Kartarpur Sahib corridor, which had been a long standing demand for Sikhs. As part of this national security card, Captain even went to the extent of writing an oped piece defending an incident in Kashmir in which an army officer used a civilian as a human shield.
This hawkish posturing has made Captain popular within the central establishment. In fact many in the BJP see Captain as being even more effective than BJP's erstwhile ally SAD in fulfilling the Centre's interests.
Captain's letter to Modi has a clear message: that he's the only one who can maintain security and stability in Punjab and rivals like Sukhbir Badal, Navjot Sidhu and the Aam Aadmi Party can't be trusted to run a border state.
BJP may be a marginal player in Punjab but the Centre does have a few cards up its sleeve.
The PM and BJP leadership is playing the wait-and-watch game as of now. Their main priority is weakening of the Congress. Being the main choice for Hindu and Dalit voters in Punjab for decades, Congress has been the main reason why BJP couldn't grow in Punjab.
WHAT'S CAPTAIN'S GAMEPLAN?
Besides the national security card, there is another key argument Captain is making plan - maintaining social balance.
When buzz about Sidhu's appointment gained momentum, Anandpur Sahib MP Manish Tewari recently tweeted: "Sikhs comprise 57.75% of the state’s population while Hindus 38.49%, and Dalits (both Sikh and Hindu) account for 31:94%. “Punjab is both progressive & SECULAR. balancing SOCIAL INTEREST GROUPs is key."
Tewari is a known Captain loyalist and Sidhu baiter and his tweet appears to be building a case against making Sidhu the PCC chief as both he and Captain happen to be Jatt Sikhs.
In 2017, Captain got unprecedented support from Punjab's Hindu minority, which was crucial in the Congress' massive win. The Punjab CM has consistently tried to keep this votebank in good humour, even going to the extent of donating to the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya.
Even in the ongoing power tussle, a major chunk of the Congress' Hindu leaders are with Captain.
The Punjab CM is trying to leverage this and make a case that only he can maintain equitable terms with all the major communities. Sidhu in contrast is being presented as a leader popular only among Jatt Sikhs.
Captain's clear narrative is that only he can preserve the state's security and take along all the major communities.
It is clear that Captain is unlikely to move on easily and that the Congress' woes will be far from over even if Sidhu becomes the PCC chief.
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