Captain or Sidhu in Punjab? Congress Needs to Pick One Soon, It Can't Have Both
Captain Amarinder Singh's popularity has nosedived in all sections except older Hindu voters.
"All is not well," Congress in-charge for Punjab Harish Rawat said on Thursday, 2 September, admitting that the factional feud in the party is yet to be resolved.
A day earlier, Rawat had said that the party will fight the polls under Captain Amarinder Singh's leadership but he later had to issue a clarification.
If for nothing, for Rawat's sake, the Congress should resolve the leadership issue in Punjab soon. The more time Rawat spends here, the less time he gets in his home state Uttarakhand, where the Congress can potentially defeat the BJP if it plays its cards right.
The Congress' problem in Punjab is intractable. It no longer seems to be possible to strike a balance between Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh and Punjab Pradesh Congress Chief Navjot Singh Sidhu.
This piece will argue that the party has no choice but to pick one of the two leaders. But it may not be possible to take both along.
There are three aspects here.
CAPTAIN AMARINDER SINGH'S FALLING POPULARITY
Except for his first year in office, Captain Amarinder Singh's popularity was never high. Even in 2019, according to CVoter's survey, 49 percent people in Punjab said that they are "not at all satisfied with" CM Amarinder Singh.
His net satisfaction rating was at 17 percentage points then. But the sense that "Captain is better than Badals" helped him contain a great deal of criticism.
However, by January 2021, Captain's approval rating had fallen further to 9.8 percentage points according to the same tracker. It has only worsened since then, especially after the Punjab and Haryana High Court quashed the SIT report on the 2015 Bargari sacrilege cases.
The failure of the report sent the signal that Captain is going soft on the Badals, whose role was under scrutiny in the sacrilege cases and the subsequent firing on protesters that killed two people.
Besides acting against the Badals, there are several other failures that come when one speaks to people in Punjab.
Unemployment is the biggest issue for the public across the state and there's a perception that the Captain government hasn't done enough on that front.
The promise of providing Rs 1500 pension to the elderly also remains largely unfulfilled. Travelling through districts like Gurdaspur, Amritsar, Jalandhar, Ludhiana, Sri Muktsar Sahib, Sangrur and Patiala, one found eligible people who said that they hadn't been receiving the pension or that they received only Rs 750 per month.
High electricity tariffs is another big issue and the Aam Aadmi Party in particular is gaining a great deal of traction by raising it.
'CHANGE' VS 'STATUS QUO'
The farmers' protest is no doubt a huge factor in Punjab, but in addition to this, there have been a number of protests in the state: by teachers (especially para-teachers), contractual government employees, health workers, pensioners, unemployed youth, to name a few.
These have created a larger atmosphere of 'change' in Punjab. People are fed-up of the status quo. In some places, asking people about Badals, Captain or PM Modi even provoked some choicest adjectives.
The default beneficiary of this is the Aam Aadmi Party, which is gaining ground across the state though with some regional variations.
The only major leader in the two dominant parties – SAD and Congress – who doesn't get pilloried by the public is Navjot Singh Sidhu.
It's not as if Sidhu is very popular. But being a permanent rebel who took on the Badals when he was in BJP and Captain when he's in Congress has helped him escape a great deal of flak.
"He isn't being allowed to work" is a common refrain one hears in parts of Punjab.
This image of Sidhu can potentially help Congress contain the rise of AAP, especially if the latter fails to project a CM candidate in time. But for that the Congress would need to drop Captain.
The party can't tap the 'change' vote if it retains Captain who, along with Badals, has become symbolic of the status quo forces in an increasingly restive Punjab.
DIFFERENT SOCIAL BASES OF CAPTAIN AND SIDHU
The other problem for the Congress is the fact that Captain and Sidhu have both come to represent very different social bases.
Almost every section seems to have some dissatisfaction with Captain's government with the exception of one: older non-Dalit Hindu voters. This is the only demographic in which one found a significant degree of support for Captain.
This has traditionally been a Congress vote bank which occasionally shifts to BJP at the national level. This vote bank is also conservative in nature and is sceptical of too much political 'change'.
Travelling through Punjab, it is not uncommon to find even RSS members speaking highly of Captain.
Even in 2017, Hindu voters played a key role in the Congress' victory. According to the CSDS survey, Congress secured 48 percent votes among non-Dalit Hindus, compared to 23 percent for AAP and 22 percent for the SAD-BJP alliance.
It is no coincidence that even in the power struggle with Sidhu, Hindu leaders of the Punjab Congress have been Captain's strongest supporters such as Brahm Mohindra, Manish Tewari, Vijay Inder Singla and OP Soni to name a few.
In July, a group of Hindu leaders had a meeting with Captain in which they reportedly complained that Sidhu's appointment is leading to greater domination of Jatt Sikhs in the Congress at the expense of Upper Caste Hindus.
While Captain is seen as the main defender of the Congress' main Upper Caste Hindu vote bank, Sidhu is seen as a means to a possible expansion of the party's base among Sikh voters.
This is especially the case among Jatt Sikhs among whom the party has traditionally been weak. According to the CSDS survey, the party secured only 28 percent of the Jatt Sikh vote, behind both the SAD-BJP at 37 percent and AAP at 30 percent.
Now, Sidhu isn't a Panthic politician by any stretch. He is, in fact, known to be a devotee of Vaishno Devi and Lord Shiva as well as a leader who consults astrologers and participates in Hindu rituals.
However, due to his role in the opening up of the Kartarpur Sahib corridor and his strong stand on the sacrilege cases, he has come to acquire some traction among Sikh voters.
Sidhu's strongest backers in the Congress happen to be Jatt Sikhs: Tript Rajinder Bajwa, Sukhjinder Randhawa, Sukhbinder Sarkaria and Pargat Singh. Charanjit Singh Channi, another Sidhu backer, is a Dalit Sikh.
The other major section in the state are Dalit voters, who account for 34 percent of Punjab's electorate. But they remain woefully underrepresented in all the main parties in Punjab: SAD, Congress and AAP. SAD is trying to overcome this through its alliance with the BSP.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
Ideally, the Congress would have liked to strike a balance between Captain and Sidhu but it doesn't seem possible any longer. For a sizable section of Punjab's electorate, another term of Captain's rule is completely unacceptable.
So, by retaining Captain even while making Sidhu the PCC chief, the Congress harmed its own chance of playing the 'change' card by projecting Sidhu.
The Congress has now has very little option but to choose between Captain and Sidhu while also give some representation to Dalit and Hindu leaders to project a diverse leadership. It will then have to hope that SAD fails to stage a comeback and AAP's rise wanes.
But if it fails to address the leadership question soon, it may be opening up space for an AAP government in Punjab and giving the party a chance to present itself as a national alternative.
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