'Hands-On' High Command, Aggressive PCC Chiefs: Is This Congress' New Method?
The significance of Navjot Sidhu's appointment goes beyond Punjab. It shows a new style of working in the Congress.
The appointment of Navjot Singh Sidhu as the Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee chief despite the objections of the state's chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh, is a development whose importance goes beyond Punjab.
It shows a new, much more hands-on and assertive style of working on the part of the Congress High Command.
Sidhu's elevation is also in line with a number of recent appointments at the PCC chief level, in which the High Command has chosen 'winnability' and ability to inspire cadres as a major criteria.
There are three aspects here:
How the High Command overruled Captain in favour of Sidhu
Do recent PCC president appointments reveal a pattern?
What does this mean for the party's future?
HOW THE HIGH COMMAND OVERRULED CAPTAIN AND PUSHED FOR NAVJOT SIDHU IN PUNJAB
Six months ago, few would have expected that Sidhu would become the PCC chief and that the Congress high command would overrule Captain Amarinder Singh on the matter.
Though there were murmurs against Captain, not many leaders in the Punjab Congress would have been willing to mobilise against the CM's might. Even Sidhu was mostly working solo.
But the adverse verdict by the Punjab and Haryana High Court on the SIT report on the sacrilege cases put Captain's government in the dock and many MLAs realised that he may not be in a position to ensure their victories in the next Assembly election. That's where Sidhu began being considered as an alternative.
But even when the three member committee began seeking the opinion of MLAs and other leaders, many were reluctant to speak out openly against Captain.
Former Congress president Rahul Gandhi is said to have reached out to some of the MLAs through a minister in Rajasthan, urging them not to hesitate to "speak their mind."
Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi, who is said to share a good equation with Sidhu, also stepped in at crucial moments to ensure that that cricketer-turned-politician is given a respectable place and retained within the party.
The high command's priorities were clear – they saw that Sidhu is crucial to the party's prospects in Punjab and wanted to retain him in the party at any cost.
Had Sidhu left or defected to the Aam Aadmi Party, it would have made matters very difficult for the Congress in the poll bound state.
RECENT PCC APPOINTMENTS REVEAL A PATTERN
Sidhu's appointment is consistent with a number of recent PCC chief choices that the high command has made. Three other PCC chief appointments this year are also important in this context: A Revanth Reddy in Telangana, K Sudhakaran in Kerala and Nana Patole in Maharashtra.
Revanth Reddy's appointment has led to a great deal of excitement in the Telangana Congress and his protests against the K Chandrashekar Rao government on the ground have received some traction among the public. His aggression on the street is said to have put the brakes on the BJP's attempts to emerge as the main Opposition in the state.
The TRS, too, seems to acknowledge the threat he poses and placed him under house arrest before the monsoon session of Parliament.
Patole, too, is an interesting case as he has been asserting the Congress' interests within the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi. Though it has created some friction within the alliance, the party's cadres are said to be happy with this approach.
Interestingly, Patole and Reddy, like Sidhu, are 'outsiders' – and have joined the Congress in the last five years. While Patole and Sidhu were earlier in the BJP, Reddy has come from the Telugu Desam Party.
Though Sudhakaran isn't an 'outsider' his appointment too bares testimony to an increasingly assertive approach by the high command. He was opposed by both the 'I' and 'A' group leaders in the Congress but the high command went ahead with his appointment any way.
The two groups had also opposed the appointment of the leader of the Opposition VD Satheesan.
Sudhakaran is a strongman from Kannur and known to make aggressive, even controversial statements. But he's said to be popular with Congress cadres in the state.
WHAT COULD THIS MEAN FOR CONGRESS' FUTURE?
The proactive role of the high command in Sidhu's appointment and their recent PCC choices do indicate a change in their manner of functioning.
It is clear that Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi are playing a crucial role even though Sonia Gandhi is the interim president.
For much of Congress president's Sonia Gandhi's previous tenure, the emphasis was on evolving consensus in such appointments.
Now, it appears that electoral potential and popularity among cadres is a crucial criteria.
The high command also seems to be adamant on not giving in to entrenched interests at the state level. Patole, Sidhu and Reddy's appointments also make it clear that being a party old timer is not necessary.
It is quite evident that the Congress doesn't want to give the impression that it is a party with a weak centre and strong satraps.
This will have consequences in a number of states where there is factionalism – like Haryana and Rajasthan for instance.
Of course, there will be a pushback. For instance, in Punjab, it is quite likely that Captain and a few other dissatisfied sections could make it difficult for Sidhu to function.
States like Rajasthan and Haryana are even more complicated. Ashok Gehlot is a shrewder customer to manage than Captain and he may not commit some of the tactical errors that the Punjab CM made during the factional crisis.
The same goes for Bhupinder Singh Hooda who still remains the most popular leader in the Haryana Congress but isn't the high command's first choice.
There may also be bizarre cases like Manipur, in which the PCC chief is likely to defect to the BJP with a few MLAs.
However, the big picture is that the Congress high command is asserting itself once again and this trend will only get strengthened after the party's organisational overhaul.
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