Punjab Congress: Sidhu Pads Up But Captain's Speech Shows His Innings Isn't Over
Highlights from Sidhu's elevation ceremony: his big hit', Captain's attack on Pak and Sunil Jakhar's 'swan song',
The ceremony for Navjot Singh Sidhu's elevation as the Punjab Congress president was overshadowed by the tragedy that struck earlier on Friday 23 July, when three Congress workers died in a road accident in Moga. They were on their way to attend Sidhu's elevation ceremony.
The ceremony went on though the top leaders condoled the death of the Congress workers.
The fact that such a ceremony was held is itself significant. It is not common for workers to come from across a state and a huge show to be held just for the appointment of a Pradesh Congress Committee president.
NAVJOT SIDHU'S OPTICS
Sidhu seems to understand the importance of optics very well. This has been evident in his publicised meetings with Congress MLAs over the past one week, his visits to Harmandir Sahib and Durgiana Temple accompanied by the legislators and now the 'elevation ceremony'.
Even during the ceremony, he approached the microphone with a cricketing shot gesture meant for the cameras.
Sidhu's priorities were clear from the get-go and his main target were the Badals. "There should be no space for the Jija-Sala duo," he said, attacking SAD chief Sukhbir Badal and former minister Bikram Majithia.
He also said that he will work towards empowering the Congress worker in Punjab and removing the shackles from the state's farmers and youth.
However, Friday's elevation ceremony was not just about Sidhu but also about Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh and outgoing Congress president Sunil Kumar Jakhar.
CAPTAIN AMARINDER SINGH'S GAMEPLAN
Till a couple of days before the ceremony, it was still doubtful whether Captain Amarinder Singh would attend Sidhu's elevation ceremony or not. But Captain brushed aside speculation that he was "sulking".
"The moment Congress president Sonia Gandhi told me that Navjot Sidhu will be the state Congress president, I accepted it," Captain said.
However, it is clear that the Captain-Sidhu equation is somewhere in the grey area between bonhomie and rivarly.
"I was serving in the army when Sidhu was born," Captain said, asserting his seniority. He further added that he has been in politics since 1970.
Interestingly, Captain retweeted a journalist's tweet of this quote, but undid the retweet soon after. It is clear that Captain is trying to score some points even while accepting the larger arrangement given by the party high command.
A clearer manifestation of this came when Captain focussed a great deal on the "threat" posed by Pakistan in Punjab.
"From Gurdaspur to Fazilka, Punjab shares a long border with Pakistan which keeps trying to create disturbances here. We have to work together against such forces, not just for Punjab but for India," he said.
It must be remembered that anti-Pakistan jingoism doesn't have much currency in Punjab, unlike many other states. Captain has been pushing a tough line on Pakistan and national security as a key feature differentiating him from other political actors in the state, with the exception of BJP.
His visit to the Sikh regiment a day earlier is also part of the same posturing.
During his speech, Captain even went to the extent of accusing the Aam Aadmi Party of having links across the border.
Though the attack on AAP was an open one, the constant invocation of the Pakistan threat was also a veiled attack on Sidhu. For the new Punjab Congress president, a major achievement has been how his personal appeal to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan was crucial in the opening up of the Kartarpur Sahib corridor. As this was a long-standing demand of the Sikh community, this has won Sidhu a great deal of goodwill.
Captain still seems to be pushing the line that only he can take on Pakistan's alleged designs in Punjab.
In the past this approach has endeared Captain to the centre as well as a section of right wing Hindu voters in the state.
Captain's approach is a double-edged sword for the Congress. On one hand, it could help keep this section of voters within the Congress fold. But on the other hand, it makes Captain a key player in the post poll scenario.
SUNIL JAKHAR'S 'SWAN SONG'
Despite Sidhu's rhetorical flourishes and Captain's political points, the show-stealer for many was an emotive speech by outgoing PCC president Sunil Kumar Jakhar, who held a mirror to both these leaders in what he called was his 'swan song'.
"There's a culture in the Congress that people start sulking during the day, come back at night and again start sulking the next day. The party tries everything to accommodate them. Eh party de foofad ne?" he asked, invoking the stereotype of an uncle in the family who has a habit of going into a sulk.
This seems to have been a subtle dig at Sidhu.
To Captain, he was more polite but also more direct.
"The Congress regime is suffering due to red tape. Captain takes well meaning decisions but it gets lost in the bureaucracy," he said, adding that everything shouldn't be left to bureaucrats.
He also criticised the Captain regime for not doing enough to punish those behind the Bargari sacrilege and Kotkapura firings.
"Our Guru has been insulted and those behind it need to be punished. Remember the road to power in Punjab passes through Bargari and Kotkapura," he said.
Jakhar, a liked and respected leader in the Congress, has been an unfortunate casualty of the tussle between Captain Amarinder Singh and his detractors, most notably Sidhu.
His critics say that while it is sad that Jakhar had to be removed as PCC chief to accommodate Sidhu, he was also to blame as he didn't convey communicate to Captain strongly enough that there was resentment on the ground against his regime. It was left to Sidhu to lead that charge.
In the months to come, it remains to be seen how the Congress balances power between Captain, Sidhu and the other factions in the Punjab unit.
The good thing for the party is that an outright rebellion and split has been averted. There is also a broad understanding that the best chance for the party's victory would depend on three things: Captain implementing the 18-point agenda set by the high command, Sidhu leading an aggressive campaign targeting the Badals and neutralising AAP and a possible move by the police against the Badals and Bikram Majithia.
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