The Congress High Command's efforts to broker peace among feuding factions in its Punjab unit gathered momentum on Wednesday, 30 June, with Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra meeting cricketer-turned politician Navjot Singh Sidhu. He also met former Congress President Rahul Gandhi.
Sidhu, presently MLA from Amritsar East and a former Cabinet minister has been one of the main faces of dissidence against Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh.
"Had a long meeting with Priyanka Gandhi ji" Sidhu tweeted after a meeting along with a picture of the two.
This article will try and answer the following five questions:
Why are these meetings important?
Can the Congress strike a balance between Captain and Sidhu?
What options does Sidhu have?
What is the high command doing?
What could happen next?
Why Are Sidhu's Meetings With Priyanka and Rahul Important?
Sidhu's meeting with Priyanka Gandhi assumed importance given speculation that he would be meeting former Congress President Rahul Gandhi. Gandhi, however, told the media on Tuesday, 29 June, that "no meeting was scheduled with Sidhu", in what was seen to be an effort to avoid offending Captain.
During his visit to Delhi last week, Rahul Gandhi and Congress President Sonia Gandhi didn't meet Captain, though he did meet the three-member high-level panel appointed by the party chief.
That's when Priyanka Gandhi stepped in and met Sidhu during the day on Wednesday, 30 June. She met Rahul Gandhi after that and later in the day Sidhu went to meet Rahul Gandhi at his 12 Tughlak Road residence where Priyanka Gandhi was also present. The meeting is still going on at the time of writing this story.
Sidhu is known to share a good equation with both the Gandhi siblings and it is believed that they are keen to ensure that he is accommodated in the party.
Priyanka Gandhi's role in setting up the meeting also shows that she is trying to fill an important vacuum in the Congress, following the death of Ahmed Patel last year — that of the party's crisis manager.
Can Congress Strike a Balance Between Captain and Sidhu?
Sidhu had earlier been offered the Deputy Chief Minister's post as well as the chairmanship of the party's campaign committee for next year's Punjab elections. He is said to have declined this offer. Apparently, he is keen on becoming the Pradesh Congress Committee chief, a post presently held by Sunil Kumar Jakhar.
The PCC chief's position is important as it would give Sidhu a greater say in ticket selection, thereby impacting the number of MLAs loyal to him getting elected and improving his chances of becoming CM in case the Congress wins.
Captain is adamantly opposed to Sidhu being given the top job in the state unit.
It is not certain what deal has been offered to Sidhu, though the meeting with Gandhi indicates that his concerns could be accommodated.
One face saver has already been offered to Sidhu with the three-member committee giving Captain a list of 18 tasks to be accomplished in a time-bound manner. These include addressing the sacrilege cases, acting against sand-mining mafia, curbing the drug menace etc.
Sidhu has already been telling his supporters that the high command acted on his inputs and formed the three-member committee, which spoke to MPs, MLAs, and other leaders from Punjab, gave a to-do list to the CM and may soon initiate an organisational overhaul.
If Captain manages to accomplish these tasks, Sidhu can take credit. If he doesn't then Sidhu can go to the high command again and seek change. At least that's what Sidhu's calculation seems to be.
What Options Does Sidhu Have?
Sidhu's main problem is that he is running out of options. The Aam Aadmi Party isn't keen on announcing him as its CM face due to opposition from its state leadership and also concerns from its central leadership that Sidhu may be too "independent".
It also may be too late for Sidhu to form his own outfit, build cadres and contest elections as the CM candidate of a new party.
Therefore, the most viable option for Sidhu seems to be to leverage his equation with Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi and get a good deal in the Punjab Congress.
In the past few days, Sidhu has also dialed down his attacks on the CM unlike the previous week, in which he had given a number of interviews directly criticising Captain in harsh terms.
Instead, Sidhu has focused his attacks on Akali Dal Chief Sukhbir Badal.
For instance on Wednesday he tweeted to Badal that his aim is to, "destroy your corrupt businesses ... Until your Sukh Vilas built on Punjab’s ruins is not turned into a Public School & Public Hospital to serve Punjab’s poor, I won’t relent !! (sic)"
This seems to be aimed at strengthening his reputation of being the most steadfastly anti-Badals leader in Punjab, as compared to Captain, who he has accused of striking deals with the Badals and AAP's Arvind Kejriwal, who wrote an apology letter to Sukhbir Badal's brother-in-law Bikram Majithia.
What's the Congress High Command Doing?
The Congress leadership has been engaged in fire-fighting in a number of state units and not just Punjab.
It managed to make crucial appointments of new PCC chiefs in Telangana and Kerala, giving the mantle to A Revanth Reddy and K Sudhakaran.
There is a pattern to these two appointments as both Reddy and Sudhakaran are known to follow an aggressive approach and are popular among the party cadres in their respective states.
The party may next have to make a choice for the PCC chiefs in Uttarakhand, Gujarat and Assam as well. In Rajasthan too the party may have to step in soon to address factionalism.
In the Punjab case, Rahul Gandhi has been directly dealing with MLAs and this pattern could be followed in other states as well.
One state where the factional disputes are somewhat tied to Punjab is Uttarakhand. The party's Punjab in-charge Harish Rawat also happens to be its tallest leader in Uttarakhand.
It was a curious appointment in the first place as Punjab and Uttarakhand are scheduled to go to polls during the same. And Rawat has had his hands full dealing with factionalism in Punjab.
It is believed that Rawat wants to relinquish his responsibility and move to his home state as soon as possible to prepare for the polls. However, even in Uttarakhand there is a tussle between Rawat and current PCC chief Pritam Singh on the appointment of the new state unit chief. Pritam Singh is likely to become the legislative party leader following the demise of senior leader Indira Hridayesh.
The name of Delhi leader JP Aggarwal is doing the rounds as the new Punjab in-charge.
Aggarwal already has had an orientation on the troubles of the Punjab unit by virtue of being part of the Sonia Gandhi appointed three-member Punjab committee, which also included Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge and Rawat.
What Could Happen Next?
The party is likely to offer a new deal to Sidhu soon and reiterate to Captain that he needs to share power with his rivals, besides following the 18-point list.
Given dissatisfaction against Captain on the ground in Punjab – as indicated in surveys as well as a large number of protests from various sections – the high command would have to usher in some kind of change, as even he remains at the helm. Maintaining status quo would be disastrous for the party in a state where dissatisfaction and need for change is presently the dominant sentiment.
It needs to go to the electorate with something new and achievement of the 18-point list and projection of a new leadership for the future seems to be its preferred strategy.
However, sources in the party say that this could be only a temporary solution as it is very difficult to balance all the competing interests in the Punjab unit.
"There's no way the high command can please everyone. Even striking a balance between Captain and Sidhu is nearly impossible. Whatever solution is offered this week may be a temporary one," said a party leader.
The anti-Captain faction doesn't just have Sidhu but also leaders like Partap Singh Bajwa, minister Sukhjinder Randhawa and others. Then a number of leaders who weren't otherwise against Captain came out against him over the decision to give government jobs to the sons of MLAs Fatehjung Bajwa and Rakesh Pandey. The critics included PCC Chief Sunil Jakhar, ministers Tript Rajinder Singh Bajwa, Razia Sultana, Charanjit Singh Channi and Sukhbinder Sarkaria, MLAs Kuljit Nagra and Amarinder Singh Raja Warring, and Punjab Youth Congress Chief Brinder Dhillon.
But the opposition to Captain doesn't mean they would be comfortable working under Sidhu, who some of them say isn't a "team player".
So Sidhu being made PCC chief or be projected as a possible successor won't go down very well with many of these leaders.
It is quite likely that some months down the line, depending on the success or failure of Captain's course correction as well as external events like the farmers' protest, the CM's position is either likely to get strengthened or weakened from the present situation.
In such a case, his rivals may either end up stronger or sidelined.
In either case, it may be difficult for the party to maintain a balance between various competing factions.