Punjab Congress: Is This Endgame for Captain Amarinder Singh?
Congress may have to choose between the two leaders or bring a consensus candidate.
The 'truce' in the Punjab Congress proved to be even more short-lived than expected. The factions led by Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh and newly-appointed Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee Chief Navjot Singh Sidhu are at loggerheads once again, barely a month after they had agreed to work together following Sidhu's appointment.
What Was the Immediate Trigger?
The Captain faction has been attacking Sidhu over a number of issues. On Wednesday, 25 August, Patiala MP Preneet Kaur accused Sidhu of being the main reason behind the crisis in the party.
Captain's supporters have also been criticising Sidhu over the recent comments made by his "advisers" Malvinder Singh Mali and Pyare Lal Garg.
While Mali is said to have called Jammu and Kashmir an "open jail" and that Kashmir belongs to "Kashmiri people", Garg said that Captain Amarinder Singh's criticism of Pakistan was "not in the interest of Punjab".
Captain's backers like Anandpur Sahib MP Manish Tewari said that "such people have no right to be in India".
On the other hand, the anti-Captain faction led by ministers like Charanjit Singh Channi, Tript Rajinder Bajwa, Sukhbinder Sarkaria, and Sukhjinder Randhawa, along with Punjab Congress General Secretary (organisation) Pargat Singh held a meeting of 34 MLAs and demanded Captain's outster.
Though Sidhu and the four Punjab Congress working presidents weren't part of the meeting, the presence of Pargat Singh, a Sidhu appointee, did indicate that the meeting had his backing.
A delegation among these leaders met Punjab Congress in-charge Harish Rawat in Dehradun and they are likely to approach Congress President Sonia Gandhi.
They allege that Captain is not taking action against the Badals in connection with the 2015 sacrliege and police firing cases, which was a core demand as part of the peace deal between the two Punjab Congress factions.
While Rawat did assure on Wednesday that the elections will be fought under Captain's leadership, a truce seems difficult.
Why a Tussle Was Inevitable
The anti-Captain faction in Punjab says that the core issue is the sentiment that the Congress has no chance of winning if it fights the upcoming elections under Captain's leadership.
"The ground reality is that there is immense resentment against the CM. Several of his promises remain unfulfilled. Fighting under his leadership would mean certain defeat," said a party MLA.
"People talk about Captain and Badal in the same breath and saying that they are fed up of these leaders. Replacing the CM is the only way of addressing this," said another legislator.
No doubt, there is a great deal of resentment against the CM. And Sidhu is seen as someone with a relatively cleaner slate, given that there are no major allegations against him. Also, being a strong critic of both Badals and Captain, he does represent the viewpoint of a sizable number of Punjab voters who are fed up with both of them. This is the same constituency that the Aam Aadmi Party is appealing to.
However, Sidhu has certain shortcomings.
First, the people who are now pushing his case against Captain – ministers like Channi, Sarkaria, Bajwa, and Randhawa – are facing as much anti-incumbency as Captain. Their presence with Sidhu is harming his pitch of being a politician with a difference.
Second, the Congress in Punjab is crucially dependent on the support of Hindu voters. As things stand today, this section hasn't warmed up to Sidhu. Captain's supporters are trying to leverage this section against Sidhu by presenting him and his team as pro-Pakistan.
What Could Happen Next?
The status quo is becoming untenable for the Congress and it may have to take a clear call between the two leaders. The other option is to replace Captain with a consensus candidate untill the elections so that the list of 18 tasks laid down by the party leadership can be fulfilled.
The party may have hoped that it could keep both leaders happy until elections and then take a call. But this was an unrealistic expectation as it would have had to project one clear face in the elections.
Now, retaining Captain would mean playing into the hands of AAP has been trying to tap into the anti-incumbency against his governments.
On the other hand, replacing Captain with Sidhu could lead to a possible shift of Hindu votes, at least if Captain's backers have their way.
Not surprisingly, Captain has found support from pro-BJP news channels who are accusing Sidhu and the Congress leadership of being "pro-Pakistan".
This tussle has become as much about the Punjab unit as the Congress' central leadership. It is well known that Sidhu enjoys the backing of Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi.
On the other hand, some of those backing Captain, like Tewari, are part of the group of 23 leaders who wrote a letter to Congress president Sonia Gandhi criticising the state of affairs in the party.
The party leadership knows that it would have to pay some kind of a price whichever way it goes.
However, one thing is clear, despite Rawat's assurances, Captain is in a sticky wicket. And the right wing attacks on the Congress leadership is only going to harm Captain's case.
Subscribe To Our Daily Newsletter And Get News Delivered Straight To Your Inbox.