Captain Amarinder Singh seems to be getting the upper hand in the tussle within the Congress party's Punjab unit. If the buzz within the Congress is to be believed, the three-member panel appointed by party chief Sonia Gandhi is unlikely to recommend a change of CM at this stage. The panel, headed by Mallikarjun Kharge, is expected to submit its report on Wednesday, 9 June.
This article will look at five aspects:
Where’s the ongoing buzz in favour of Captain Amarinder Singh coming from?
How popular or unpopular is Captain Amarinder Singh? What does survey data say?
What explains Captain's electoral success in Punjab?
Is Navjot Singh Sidhu a viable alternative?
What lies ahead for the Punjab Congress?
1. What’s the Buzz Around Captain?
A number of news reports have appeared in the past few days arguing that Captain Amarinder Singh is the only option for the Congress in Punjab, and that it is the Central leadership that is creating hurdles for him ahead of the Assembly elections next year.
These reports began appearing shortly after the three member-panel ended its dialogue with various MLAs, ministers, leaders, Captain and his detractors.
If there are Captain's spin doctors on one hand, on the other hand there are allegations that Captain's main detractor Navjot Singh Sidhu is instigating MLAs against the chief minister, with the backing of former Congress president Rahul Gandhi.
It is said that Gandhi reached out to some of the MLAs through a Rajasthan minister from Western district loyal to him and urged them to "speak out without fear". Apparently Gandhi even spoke to a few of them over the Signal app.
What is interesting about these pro-Captain reports, is that most of them have appeared in the national media, particularly the English media. The narrative in the Punjabi media and on Punjabi social media is quite different and much more critical of Captain.
This reflects the difference in perception in Delhi's power circles and the ground realities of Punjab.
2. Captain's Popularity: Myth or Reality?
Survey data reveals that Captain's 'popularity' isn't quite what the national media is projecting.
According to C-Voter’s State of the Nation survey in January 2021, Captain Amarinder Singh had a net approval rating of 9.8 percentage points, which made him the third-least popular Chief Minister in India.
He fared better than only the then Uttarkhand CM Trivendra Singh Rawat (who has since been removed) and Haryana CM Manohar Lal Khattar. Captain is the lowest ranking non-BJP CM.
In the survey, 22.3 percent respondents said they are "very much satisfied" with Captain, 31.2 percent said they are "somewhat satisfied" and 43.8 percent said they are "not at all satisfied" with his performance.
It's not just this year. Even in the 2020 State of the Nation survey, Captain's approval rating was just 10.3 percent and ranked sixth from the bottom.
3. What Explains Captain's Electoral Success in Punjab?
Captain Amarinder Singh, no doubt, deserves credit for the Congress' revival in Punjab and this goes way beyond the 2017 elections.
The Congress in Punjab has historically been seen as a Hindu party. Already blamed for Operation Blue Star of 1984, in the 90s, Congress rule came to be associated with enforced disappearances and encounter killings of Sikhs.
The Congress needed a face that wasn't tainted by this past and that's where Captain Amarinder Singh came into the picture.
Having resigned from the Congress and the Parliament after Operation Blue Star, he had some credibility even among Panthic Sikhs. And it was this broad credibility which brought Congress to power under Captain in 2002. Then in 2017, he led the party to a huge victory in the Assembly polls at a time when the party lost power across the country.
Since then the Congress has dominated elections in the state, winning a majority of seats in the Lok Sabha polls, most of the by-elections and sweeping local body polls.
Captain's biggest asset, particularly in the run-up to the 2017 elections and thereafter, is that he is seen as the "lesser evil" by a variety of sections.
In the 2017 election, many Hindu voters developed fears that the Aam Aadmi Party may have pro-Khalistan elements in its ranks, therefore they rallied behind Captain to defeat it.
Similarly for Jatt Sikh voters, including some Panthic Sikhs, Captain was seen as the lesser evil compared to SAD-BJP given the corruption, incidents of sacrilege and the drug menace during their tenure.
This was especially the case in the Majha and Doaba regions, where AAP was weak and not a realistic option to defeat SAD-BJP.
The other major reason for the Congress’ success in 2017 and 2019 was division of Jatt Sikh votes between SAD and AAP in the Malwa region. This is a section that hasn't historically favoured the Congress.
Also, civic elections and bypolls can’t be considered a realistic indicator as in Punjab, these have mostly been won by the incumbent party.
Therefore the Congress' electoral success in the past few years seems more a result of a split in Opposition votes and the fact that alternatives like SAD and BJP are discredited and AAP is weak. It has little to do with Captain's appeal, which is clear from the survey data.
4. Is Navjot Sidhu a Viable Alternative?
Navjot Sidhu does have certain advantages. His popularity surged for a brief period after the opening up of the Kartarpur Sahib corridor, a long-standing demand for Sikhs. Sidhu got part of the credit for it due to his personal intervention with Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan.
The other advantage Sidhu has is that he has a relatively clean state as a politician. Though his father was a Congress leader, Sidhu's success is largely his own, stemming from his career as an international cricketer and then a TV personality.
However, Sidhu does face some clear drawbacks.
His case is weakened by the fact that his main backer – former Congress president Rahul Gandhi – doesn't enjoy a high degree of popularity in Punjab.
According to C-Voter’s State of the Nation survey, Rahul Gandhi has an approval rating of minus 18 percentage points in Punjab.
The negative rating means that the percentage of people dissatisfied with Gandhi is higher than those who are satisfied. The only saving grace for him is that PM Modi's approval rating is even worse, at -27 points.
Therefore, being seen as Rahul Gandhi's nominee may not quite help Sidhu in Punjab.
There are some other problems as well. Punjab Congress insiders say that Sidhu isn't a team player and even many of those opposed to Captain, don't quite trust Sidhu to take everyone along.
The other complaint against Sidhu has been his long absences and his disconnected image.
"He is instinctively not a politician. He doesn't get things done for others, goes missing in action very often and leaves a lot of political work to his wife," said a Punjab Congress leader not aligned to either camp.
Even now, the support Sidhu is getting from a section of Punjab Congress leaders isn't so much due to his own efforts but due to their falling out with Captain.
5. What Lies Ahead For the Congress?
The Congress is in a difficult position in Punjab. The Amarinder Singh government's performance has been lacklustre. Besides failure to act on the sacrilege cases, an issue raised by Sidhu as well, the government is also facing protests from a variety of entities — teachers, healthcare workers, safai karamcharis, government employees to name a few.
Yet, replacing the CM isn't easy. Captain may not be strong enough to guarantee a Congress victory in the state, but he is definitely strong enough to cause harm if he is slighted.
The Congress’ strong point as of now aren’t its own achievements but others’ shortcomings. The BJP is discredited due to the farm laws, the SAD too is facing flak due to its initial support for the laws besides the taint of sacrilege cases, and AAP doesn’t seem strong or united enough to fill the vacuum.
But if any of the other parties or a new entity gets its act together, the Congress' advantage could vanish.
The party needs to understand that there is an atmosphere for change in Punjab. Maintaining status quo and letting Captain run a one-man show is not going to work.
Persisting with Captain may still be the safest option, but even then the Congress would need to lay down an element of change within this framework. This could be through the appointment of deputy chief ministers but also through a new agenda for change in Punjab, especially focusing on farmers, Dalits and unemployed youth.