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Punjab Congress Tussle: It’s Much More Than Just Captain Vs Sidhu

The three member panel to address factionalism in Punjab is likely to meet several top leaders in the next few days

Updated
Politics
5 min read
Navjot Singh Sidhu (L), and Capt Amarinder Singh (R). Image used for representational purposes.
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The Congress high command began the task of making peace within its faction-ridden Punjab unit, with the three-member committee formed by Congress president Sonia Gandhi meeting a number of ministers, MLAs and senior leaders on Monday, 31 May.

The meetings are likely to continue over the next few days.

The committee comprises Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge, party's general secretary in-charge for Punjab Harish Rawat and former MP Jai Prakash Aggarwal.

But, Why Is This Important?

There are three reasons why the high command's committee is an important development:

  • A senior leader like Mallikarjun Kharge being part of the committee is important and shows that seriousness of the crisis. In previous cases of dissension in other states, the party faced problems due to the fact that relatively junior points persons and in-charges weren't very effective in prevailing over senior satraps.
  • Despite the scare of COVID-19, the committee has made it a point to meet the leaders in person, rather than speak to them remotely. Apparently, this was done to ensure that the state leaders and MLAs can speak as freely as possible, so that there are no unresolved issues left in the run-up to the Assembly elections.
  • The exercise being carried out is an extremely broad based one – the three-member committee is scheduled to meet most of the MLAs as well as senior party leaders, who may not necessarily be MLAs.

What Are the Main Issues?

Differences within the Punjab Congress aren't a new phenomenon. Historically, Captain Amarinder has faced opposition from leaders like Rajinder Kaur Bhattal and later Partap Singh Bajwa. Bajwa remains in the anti-Captain camp but the main protagonist of this faction now is Navjot Sidhu.

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Captain vs Sidhu

Differences between Captain and Sidhu began barely a year after the Congress came to power in the state. Sidhu had a larger role in mind for himself when he joined the Congress before the 2017 elections but found himself being stymied by Captain.

Th CM, on the other hand, felt that he had already conceded plum ministries to Sidhu like tourism and local self government, and resented the latter speaking out of turn. The differences led to Sidhu resigning as minister in June 2019.

Sidhu's parleys with Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan eventually contributed to the opening of the Kartarpur Sahib corridor in 2019. Captain, however, struck a discordant note and kept talking about potential security threats.

Of late, Sidhu had begun targeting Captain on the laxity by the home ministry, headed by the CM, in punishing those behind the Bargari sacrilege and Kotkapura firing.

Apparently, Sidhu wants concrete action on the Bargari matter and also some kind of respectful accommodation in power.

The position he covets is that of the Punjab Pradesh Congress president, presently held by senior leader Sunil Kumar Jakhar, who is close to Captain.

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Bargari Sacrilege and Kotkapura Firing

In 2015, a number of instances of desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib took place at Bargari in Faridkot district. Thousands of people came out in protest, demanding action against those behind the desecration.

The police fired upon protesters in Kotkapura, killing two people. There are allegations that this happened under the directions of the then Deputy CM Sukhbir Singh Badal and top police officials.

The Congress had promised action against the guilty during the 2017 election campaign and an SIT was constituted for this purpose.

However, in April this year, the Punjab and Haryana High Court rejected the SIT report. This intensified the criticism against the Amarinder government, with Sidhu alleging that it had done a shoddy job.

The difference, however, is that now Sidhu isn't alone in targeting Captain. Several others, such as senior minister Sukhjinder Randhawa, have joined the chorus against the CM.

What Does This Mean for Punjab Politics?

This is a very unpredictable juncture in Punjab politics. There is no doubt a great deal of disaffection against the ruling Congress government. Besides lack of action on the Bargari issue, the government is also seen to have been ineffective in tackling corruption, sand and drug mafia and in addressing the massive unemployment in the state.

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However, the Opposition is in an even worse state – with AAP ridden by factionalism and defections and the Shiromani Akali Dal still facing a great deal of stigma due to the Bargari sacrilege and its initial support for the farm laws.

The BJP, which is the Congress’ main competitor for Hindu votes, has been reduced to a pariah following the farm laws and its leaders are finding it difficult to even go to public meetings.

For the first few years of its term, many saw the Congress as the least undesirable among a bunch of bad options.

This made Captain secure in his position, without really doing much.

"Captain hasn't doing anything, but at least he hasn't troubled anyone too much," was a common refrain.

The problem for the Congress, however, is that due to the disarray in other parties, the Opposition has emerged manifested itself in two ways – internally in the form of Sidhu, Pargat Singh and others and externally, through a number of protests by farmers' groups, Panthic organisations etc.

The anti-farm law protests, in particular, have emerged as a major X-factor ahead of the Assembly elections next year.

As of now, there is no doubt that the anger is strongest against the BJP and after that, the Akali Dal.

But Congress insiders also fear that once an anti-establishment atmosphere has been created, it would be naive to believe that the state government would be immune to it.

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What Lies Ahead?

The talks are likely to go on for 2-3 more days. A number of Captain's detractors are yet to meet the three-member committee. This is expected to happen soon.

As of now, sources in the Congress central leadership indicate that a change of guard in the CM's position is not being considered.

Captain Amarinder's campaign page has already declared him as the CM candidate for 2022, according to a story in the Times of India.

However, Captain will in all probability need to share power much more with his detractors.

The possibility of one or two deputy chief ministers is being considered – the names of Sidhu, Randhawa and a Dalit representative are doing the rounds.

The main bone of contention will be the state Congress chief's post. Whoever holds this post, will have great influence on ticket selection and in turn be in the best position to become or decide the next chief minister of Punjab.

Meanwhile, the Opposition AAP, Akali Dal and BJP will try and get their act together. Another key player is the BSP, which made major gains among Dalits of Doaba region in the Lok Sabha polls. There is speculation that BSP may align with the Akalis ahead of the elections.

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There is also likely to be a great deal of churning and defections across parties. Former leader of Opposition and ex-AAP leader Sukhpal Singh Khaira is rumoured to be in discussion with the Congress along with a few of his loyal MLAs.

On the other hand, those left out of a potential power sharing in Congress may look for other pastures.

A big space to watch out for are the farmers' protests. While the Unions are unlikely to back any party, it is possible that independent entities like Lakha Sidana and Deep Sidhu could try and enter the arena.

There's a political vacuum in Punjab. It remains to be seen whether this is filled by a post-reconciliation Congress, any of the Opposition parties or some new force.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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