After the drubbing in the recently concluded Punjab elections, a churn is underway in the state unit of the Congress party. Here's a brief sequence of events from the last two days.
On Tuesday, 15 March, Congress president Sonia Gandhi removed the Pradesh Congress chiefs of all five states that the Congress lost in the recent elections – including Punjab Congress chief Navjot Sidhu – who had been appointed barely eight months ago.
On Wednesday, Sidhu tweeted out a terse one line resignation letter addressed to Sonia Gandhi.
Later that day, Sonia Gandhi nominated specific leaders to assess the causes behind the defeat in each of the five states and suggest remedial measures. In Punjab, the task was given to Delhi leader Ajay Maken, who was also the screening committee head for the Punjab elections.
The party president also met MPs from Punjab and sought their feedback on the party's defeat at the hands of the Aam Aadmi Party. A few senior party leaders from Punjab are holding similar exercises in their areas of influence on what had gone wrong.
There are three main aspects to these developments:
The blame game underway in the party
The realistic assessments that are coming up
Key appointments the party needs to make in the near future.
Blame Game: The Knives Are Out in Punjab Congress
Former Punjab Congress chief Sunil Kumar Jakhar gave a number of interviews in which he targeted former chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi. In one interview he said that Channi was a "liability" and not an "asset" and accused him of getting "caught with his hand in the till".
Jakhar also accused Channi of indulging in gimmicks and mocking common people.
The other person in Jakhar's line of fire was senior Congress leader Ambika Soni, who is said to have played a key role in scuttling his chances of becoming chief minister in September 2021, despite having support of a large number of MLAs.
Former deputy CM Sukhjinder Randhawa and Ludhiana MP Ravneet Bittu both blamed PCC chief Navjot Sidhu for the party's defeat.
Bassi Pathana candidate Gurpreet Singh GP blamed Channi and said that Sidhu had limited authority after the former was made the CM candidate.
Realistic Assessments from Punjab Congress Leaders: 10 Key Mistakes
The Quint spoke to several Congress leaders from Punjab as well as backroom functionaries involved in the campaign on what they thought had gone wrong.
"The campaign lacked focus and a clear narrative. This is because there was no centralised decision making. The party couldn't even properly decide on which firm to hire for the campaign, what slogan to have," said a party leader from the Majha region.
"In contrast, the Aam Aadmi Party had a very clean narrative," the leader added.
One candidate who lost in the recent elections said, "I'm not saying that we didn't make mistakes but another reason for our loss, and the extent of our loss, is that no one anticipated that the Akalis would collapse in this manner. The entire anti-incumbency vote shifted to AAP. Some of the candidates who won, like Raja Warring and the winners in Majha won because SAD didn't collapse there."
In addition to this, leaders and backroom people involved in the campaign The Quint spoke to, mentioned a number of specific mistakes that the party made:
Captain should have been told to pull up his socks much earlier. Even his removal could have been done earlier and in a less clumsy manner.
If the party wanted to project Sidhu, he should have been made the CM and not the PCC president. At least that way the party could have gone with a fresh image, by projecting someone with the image of being a "rebel" and "non-corrupt".
Conversely, if the party wanted some kind of status quo, then Sidhu shouldn't have been elevated and allowed to wreck the credibility of Captain's government and subsequently even Channi to some extent.
As mentioned above, the party should have had a more centralised campaign, with a clearer narrative and sharper slogan.
Ambika Soni's comment that only a Sikh should be CM, alienated the party's traditional Hindu vote base.
Once the party had made Channi the CM and emphasised on the Dalit CM card, he should have been projected as the CM face much earlier, instead of leaving it until later. Ideally, this should have been done before AAP's announcement.
If the party wanted to project a real change, it should have dropped many more sitting MLAs.
Even while choosing Channi's cabinet, the party should have brought in more fresh faces to project change, instead of bringing back leaders with a controversial image like Rana Gurjeet Singh.
The ED raid against Channi and the recovery of cash from his relative severely harmed his credibility, including among Dalits. Jatt Sikhs and Hindus were as it is lukewarm towards Channi.
Captain failed to fulfill many promises due to lack of political will on his party, Channi couldn't rectify matters due to lack of administrative experience. The lack of action against Akalis created the impression that the two parties are in cahoots.
Two Key Appointments the Congress Needs to Make in Punjab
Amidst this internal battle, the party is faced with a daunting challenge of filling two key vacancies: the Congress Legislature Party leader, who will by default be the Leader of the Opposition in Punjab and second is that of the PCC president, now that Sidhu has resigned.
The party needs a team that can prevent further erosion of its rank and file and support base and ensure that the party wins a decent number of seats from Punjab in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
However, the internal dynamics in the Majha and Doaba regions – that account for 16 out of 18 Congress MLAs – may complicate these two appointments.
The senior-most claimant is Partap Singh Bajwa, who has won from Qadian in Gurdaspur district. He is unlikely to be considered for the PCC presidentship as he has been that in the past, but he could be considered for the CLP leader's position.
However, Bajwa may be opposed by rivals from within the Majha region that he belongs to: Sukhjinder Randhawa, Tript Rajinder Bajwa, Sukhbinder Sarkaria and Aruna Chaudhary – all of who won their respective seats.
This cluster of leaders – especially the Majha Express trio of Randhawa, Tript Bajwa and Sarkaria – is too strong to ignore and it is possible that they would have an important say in the appointment of both the PCC president and the CLP leader. One of them could even make the cut for one of the two positions.
If that happens, then Sukhjinder Randhawa may be the front runner. His name was almost finalised as the CM following Captain's resignation until Channi's name came up. It is possible that Randhawa could now be compensated for that.
Another name doing the rounds is that of Amarinder Singh Raja Warring, who won from Gidderbaha for the third time in a row.
Warring's win is particularly significant as he is the only one of two victorious Congress candidates from Malwa and the only one from a Sikh majority seat in the region. He survived even as the Congress faced huge defeats in all the neighbouring seats.
In 2019 Lok Sabha election, he had given SAD's Harsimrat Kaur a very good fight from her seat Bathinda.
At 44 years of age, Warring is young and would give a much-needed generational change to the Congress especially with CM Bhagwant Mann being just 48.
A dominant and polarising figure for the Congress in Doaba is Rana Gurjeet Singh, who won from Kapurthala for the fourth time in row.
Rana has the resources to sustain the party, especially as a PCC chief, but he faces several allegations of being involved in a mining allocation scandal.
He also fielded his son Rana Inder Pratap from the neighbouring seat of Sultanpur Lodhi against the official party candidate, which may go against him.
He also faces opposition from other Doaba MLAs such as Sukhpal Khaira, Balwinder Dhaliwal, Bawa Henry and Dr Raj Kumar.
One leader who has already started putting the AAP government on the mat is Sukhpal Singh Khaira, who won from Bholath against SAD veteran Bibi Jagir Kaur.
However, he is perceived as being "too independent" and is opposed by entrenched Congress leaders like Rana Gurjeet. His recent arrest also may make it difficult for the party to appoint him.
Khaira is still likely to be one of the most vociferous voices against the new government and one who doesn't shy away from speaking on contentious issues like UAPA arrests and sacrilege cases.
Options Among MPs
While the CLP position, sources predict, could be between Warring and one of the senior Majha leaders, the party does have the option to look beyond MLAs as far as the PCC chief position is concerned.
Defeated MLA candidates may not command credibility in that position, though a leader like Kuljeet Nagra does have the confidence of the high command
However, the party could consider a Member of Parliament. If that happens, then the names of Ravneet Bittu and Dr Amar Singh may have a better chance than other MPs.
Among the MPs, Manish Tewari and Preneet Kaur are already part of the 'G-23' grouping and Jasbir Singh Gill openly spoke against the party during the campaign.
All in all, the Congress is staring at an uncertain future in what was one of its strongest states until a few years ago. The party faces a daunting task of preserving its flock of MLAs and party workers in order to ensure that it is able to get a respectable tally in the Lok Sabha polls.
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