Punjab Crisis: Navjot Sidhu & Congress Both Made Mistakes. What Happens Next?
Both Congress and Navjot Sidhu should have had a better understanding of what they were doing.
A day after he resigned as the Punjab Pradesh Congress President, Navjot Singh Sidhu released a video outlining the reasons for his exit. He made four important statements:
"People who gave clean chit to those accused in sacrilege are being rewarded."
"The person who secured bail for the accused is now Advocate General."
"The top officials who gave protection to those who killed the children of Punjab's mothers are being rewarded."
"There's a system of tainted leaders and officers. You can't change the system by bringing back the same leaders and officers".
Sidhu's Exit Can Be Broadly Attributed to 3 Reasons
1. It was becoming increasingly clear to Sidhu that the Congress won't make him the chief ministerial face for the upcoming Assembly elections. After making Charanjit Channi the chief minister and showcasing the fact that he is Punjab's first Dalit CM and presently the only Dalit CM in India, it would be highly unlikely that the party would replace him four months down the line.
2. Sidhu opposed key appointments such as that of Advocate General APS Deol. As Deol had earlier represented Sumedh Saini, one of the accused in the 2015 sacrilege and police firing case, it was harming Sidhu's plank of strong action in these cases.
3. Cabinet appointments: Sidhu is said to have been opposed to the induction of Rana Gurjit Singh as he had resigned from Captain's cabinet due to corruption allegations. Sidhu was also concerned with the appointment of Raj Kumar Verka as a Cabinet minister and OP Soni as deputy CM as both are his rivals in Amritsar politics. He was also unhappy with the appointment of pro-Captain leaders like Brahm Mohindra.
Some of Sidhu's objections seem justified, especially regarding the appointment of Deol, Rana Gurjit and Gurkirat Kotli (who was accused in an abduction and molestation case in the 1990s). However, the cricketer-turned-politician has erred on a number of counts.
Where Sidhu Went Wrong
1. Either Build Something New or Accept the Existing System
There's no simple way to put this. If Sidhu wanted to follow a brand of politics that involves making no compromises with allegedly corrupt individuals, he should have started his own party and brought in people he feels are clean.
He had this option in the run-up to the 2017 Assembly elections. Even if he would have failed once, in the long run it would have yielded something.
It appears clear that Sidhu wanted to gain political power in Punjab without making compromises that are characteristic of traditional parties or without working hard to build something new.
2. If Sidhu Wanted To Do Pro-Panthic Politics, He Landed in the Wrong Party
Now, Sidhu is not a Panthic politician. He began his career in Bharatiya Janata Party and then shifted to Congress – two of the most non-Panthic parties in Punjab.
He follows Hindu rituals and consults astrologers. Nothing wrong in that but it's not something that a Panthic politician would do.
Despite this background, Sidhu wanted to appeal to the Panthic constituency by citing his role in the opening up of the Kartarpur Sahib corridor and taking a strong stand on the sacrilege case.
Now, the sacrilege issue is not just a Panthic issue, it is a question of justice for the people of Punjab. But in political circles, it is true that pro-Panthic political entities are pursuing this more intensely than others.
It is clear that this isn't much of a priority for the Congress. This is a party where Kamal Nath influenced at least two of the recent Cabinet inductions: Brahm Mohindra and Randeep Singh Nabha. Kamal Nath is a leader who was accused of being involved in violence at Gurdwara Rakabganji during the 1984 pogrom.
Sidhu should have realised what he was getting into while joining the party. Again, it may have been better had he formed his own party or joined AAP where pro-Panthic elements had a better representation back in 2017.
3. Which Party Doesn't Back Tainted Cops?
No mainstream party in Punjab goes against tainted policemen openly. The Congress has the worst track record, having ruled in the dark years of the 1980s and 1990s when encounters and forced disappearances were common.
Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) too backed policemen associated with this period, such as Sumedh Saini and Izhar Alam.
AAP national officer bearer Deepak Bajpai hailed Saini as a "national hero" and one who "saved Punjab from terrorists". No action was taken by AAP against Bajpai.
Sidhu himself had praised KPS Gill on an earlier occasion. More recently, he appointed former DGP Mohammad Mustafa as his adviser. Mustafa too had faced allegations in the 1990s.
Again, if Sidhu wanted a change from this, he should have created his own party and avoided any of these compromises.
Where the Congress Went Wrong
The Congress leadership isn't blameless on this matter. In fact, morally it may have more to answer for than Sidhu.
The party presented the appointment of Charanjit Channi as a major change in Punjab and the "breaking of a glass ceiling".
While the appointment of a Dalit CM is no doubt significant, it is not enough. Remember the Congress lost two successive Assembly elections in Punjab at a time when it had a Sikh prime minister in India in 2007 and 2012.
The change at the top is of little importance if officials and ministers with serious allegations are being appointed in key positions.
The Congress missed the fact that the anger against Captain was largely because of his inability to act against the Badals in the sacrilege case.
The Channi regime will be put in the same category, following the appointment of Deol as Advocate General and if nothing concrete happens in the case.
The appointment of Rana Gurjit and Gurkirat Kotli also harmed the Congress' claim of bringing about a change.
Regarding Sidhu, the Congress has tried to use him to bring down Captain and wanted to utilise his popularity in Punjab for its benefit, without giving him either the CM's post or even a big say in the government.
It failed to understand that Sidhu's appeal lies in the fact that he stood up to Badals, Captain and the politics of status quo.
Making him the PCC chief while also appeasing entrenched interest groups, defeated the purpose of promoting him.
What Lies Ahead
Sidhu may have angered the high command by diverting attention from their key project this week: induction of Jignesh Mevani and Kanhaiya Kumar into the party.
Sidhu will also be accused of not fulfilling the high command's expectation by leaving his responsibility.
However, as of now, the party hasn't accepted Sidhu's resignation and it has asked him to resolve the differences. But it has also begun exploring possible successors as the Punjab Congress chief.
Channi has also communicated to Sidhu that "the party is supreme".
As things stand today, a face-saver for Sidhu would be if APS Deol is made to resign as Advocate General. This is something that the government may still be able to do if it wants to.
But Deol has already damaged the image of Channi's regime as the latter having compromised with corrupt elements.
What Options Does Sidhu Have?
Except for minister Raziya Sultana and Congress treasurer Gulzar Inder Chahal, no one has resigned in solidarity with Sidhu as of now.
Sidhu loyalist Pargat Singh went to his home late on the night of 28 September. Pargat has recently been appointed as a minister and was also made general secretary (organisation) by Sidhu.
If Channi and the Congress high command decide to cut Sidhu loose, it may compel more people to choose sides and bring the party on the verge of a split.
It's not as if Sidhu doesn't have options, though none of them are ideal ones. AAP may take him but it is unlikely to make him its CM face, putting him in a similar position as he is in the Congress.
SAD is not an option given how opposition to the Akalis has been central to Sidhu's politics.
There are, however, smaller players with whom Sidhu can cobble together a broad coalition. These include SAD (Samyukt) of Sukhdev Dhindsa, SAD (Taksali), Deep Sidhu's proposed outfit, Bains brothers' Lok Insaf Party, pro-Panthic elements not aligned with any party and elements from within the farmers' movement who may be willing to take part in electoral politics.
This could be the fulcrum of a new pro-Panthic, pro-farmer, Punjab-centric regional formation.
The space for such an outfit is there. But one can't be sure if Sidhu has the capacity to undertake such a difficult task.
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