The siege within

Print edition : January 16, 2004

The growing opposition within the Punjab Congress(I) to Chief Minister Amarinder Singh and the developmental crisis in the State are likely to prove costly for the party in the next elections.

IN the face of a successful enemy offensive, most parties close ranks and dig in. For reasons they best understand, dissidents within the Congress(I) in Punjab have chosen to charge out of the trenches - and are now trying to lynch their commanding officer.

The inner party insurrection against the leadership of Chief Minister Amarinder Singh has, if nothing else, illustrated the deep discontent and lack of direction that bedevils the Congress(I) in States where it is in power. The course of the rebellion is still unclear, but it has succeeded in crippling the Congress(I)'s ability to rule the State. Key dissident Ministers, notably former Chief Minister Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, have studiously ignored appeals to resume attending their offices. Efforts by Amarinder Singh to build bridges with Bhattal, who describes the Chief Minister as her "brother" in public, have come to nought. Bhattal's camp followers have refused to attend party rallies addressed by the Chief Minister, and are threatening to stay away from this year's Jor Mela, a key religious festival where all major parties set up platforms.

Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi's sphinx-like silence on the issue has not helped matters. Neither Amarinder Singh nor Bhattal has gone public with the substance of their discussions with her, although early signs are that the Congress wants to avoid a split in the party that could encourage dissidents in other State units. "If we let things get out of hand," says a senior All India Congress Committee (AICC) member, "the same thing will start up in the handful of other States where we are in power."

So far, all Sonia Gandhi has achieved is to ensure that the dissidents have left her home, and gone back to Punjab. However, outright warfare continues in the State. Dissidents and loyalists have held parallel strategy counsels over breakfasts and dinners; the State police's intelligence wing is working overtime to watch who is meeting whom; and the regional media is feasting on the party's embarrassment.

On the face of it, the efforts of the dissidents to unseat Amarinder Singh when the party faces a crisis of national magnitude makes little tactical sense. The dissident assault has centred around discrediting the Congress (I)'s anti-corruption offensive against the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) leaders. Top Congress(I) legislators have accused the Chief Minister of corruption - a charge that is unlikely to serve the party well in the next round of elections in Punjab.

All of this begs the question why the dissidents chose to revolt in the first place. At least some of their grievances are personal. Technical Education Minister Mohinder Singh Kaypee, for example, has accused Amarinder Singh of ignoring "the kin of those senior Congress(I) leaders, who were killed by terrorists for waging a battle against the menace of terrorism in the State" - a reference to former Chief Minister Beant Singh's politically ambitious relatives. Underlying this melee, however, are serious questions of political substance.

BHATTAL, who has emerged as a key emblem of the rebel vision of what the Congress(I) should be, has one major personal reason to revolt. Shortly after she stepped down in 1997, making way for the SAD government led by Parkash Singh Badal, Bhattal is alleged to have engaged in serious financial malpractices. On the eve of demitting office, the new government alleged, Bhattal had drawn Rs.20 lakhs in cash from the Chief Minister's Relief Fund. The cash was not properly accounted for, leading to allegations that it had been misappropriated. Although SAD leaders first levelled the allegations, it was under the Congress(I)'s rule that criminal proceedings were eventually initiated, and Bhattal now faces trial.

From an early stage, Bhattal came to believe that Amarinder Singh was using his official power to push the trial more energetically than usual. When the party came to power last year, Bhattal refused to accept any office other than that of Chief Minister. Eventually, she backed down and accepted a Cabinet position after some unsubtle arm-twisting from the party leadership in New Delhi.

It is now clear that Bhattal never reconciled herself to playing second fiddle, and was merely biding her time until an opportunity came to take a crack at the top job.

As the criminal case proceeded apace, Bhattal's resentment grew. The party's debacle in the recent Assembly elections provided Bhattal just the right opportunity. Claiming to enjoy the support of 33 of the party's 64 MLAs, mostly long-standing party apparatchiks, Bhattal marched to 10 Janpath, and demanded that the Chief Minister be deposed forthwith. Amarinder Singh responded with claims that he had the backing of 40 MLAs, and pointed to the complete folly of a top-level leadership change at a crucial juncture. The argument seems to have won the day, at least for the moment.

Prior to its defeat at the hands of the SAD in 1997, the Congress(I) changed Chief Ministers twice following inner party revolts in the wake of the assassination of Beant Singh. Bhattal's defeat at the hands of the SAD was in no small part the result of fissures within the Congress(I).

No one, however, believes that the battle has been settled. Bhattal, who proclaimed before journalists in New Delhi that she would not return to Chandigarh until the Chief Minister had been deposed, is tacitly pushing for a compromise that would give her control of the Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee. This would ensure that she has considerable influence in handing out the party ticket for the Lok Sabha elections next year, and a chance to expand her constituency among the MLAs. Should this compromise be realised, the Congress(I) would go into the Lok Sabha elections next year with one half of the party pitted against the other half. In such a scenario, it is unlikely that the Congress(I) will be capable of repeating its signal success against the Bharatiya Janata Party-SAD alliance in 1999.

SHORN of personalities, however, the Congress(I) MLAs' revolt is in some senses an uprising of the party apparatus against the Chief Minister. Amarinder Singh, in true palace style, ruled through a narrow circle of confidantes, principally his information adviser, Bharat Inder Singh Chahal, and Principal Secretary Sanjit Sinha. Many within the Congress(I) charged Chahal and Sinha with restricting access to the Chief Minister. Fairly or otherwise, Congress(I) dissidents have also accused the Chief Minister's courtiers of using their influence to amass wealth. Bhattal claims that the Chief Minister not only repainted his family palace in Patiala after taking office, but also repaid a long-pending Rs.2-crore loan with funds that were acquired mysteriously.

While there is no evidence to substantiate the allegations, there is a widespread feeling among the Congress(I) that a small group of individuals has appropriated the patronage associated with office. Amarinder Singh has sought to contain the damage by removing both Chahal and Sinha, but the move has done little to suppress dissident anger. Even vocal Amarinder Singh loyalists, such as Cabinet Minister Pratap Singh Bajwa joined the campaign against Chahal and Sinha.

It is unsurprising, then, that so many eminent old-time figures in the Punjab Congress(I) have thrown their weight behind Bhattal. Former Union Ministers Raghunandan Lal Bhatia and Sukhbans Kaur Bhinder have endorsed her effort to unseat Amarinder Singh. Former Member of Parliament Umrao Singh joined the assault. "If within two years, the Chief Minister has lost the confidence of those who were given tickets to contest the elections by him, what about the general public?" Umrao Singh asked.

For all of Amarinder Singh's anti-corruption energy, the Chief Minister's developmental vision has been limited. Schemes to replace the paddy-wheat dyad with the contract farming of high-value crops have gone nowhere; even if they did, a thin section of the upper peasantry alone would benefit. There have been few creative efforts to forge village- and district-level linkages between agriculture and industry, and still lesser effort to spread the wealth of the countryside evenly. A welter of Dalit protests in recent months has convinced many that the Congress(I)'s most abiding supporters may be preparing to jump ship. Neither the dissidents nor the SAD has shown any more clarity of vision than Amarinder Singh, but being his detractors they can capitalise on the developmental crisis under his regime.

As things stand, the revolt has done not a little to cheer the SAD, which has been battered by the recent incarceration of Prakash Singh Badal and his son Sukhbir Badal on charges of corruption. Badal has been demanding that Bhattal's allegations against Amarinder Singh be investigated; Umrao Singh's assertions that the current regime is as corrupt as its predecessor have also brought cheer in the SAD camp. Unless the Congress(I) starts addressing the real issues facing the party, the SAD will be laughing all the way to the hustings.

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