Congress turbulence in Punjab; Amarinder, Sidhu quit

The Congress’ self-destructive streak is all too evident in its missteps in Punjab, which resulted in Captain Amarinder Singh’s exit, and raises troubling questions over the party’s leadership and direction.

Published : Oct 05, 2021 06:00 IST

“There is nothing to suggest that the first family of the Congress, ‘the Nehru-Gandhis’, especially its current representatives, have drawn special inspiration from Chairman Mao Zedong. But the actions of former Congress president Rahul Gandhi, his sister and party general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, and his mother and interim party president Sonia Gandhi, over the past couple of years, seem to indicate that they have all taken an exceptional liking for the legendary Chinese Communist Party (CPC) Chairman’s 1966 call to ‘Bombard the Headquarters’. Signals of this have been repeatedly manifesting during this period and they seem to have intensified to unprecedented proportions in September 2021.” This was how a senior Congress leader from southern India and former Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) president described the recent developments in his party.

The last two weeks of September saw sensational internal turbulence in the Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee, beginning with the ouster of senior leader Captain Amarinder Singh as Chief Minister with less than six months left for to the elections to the State Assembly.

The party replaced him with Dalit leader Charanjit Singh Channi, who retained some members of the previous Ministry in his team. Shortly afterwards, Navjot Singh Sidhu resigned as the president of the State Congress unit. All these events happened within a matter of a fortnight.

The senior Congress leader told Frontline that while Mao Zedong released the inner-party document titled ‘Bombard the Headquarters’ to exhort CPC cadre to revolt against President Liu Shaoqi and senior leader Deng Xiaoping, who were in charge of the Chinese government’s day-to-day functioning, the “intent of the current Congress high command seems to be the systematic self-destruction of their own party, which is also the principal opposition of the country”.

Several senior party leaders and long-standing observers have also reached the same conclusion. The Congress leader added that this opinion was not just in relation to Punjab alone but States such as Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Assam, Kerala and Goa. Also read: Uneasy initial truce between Amarinder Singh and Sidhu

In the past two months, the Congress has seen the exit of senior leaders such as Sushmita Dev in Assam, Luizinho Faleiro in Goa and K.P. Anil Kumar in Kerala, which are clear pointers to the self-destruct line adopted by the high command.

Of course, a significant section of the party and several Congress observers disagree with this view. But there is no denying the fact that the recent developments within the party and in Congress-run State governments have hardened the fault lines within the organisational structure and different layers of leadership. In the process, several leaders are seen to be increasingly susceptible to overtures from political adversaries, mainly the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the ruling party at the Centre.

All this has created a lot of confusion and also raised serious doubts about the political, ideological and organisational orientations of the Congress as a party and its leaders as individual politicians.

Captain’s exit

On September 18, 2021, Captain Amarinder Singh was forced to resign as Punjab Chief Minister following months of dissidence and infighting against his leadership. The situation worsened after the high command appointed former cricketer Navjot Singh Sidhu as Punjab PCC president in the third week of July. While resigning, Amarinder Singh hit out at Sidhu, calling him an anti-national who was especially dangerous in the politics of a border State like Punjab.

A day later, on September 19, the Congress high command appointed Charanjit Singh Channi as Chief Minister. The selection of a Dalit leader as Chief Minister was hailed as a step in the right direction and political observers said that the move would help the Congress retain its edge in the overall political scenario of the State. On September 26, Channi inducted a 15-member Ministry, retaining several members from Amarinder Singh’s team.

Barely two days later, Sidhu quit as PCC president. Congress circles described it as a “bomb” because Sidhu’s resignation letter was sent to the party’s interim president not through formal channels but as a tweet. He did not provide any concrete reason for the resignation.

However, Sidhu cryptically stated: “The collapse of man’s character stems from the compromise corner, I can never compromise on Punjab’s future and agenda of welfare of Punjab. Therefore, I hereby resign as the president of Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee. Will continue to serve the Congress.” As if on cue, State Women and Child Development Minister Razia Sultana quit her post. Many other leaders too proclaimed their support to Sidhu.

Even as these developments unfolded, Amarinder Singh went to New Delhi, where he met with Union Home Minister Amit Shah and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, triggering speculation that he might join the BJP soon.

The meeting with Doval led to speculation that the Centre might rake up Sidhu’s so-called “anti-national connections” by investigating some of his political advisers. Amarinder Singh specifically referred to Sidhu’s dramatic resignation and stated that it proved beyond doubt that the cricketer-turned-politician was an “unstable” man who could not be relied upon to lead the party, especially in a border State like Punjab. He said: “By resigning within two months of taking over as the PPCC chief, Navjot had once again exhibited his shifty character.” He also said that Sidhu was clearly preparing the ground to quit the Congress and join hands with some other party. Also read: Sidhu-Amarinder rift ahead of Punjab assembly elections

After two days and a series of meetings, the former Chief Minister asserted that he was not joining the BJP but was quitting the Congress, as he was “utterly humiliated and not trusted” in the party.

Speaking to mediapersons and his well-wishers in Delhi, Amarinder Singh said that Sidhu had thought he could “remote control” the newly formed Channi Ministry. He suggested that Sidhu may have resigned when he realised that it was not possible. While that is open to debate, there is little doubt that Sidhu was unhappy about several facets of the composition of the Channi Ministry.

Sidhu’s grievances

To start with, he was against the elevation of Rana Gurjeet Singh as Minister. Rana Gurjeet Singh resigned from the Amarinder Singh Ministry in 2018 following allegations of graft in a sand mining case. As many as six Ministers had written to Sidhu hours before Rana Gurjeet Singh’s swearing-in, mentioning the case. Also, the fact that the high command directed Channi to remove Kuljit Singh Nagra, the Punjab PCC working president who is considered to be close to Sidhu, from the Ministry was a sore point.

Moreover, Channi also included Sidhu’s vocal critic Dr Raj Kumar Verka, who belongs to the Dalit Valmiki community, in the Ministry. Sidhu was also apparently against giving the important Home portfolio to Deputy Chief Minister Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa. He was reportedly in favour of the Chief Minister retaining the department.

Sidhu was reportedly not pleased with the appointment of senior advocate A.P.S. Deol as the State’s Advocate General. Deol was until recently counsel for former Director General of Police Sumedh Singh Saini, the police chief during the 2015 incidents of sacrilege and police firing on protesters, which Sidhu had picked up as a major campaign issue in the run-up to his elevation as PCC president. Clearly, Channi was showing that he was his own boss and not a “night watchman” holding fort until Sidhu turned up to bat as Chief Minister.

All this drama obviously triggered reactions from a group of 23 senior Congress leaders, known as G-23, which had written to Sonia Gandhi in August 2020 seeking radical changes in the party. One of the key members of the group, Rajya Sabha member and former Union Minister Kapil Sibal, questioned the manner in which the high command was handling the Punjab situation and advised that the Congress should try to remain united in the State.

Speaking to mediapersons, Sibal said: “In our party, at the moment, there is no president, so we don’t know who is taking these decisions. We know and yet we don’t know.”

These comments came after senior Congress leader and fellow G-23 member Ghulam Nabi Azad sent a letter to Sonia Gandhi. Ghulam Nabi Azad had reiterated the G-23’s demand for elections to the post of party president and an immediate meeting of the Congress Working Committee (CWC).

Sibal under attack

Loyalists of the high command responded in typical Congress style, rallying hundreds of people to march to Sibal’s house in Delhi, calling him a “gaddar (traitor)” and seeking his resignation. Amarinder Singh, who was one of the first to come out in support of Sibal, said that such actions against senior leaders were unacceptable.

CWC member and senior Congress leader P. Chidambaram said: “I feel helpless when we cannot start meaningful conversations within party forums. I also feel hurt and helpless when I see pictures of Congress workers raising slogans outside the residence of a colleague and MP. The safe harbour to which one can withdraw seems to be silence.”

Ghulam Nabi Azad also condemned the orchestrated hooliganism at Kapil Sibal’s residence, stating that Sibal was a loyal Congressman fighting for the party both inside and outside Parliament. Anand Sharma, Deputy Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, urged Sonia Gandhi to take action against those behind the protests, saying that they should be “identified and disciplined”.

Sharma said on Twitter: “Shocked and disgusted to hear the news of attack and hooliganism at Kapil Sibal’s house.” He added that the Congress had a “history of upholding freedom of expression” and that “intolerance and violence” were alien to the party’s values and culture. Former Union Minister Manish Tewari said that the protesters must realise that Sibal was fighting for the party.

Retweeting Tewari, Congress leader Shashi Tharoor said the priority should be to join hands against the BJP. He said: “We all know Sibal as a true Congressman who has fought multiple cases in court for the party. As a democratic party we need to listen to what he has to say, disagree if you must but not in this way.”

On the other side, loyalists of the high command, including former Union Minister Ajay Maken and Youth Congress president B.V. Srinivas, castigated Sibal and other G-23 leaders, saying that the criticism of the high command was opportunistic and triggered by the lack of access to power that many of these leaders were experiencing individually these days.

Rahul’s plans

Speaking on condition of anonymity, several Congress leaders who are close associates of the high command told Frontline that things were beginning to get streamlined within the party organisation and the structures of the front organisations, signalling Rahul Gandhi’s return as Congress president along with a new set of younger, more vibrant leaders at the State and Central levels.

A Youth Congress leader said: “There are many clear and concrete signs of this positive change, including the manner in which State units like Kerala and even Punjab have been reorganised. Youth leaders with widespread acceptability such as former JNU students union president Kanhaiya Kumar have been inducted into the party. Many of these so-called senior leaders are insecure about such broad-basing of the party and frontal organisations. The public displeasure expressed by Manish Tewari over the induction of Kanhaiya Kumar is a clear pointer to this.”

On the former PCC president’s comment in relation to ‘Bombing the Headquarters’, a Youth Congress leader from Kerala told Frontline that “Rahul ji is clear as to what he is doing” and that it was, in many ways, ‘Bombing the Headquarters’, but with the “intent of developing a new, dynamic young leadership”.

Notwithstanding such assertions, the big question that a large number of long-standing Congress observers have is whether Rahul Gandhi would be able to provide constant leadership to the party round the year. Indeed, there are many interesting and positive initiatives to his credit; a case in point is is his interaction with global specialists from diverse fields in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and his concrete suggestions to the government on the basis of those interactions. But he did not take these initiatives forward steadily and systematically. In short, his overall track record is not one that promises sustained political action. Also read: Navjot Singh Sidhu's spin

Amidst all the developments and the discussions on the new and the old Congress, there is a lull in the Punjab turbulence. The high command, along with some State-level interlocutors, has reportedly been able to bring peace between Sidhu and Channi, with promises of a greater say for Sidhu in matters of governance.

Amarinder Singh too has made it clear that he is not joining the BJP, although he will certainly leave the Congress. His next move would be crucial in the specific context of Punjab. It is widely believed that the former Chief Minister still has the potential to take away many Congress Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) with him, demand a floor test, and trigger a collapse of the Punjab government.

If Amarinder Singh wants to topple the government, he needs 22 MLAs out of the Congress’ 80. Channi needs 59 MLAs to save his government in a House of 117. It is in such a context that the skills of the BJP and Sangh Parivar leadership, particularly those like Amit Shah, would come into play, with the potential to inflict damage.

As some Congress leaders supporting the high command and even those in allegiance with the G-23 told Frontline , Amarinder Singh is a fighter who is not known to give up easily. Indeed, he is bound to initiate some manouevres, which will, in all probability, deepen the fault lines within the Congress and pose more threats to the leadership of the ‘Nehru-Gandhi’ family.

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