Punjab Congress

Rift between Amarinder Singh and Navjot Singh Sidhu boils over ahead of the Punjab Assembly election early next year

Print edition : July 16, 2021

Chief Minister Amarinder Singh (right) with opposition MLAs Sukhpal Khaira, Jagdev Singh Kamalu and Pirmal Singh Khalsa who joined the Congress, in Chandigarh on June 3. Photo: PTI

Navjot Singh Sidhu addressing a press conference at his residence in Patiala on June 20. Photo: PTI

Crisis in the Punjab unit of the Congress comes out in the open ahead of the Assembly election due early next year.

The crisis in the Congress party in Punjab refuses to blow over, with both Chief Minister Amarinder Singh and Navjot Singh Sidhu, cricketer-turned-politician and former Minister, ranged against each other.

There has been a lot of bad blood between the two. Sidhu opened the flanks again by going public with allegations about the State being held hostage by the land, sand and drug mafia. He also aired his grievances with regard to the non-implementation of election promises by the Amarinder Singh government. Although he reiterated his claims of being ready to do anything for Punjab, including working at the zilla parishad level, it seemed that his eyes were set on a higher goal.

Amarinder Singh, the astute politician that he is, countered Sidhu by roping in three opposition legislators into the party in the first week of June: Sukhpal Khaira, a former Congress leader who had joined the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) before forming his own Punjab Ekta Party; and Pirmal Singh Khalsa and Jagdev Singh Kamalu, two rebel MLAs of the AAP.

Committees constituted

The timing of their comeback was interesting. The Congress high command in New Delhi had formed a three-member committee, led by senior leader Mallikarjun Kharge, Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, and comprising Harish Rawat, party general secretary in-charge of Punjab affairs, and Jai Prakash Agarwal, former Member of Parliament from Delhi, to resolve the crisis. The committee met the warring factions first on June 3, and after another round of confabulations two weeks later, asked Amarinder Singh about the pending election promises, particularly the delay in securing justice in the Guru Granth Sahib sacrilege and police firing cases, action against the drug mafia and the annulment of power purchase agreements (PPAs) which the former Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party (SAD-BJP) government had signed with independent power producers.

Punjab has had a long-standing problem with the drug mafia, and the Congress had made it an issue in the Assembly election in 2017. Likewise, the sand mining issues have been festering ever since the Congress came to power in 2017.

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The emotive sacrilege issue dates back to 2015 when 10 pages of the Guru Granth Sahib were found torn in Faridkot district. The event led to massive protests and two Sikhs died in police firing. The Congress at the time had asked for the resignation of the Akali government over the incident. Six years on, the guilty have not been properly identified. Sidhu alleged that the government had failed to bring to book the culprits despite being in power for over four years.

In September 2018, the Amarinder Singh-led government formed a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to look into the issue. However, Sidhu attacked the government over that too. “What was the need for an SIT?” he asked. “You weakened the evidence. We reduced the Akalis to the lowest ever number of seats, and broke Panthic votes. Should we have acted on this issue in the first six months after we came to power or the last six months when your chair is in danger? It is not about SIT, it is about intent.”

Incidentally,the high command had formed two separate committees led by senior Congress leader P. Chidambaram and party general secretary Asha Sharma to monitor the progress on the election promises. The failure of the committees to meet regularly and take stock of the developments has in some measure contributed to the exacerbation of tension now.

Amarinder Singh briefed the Kharge committee about the progress made on the election promises, particularly about the status of the probe into the sacrilege and police firing cases, with an assurance to implement the pending ones within the next six months. The Chief Minister, it is learnt, agreed to rope in Sidhu into his Cabinet. He, however, is said to have ruled out considering Sidhu for the post of Deputy Chief Minister. The fact that both he and Sidhu hail from Patiala would, according to Amarinder Singh, send the wrong signals to legislators and voters. He used a similar ruse to seek to deny Sidhu the post of the State Congress chief, arguing against two men of the same community occupying the two most important posts.

With the Assembly election a little over six months away, Sidhu, it is learnt, was keen to step into the shoes of Sunil Jakhar, the incumbent, who had led the party to a spectacular victory in 2017 and managed to halt the BJP’s juggernaut in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Although Sidhu denies any such ambition, his repeated refusal to back down in his criticism of the Chief Minister tells another story.

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Incidentally, Sidhu has enjoyed the backing of both Priyanka Vadra and Rahul Gandhi ever since he joined the party from the BJP ahead of the 2017 election. However, his decision to use a media platform to air his grievances has not gone down well with his supporters in New Delhi and Punjab.

Amarinder Singh has strong support among the legislators. It is widely believed that his charisma and hard work led to the victory in 2017. The three-member committee is also believed to be in favour of his continuation at the helm of the government. Hence it is trying to find a mutually agreeable solution between the sparring duo. But it is a tightrope walk.

Delegation to high command

Even as the committee met Amarinder Singh, over a dozen MLAs and MPs from Punjab met Rahul Gandhi separately in the capital. “I discussed the current political situation and expectations of the party. The high command will take a decision over this [the chief ministerial face of the party for the 2022 election],” said Partab Singh Bajwa, MP, a member of the delegation, after its meeting with Rahul Gandhi.

Meanwhile, Amarinder Singh also made an attempt to meet party president Sonia Gandhi. He remained confident of the support of the majority of the MLAs, his stature doubtlessly enhanced with the inclusion of three opposition MLAs.

At the conclusion of the second round of parleys, Harish Rawat told the media that a report had been submitted to the party high command, and Sidhu would be invited to Delhi to give his statement by July 10. Sidhu denied having received any such summons from New Delhi. Even as there is no sign of thaw in the frosty relationship between the Chief Minister and his one-time ministerial colleague, it seems Sidhu has much to lose in case of failure to have his way through. And Amarinder Singh can no longer be as confident of retaining the reins of the government after the 2022 election.

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The Congress apparently was comfortably placed to retain power in the State. The BJP has cut a sorry figure after the SAD severed its ties with that party over the three farm laws the Centre has passed. The SAD is now in the process of stitching local alliances, beginning with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Dalits constitute over 30 per cent of the State’s population; the SAD hopes to tide over the loss of potential BJP votes with the BSP’s vote base. But those calculations will come in handy closer to the election.

For now, Amarinder Singh realises Sidhu has few options. He has been with the BJP in the past, an innings that came to an unsavoury end. He has had a dalliance with the AAP too. A return to the BJP, which stands decimated in the State, is not possible for him. The AAP is a divided house. And as for the SAD, the Badals have a tight grip over that party’s affairs.