Uneasy truce between Amarinder Singh and Navjot Singh Sidhu in Punjab

Print edition : August 27, 2021

Chief Minister Capt. Amarinder Singh with Navjot Singh Sidhu, the newly appointed State Congress president, in Chandigarh on July 23. Photo: PTI

The crisis in the Punjab Congress passes with the high command working out a formula for peace: Navjot Singh Sidhu is made Pradesh Congress Committee president and Amarinder Singh remains Chief Minister.

A SERIES of supposed hush-hush meetings called by the Congress high command in New Delhi to sort out the differences between Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh and his bete noire Navjot Singh Sidhu provided a field day for the media. Amarinder Singh visited Delhi to meet a three-member committee consisting of Mallikarjun Kharge, Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha; Harish Rawat, the party in-charge of Punjab; and Jai Prakash Agarwal, former Member of Parliament from Delhi. He stayed over in order to meet party president Sonia Gandhi with whom he has enjoyed a good rapport. For good measure, he was accompanied by some loyal Congress MLAs and MPs.

Not to be outmanouevred, cricketer-turned-politician Sidhu brought his own set of political players, including former hockey captain and Olympian Pargat Singh, to Delhi. Even as efforts were on to broker peace between the two high-profile leaders ahead of the 2022 Punjab Assembly election, some wondered if it was time for Amarinder Singh to step down. Others believed that Sidhu had probably bitten off more than he could chew. Neither apprehension proved true as Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra piloted peace between the two estranged factions, drawing the curtain over a long-drawn-out political drama. Her brother and former Congress president, Rahul Gandhi, had initially expressed an unwillingness to meet Sidhu. However, Priyanka Vadra is said to have persuaded him to agree to a backroom parley with him. Incidentally, Rahul Gandhi’s reluctance to meet Sidhu, who is purported to be close to the Gandhi siblings, was attributed to Amarinder Singh’s meeting with Sonia Gandhi. But Sidhu’s impromptu meeting with Rahul Gandhi brought about a truce.

Whether the truce will bring lasting peace or merely signals a false dawn remains to be seen. For now, the party can take heart from the bonhomie on display at the Punjab Bhawan meeting called by Amarinder Singh ahead of the tea party hosted by Sidhu the same day. The Chief Minister’s media adviser was happy to tweet pictures of the two meeting over tea. The two leaders, incidentally, came face-to-face after a slanging match at the Punjab Bhawan meeting.

Gain for Sidhu

Sidhu as the new Pradesh Congress Committee chief got a large part of the pie. In fact, as a tweet went, ‘Sherry [his nickname] got the cherry on the top to go with the cream!’ This was a significant gain considering Amarinder Singh had turned down repeated proposals to nominate him as the Deputy Chief Minister, and had expressed his reservation to Sidhu’s elevation as the State party chief. The high command overruled his objections without dilly-dallying.

Also read: Rift between Amarinder Singh and Navjot Singh Sidhu boils over

With election preparations and candidate assessment set to start in right earnest, Sidhu is now in a pivotal position to repay those who stood by him in his battle with the Chief Minister. Amarinder Singh can find solace in the fact that he continues to be the Chief Minister and remains powerful despite the snub. His chief ministerial aspiration ahead of the 2022 election has hardly been concealed with Rawat virtually declaring that the party will contest the election under his leadership.

Faridkot issue as springboard

Incidentally, Amarinder Singh had sought a public apology from Sidhu for his tweets targeting the Chief Minister over his alleged inaction in the issue concerning the desecration of 10 pages of the Guru Grant Sahib in Faridkot district in 2015. The Shiromani Akali Dal was in power then. Sidhu accused the Amarinder Singh government of not making any headway in bringing the guilty to book. Amarinder Singh denied this, but the issue provided Sidhu a springboard to come back into public reckoning after his forgettable tenure as Power Minister in the Amarinder Singh Cabinet.

The main loser in the power tussle though was Sunil Jakhar, who was the Pradesh Congress president during the 2017 Assembly election.

Whatever the gains for Sidhu, and whatever Amarinder Singh’s attempts to limit the losses, the brouhaha over the Punjab crisis has shown that the Congress high command is not shy of tackling any crisis between the old and new order in the party. It is widely believed that the party won the 2017 election largely owing to the charisma of Amarinder Singh. The involvement of the central unit was minimal during the election campaign with the Sonia Gandhi and her children not having to address election rallies. Amarinder Singh, however, was happy to reiterate his gratitude to the party headquarters.

Inside Punjab though it was a different story. Amarinder Singh, with some help from Sunil Jakhar, was able to guide the party back to power, selecting candidates, and electioneering widely in seats of his choice. Since 2017, Amarinder Singh, not Rahul Gandhi, has been the party’s trump card. It did not necessarily translate into a bigger political stature for Amarinder Singh. His opponents in the State waited for an opportunity to strike back. The sand mining and drug issues, along with the desecration case, meant Sidhu had more than a single ring to his bow. With Sidhu showing no signs of backtracking, the party decided to humour the relative youngster without throwing away the veteran. The decision to give Sidhu the reins of power in the State Congress is a significant departure from the actions of senior party leaders when similar instances had cropped up in other States where the party is in power.

Lessons from Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh

In the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha election, Jyotiraditya Scindia was sought to be mollified by putting him in charge of western Uttar Pradesh, away from his preferred turf, Madhya Pradesh. There, the party veteran Kamal Nath called the shots at that time as the Chief Minister. And former Chief Minister Digvijaya Singh hardly missed an opportunity to strike at Scindia and even Kamal Nath. All along, the party high command was seen as too timid to oust Kamal Nath despite serious allegations of corruption and his alleged role in the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom. The party won the Asembly election in December 2018, but with Kamal Nath refusing to accommodate Scindia loyalists in his Cabinet, the latter left to join the Bharatiya Janata Party. Owing to the high command’s failure to keep Scindia, not only was Scindia lost to the BJP, the Congress government in the State collapsed.

Also read: Congress rift and its larger political ramifications

A repeat of the Madhya Pradesh fiasco was avoided in the nick of time in Rajasthan. Sachin Pilot’s animosity with Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot turned into an open rebellion when hordes of legislators were taken away to a hotel and held amid tight security. The party high command, despite reservations with Gehlot, did not seem to trust Pilot enough. With the government having a wafer-thin majority in the State, it was felt that the senior legislators may not acquiesce to the decision, and many may not be averse to defection. The party did not want another hard-fought electoral victory to go waste. The Gandhis pacified Pilot with the promise of a greater say in party affairs and inclusion of leaders close to him in the Cabinet, but it was Gehlot who ultimately emerged stronger. Beyond token sops to the Pilot camp on the nudging of the Gandhis, he conceded little.

Both in Madhya Pradesh and in Rajasthan, the party was slow to react. It came up with the easy solution of pacifying the younger leader without upsetting the Chief Minister. Such a view cost the Congress dearly in Madhya Pradesh with the Kamal Nath government resigning in March 2020 ahead of a floor test, enabling the BJP to form the government.

Meanwhile, in Jaipur, Pilot continues to wait, somewhat impatiently, in the wings. In the circumstances, it is the first time in recent years that the Gandhis have taken a firm, even brave, decision to back the young runner ahead of an old war horse in Punjab.

Whether Amarinder Singh brought it upon himself with his relative implacability or the party used Sidhu to set a template for the future remains to be seen. Either way, the Punjab Vidhan Sabha election, which appeared to be a cakewalk for the Congress until this summer, will determine not only who will be the next Chief Minister but also who calls the shots in the State.

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