What appears to be a dispute between Chief Minister Amarinder Singh versus his former Cabinet colleague Navjot Singh Sidhu is turning out to be a conflict within the party with deeper faultlines
Congress party seems to be in deep trouble in Punjab, one of its last standing bastions in North India. What appears to be a dispute between Chief Minister Amarinder Singh versus his former Cabinet colleague Navjot Singh Sidhu is turning out to be a conflict within the party with deeper faultlines.
To fix the situation, the Delhi leadership quickly appointed a three-member panel to hold talks with all sections of the party. The panel has already held interactions with Sidhu, several other party MLAs and even candidates who had contested 2017 polls over the past week; it met Singh today in New Delhi at party headquarters. The panel also spoke to Rajya Sabha member from Punjab Ambika Soni to find a possible way out.
Congress leaders, including Anandpur Sahib MP Manish Tewari, met the panel on Thursday along with some MLAs and discussed possible ways to end the infighting and prepare for the upcoming polls in Punjab.
The panel constituted by Congress president Sonia Gandhi to resolve factionalism in the Punjab unit comprises Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge, former Uttarakhand chief minister Harish Rawat and former MP JP Aggarwal.
The controversy is really a spillover of the rivalry between Singh and Sidhu that dates back to 2017 when Sidhu, hopeful of the deputy chief minister’s post, was handed over a low key ministry on Singh’s objection. Since then the duo has sparred often with occasional public outbursts.
The current episode started with Sidhu’s tweet targeting the Punjab chief minister over the 2015 sacrilegious incidents involving Guru Grath Sahib and the killing of two people in police firing. “To know what is right and not to do it is the worst cowardice,” he had tweeted on 22 May.
On 27 April, Singh had challenged Sidhu to contest polls against him from Patiala. He had said that indiscipline would not be tolerated in the party at any cost and that if Sidhu wants to contest against him then he is free to do so but that would only lead to Sidhu meeting the fate of General JJ Singh who lost his security deposit in the election.
The chief minister had also asked Sidhu to clearly spell out whether he is a member of the Congress party or not.
Responding to Amarinder Singh’s remarks, Sidhu had said that he was only “fighting for justice”. “Efforts to derail Punjab’s conscience will fail … my soul is Punjab, and Punjab’s soul is Guru Granth Sahib Ji. Our fight is for justice and punishing the guilty. An assembly seat is not even worth discussion in the same breath!” Sidhu had said in a tweet.
However, more recently the issue has divided the Punjab Congress into two factions as all those who had grievances in the current dispensation used this opportunity to rally against Singh — considered a powerhouse with a mass following who led the party to victory and dislodged the 10-year rule of the Akali-BJP combine in 2017.
The rebels now contend that Singh has failed to fulfill the poll promises the party made in 2017 so they cannot win the next Assembly election — due next year — under his leadership. The party menmbers who have met the panel have aired a wide range of grievances against Singh, who critics said was unapproachable and inept.
The biggest issue among them is the sacrilege of Guru Granth Sahib. Some Congress leaders feel that if concrete action is not taken in this matter, then Congress will suffer a huge loss in the elections. The Punjab chief minister also has the responsibility of the Ministry of Home Affairs. Singh’s opponents accuse him of being close to Sukhbir Singh Badal and not taking any action against him for that reason.
Now, eight months before the election, the demand to replace Singh is gaining momentum. The Congress leadership has formed a committee to stop the rebellion, but the challenge before the committee is very complex. If they change the leadership months before the election, it shows weakness and lack of confidence in the party’s own leadership. If it continues to ignore the dissidents, the party risks losing more leaders to opponents ahead of the crucial Assembly polls.
In two days, a panel set up by Sonia Gandhi has met more than 50 Punjab MLAs in Delhi. Some have spoken of unity and discipline in the party, while some leaders have demanded a change.
Meanwhile, in a major development on Thursday, Chief Minister Capt. Amarinder Singh before leaving for Delhi welcomed Aam Admi Party MLAs Sukhpal Khaira, Jagdev Singh Kamalu and Pirmal Singh Dhaula into Congress.
Congress denies factionalism
Even though the infighting has come out in the open, some Congress leaders stuck to the party line that these slew of meetings were only an effort to strengthen the party at the grassroots level ahead of next year’s Assembly polls.
Lok Sabha MP Tewari, who met the panel on Thursday, said there is no factionalism within Punjab Congress and this exercise is being done to evolve a strategy before next year’s elections. The MP added that it was normal for Congress to hold such exercises to seek views of party leaders and he had given his suggestions to the panel.
Congress spokesperson and youth leader Jaiveer Shergill also said the ongoing discussions are not a crisis management exercise but that of election preparation where suggestions are being taken to ensure that Congress comes on top in 2022.
“The youth workers of Punjab Congress should get the maximum opportunity in 2022,” he said after meeting the panel members.
However, these statements were at odds with what many other Congressmen, including some of the party’s official spokespersons, have been saying.
Acknowledging the presence of these so-called differences, Congress spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi said the committee was formed swiftly after the issue cropped up and a report would come out after internal discussions.
“The issue has been taken seriously by the party leadership. The committee was set up in the shortest possible time and will give its report soon,” Singhvi said.
AICC general secretary in-charge for Punjab Harish Rawat told media that efforts were on to ensure a united front ahead of the 2022 elections, suggesting the distinct possibility that things were less than fine within the party at the moment.
“We talked to many party candidates who contested the last Punjab assembly elections in 2017. We are trying to iron out differences between various party leaders and will try to put up a united face in the 2022 Assembly elections in the state,” Rawat said.
He also said all the three members of the panel spoke to Soni over the telephone and held deliberations with her on how to strengthen the party.
Soni had earlier sent a letter to Sonia Gandhi about the prevailing situation in Punjab Congress, amid an open war of words between the chief minister and Sidhu.
Sources within the Congress told PTI that the panel has also apprised former party chief Rahul Gandhi of the developments and deliberations with various leaders from Punjab.
The panel, set up by Congress president Sonia Gandhi, is likely to present its report to her by the weekend or early next week. A change in the Punjab cabinet and the party is imminent ahead of next year’s assembly elections, they said.
As part of reconciliation efforts and to unite the party, the sources said, Sidhu may be included in the Punjab cabinet once again and elevated as deputy chief minister.
The leadership may also be working to replace Sunil Jhakar as the state Congress chief, a post which Sidhu has been eyeing for a long time. Jakhar has completed his tenure but has been asked to continue as the state unit chief by the Congress high command.
With inputs from agencies
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