Capt. Amarinder Singh must be scratching his head in despair and bewilderment. The Congress high command is running him down, publicly and spectacularly. The Punjab chief minister has been made to stand what looks like a trial before a three-member committee (read commission of inquiry) set up by party president Sonia Gandhi, purportedly to end an internecine war in Punjab Congress.
His deposition before the committee in New Delhi last Friday was a political spectacle. Making a chief minister come to the national capital to explain his conduct before a party committee might be a grand display of the Congress high command’s power and authority but it does no good to the CM’s political stature and image in his home state.
Last year, the Congress had set up a similar three-member committee to look into the grievances of Sachin Pilot-led rebels in Rajasthan. Has anyone heard of that committee for the past year? No. Has that committee summoned CM Ashok Gehlot for deposition, even in Jaipur? No. And rightly so. This is not to suggest that the Congress high command is right in leaving Pilot high and dry after he gave up his rebellion. The limited point here is that there are dignified ways of dealing with chief ministers and party stalwarts like Ashok Gehlot and Amarinder Singh.
Aside, even in times of peace, the Congress has committees to coordinate with the government in states where it’s in power. These committees are invariably a mechanism to keep the CMs under check, and, to this end, needle them intermittently.
The importance of Capt. Singh
Coming to the subject of Capt. Singh’s ‘trial’, if a section of Punjab Congress leaders and Rahul Gandhi’s proteges had complained about Singh’s style of functioning and accessibility, then Sonia Gandhi could call the CM to 10, Janpath to seek an explanation. She could get her children — Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra — to sit by her side and sort out the issues their proteges have with Singh. But to put the Punjab CM on public trial like this! Rahul, Wayanad MP, and Priyanka, AICC general secretary in-charge of Uttar Pradesh, had a virtual meeting with the committee comprising Mallikarjun Kharge, Harish Rawat and J.P. Aggarwal later — don’t ask ‘in what capacity’. What would stop Gandhi family members from meeting the Punjab CM — a friend and Doon School senior of late Rajiv Gandhi — when they were all in Delhi?
Of the five states that will go to polls in February-March next year — UP, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Goa, and Manipur — the Congress stands the best chance in Punjab. Singh has handled the farmers’ agitation on central farm laws skilfully, supporting their demand but, at the same time, coordinating with the Centre and moderate elements among protesters to try to resolve the impasse. The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), despite its support to the farm agitation, finds itself on the political margins while a splintered Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) seems to have lost its way.
Even the legislators who were critical at the AICC committee meeting about the CM being ‘inaccessible’ want to go into the next assembly election with Amarinder Singh as the party’s face.
They know his skills on the political and electoral battleground. Going into the 2017 assembly elections, surgical strikes on terror launch pads across the Line of Control and the demonetisation move had given a huge advantage to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in most states but Singh was able to blunt it in Punjab and dislodge the BJP-SAD government.
So, what is it that’s driving the Gandhis to emulate Kalidas and try to saw off the branch that they are comfortably perched on in Punjab? Trying to undermine the CM, barely eight months ahead of the next polls, is like political hara-kiri.
The ostensible reason being cited is rebellion against Amarinder Singh by cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu and a handful of other ambitious legislators. It’s not the first time that Sidhu is having a problem with his captain. Remember his infamous walkout of the England tour in 1996. He had got upset with captain Mohammad Azharuddin. It was years later that former BCCI secretary J.Y. Lele revealed in a book how Sidhu had mistaken his captain’s use of “maa ke” as an abuse. It took an amused Mohinder Amarnath to explain to the Punjabi-speaking batsman that Azhar wasn’t abusing him and that “maa ke” (meaning ‘mother’s dear child’) was “a common naughty address to a dear one in Hyderabadi.”
But no matter how often he got out in his cricketing days, jumping out of the crease to try to hit a six, Sidhu wouldn’t let patience tame his impulses — just as he doesn’t do it today in politics either. So, when the BJP denied him a party ticket for Amritsar in favour of Arun Jaitley in 2014, Sidhu was defiant. The party tried to mollify him with Rajya Sabha nomination but his ambitions had started soaring by then. He didn’t see much scope for a popular Jat Sikh leader in the BJP in Punjab. And Arvind Kejriwal wouldn’t declare him the AAP’s chief ministerial candidate. Sidhu was soon berating Kejriwal: “Bholi surat dil ke khote, naam bade aur darshan chhote.”
Ahead of the 2017 assembly election, he joined the Congress and went on to become a minister but it wasn’t good enough for him.
It was only a matter of time before Sidhu started stepping out of the crease to hit a six in politics, secure in the belief that a Gandhi is behind the stumps. What must also gave him confidence is the fact that the BJP would be looking for a popular Jat Sikh face in Punjab after its split with the SAD. So would the AAP, given its desperation to regain political relevance in the state. These are good enough bargaining chips.
A familiar script
The question is: Can the Congress afford to undermine Capt. Amarinder Singh to prop up Navjot Sidhu? Yes, if the idea is to lose the next election to render Singh irrelevant and install a puppet. The Gandhis experimented with it in Haryana, totally undermining Bhupinder Singh Hooda to ensure the party’s defeat in the last assembly election. Unfortunately for 10, Janpath drum beaters, Hooda remains the party’s only hope in Haryana even today. But the answer is no, if the Gandhis are looking to arrest the party’s downslide and also salvage their own image, especially after Rahul led the Congress to an embarrassing defeat in Kerala.
Congress spin masters say there is nothing wrong with the party high command trying to stop internal bickering ahead of the polls and also look for a successor to Capt. Amarinder Singh who will turn 80 in March next year. Fair enough. But, given that the detractors are all known to have Delhi’s backing, the script looks a little too familiar: The Congress high command trying to fix yet another popular regional satrap with a mind of his own.
Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)
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