Till the very last minute, Captain Amarinder Singh, who is a rare Congress specimen – a leader with a mass following in the North – argued his case against rival Navjot Singh Sidhu. Unsuccessfully. Acting on what had become abundantly clear, the party’s president, Sonia Gandhi, decided that Sidhu, 57, will take over as the chief of the Punjab unit of the party just months before Amarinder Singh seeks re-election.
So, for his daily temper tantrums against the Chief Minister – and tweets that seemed to side with the opposition Aam Aadmi Party – Sidhu has been rewarded. Letters, meetings and a final face-saving attempt – that Sidhu be made to publicly apologize for his diatribe – by the Chief Minister were not just bypassed but emphatically turned down.
The Gandhis intend for the new developments to serve as détente in Punjab, which, for nearly four months, has seen the Congress subsumed by Sidhu’s demand for a starring role. Instead, the family has asked for two incompatible leaders, both openly working against each other, to not just coexist but cogovern the complex election. Who will have final say in deciding the party’s candidates – both sides play to rival supporters; even if Sidhu’s comments about the Chief Minister’s incompetence, secret political affiliations and more dry up for a bit, what is the guarantee that he will not return rehydrated? As far as working as a team player goes, he is poorly credentialled. He quit the BJP in 2016 because he was upset for being denied the Amritsar seat. He joined the Congress with the personal handling of the Gandhi siblings – Rahul and Priyanka – and a year later, defied Amarinder Singh to attend Imran Khan’s swearing-in, where he was photographed hugging the Pakistani army chief. Sidhu’s rude response to the Chief Minister’s remonstrance was “Which Captain? He is a captain of the Army but my captain is Rahul Gandhi. It is he who sent me to Pakistan.” Sidhu resigned from the cabinet after a reshuffle of portfolios in 2019 with his resignation letter addressed to Rahul Gandhi.
Before he joined the Congress – or rather, while he was in talks with them – he also met secretly with Arvind Kejriwal whose Aam Aadmi Party went on to place second in the election. Prashant Kishor, in his then avatar of political consultant, had persuaded Sidhu that the Congress was a better bet. So Sidhu’s commitment is largely to himself – as a minister, he refused to give up his television show claiming that he needed it to maintain his lifestyle.
Given the demerits, it’s unclear what lends him the appeal that encourages the Gandhis to indulge him. Unless his value lies in the fact that he gives the Gandhi siblings a counterpoint to Amarinder Singh, who has always enjoyed a far more comfortable equation with their mother than them. In 2017, Rahul Gandhi, then officially calling the shots as president, was decidedly against declaring Amarinder Singh as the presumptive Chief Minister. Singh has publicly said that he had decided to walk out and front his own regional outfit, but an intervention from Sonia Gandhi ensured that her son came around. This time around, it was Priyanka Gandhi who worked hard on her family to ensure Sidhu’s upgrade. Hence, the meeting a couple of days ago which was promptly tweeted by Sidhu to prove his close access to the party’s ultimate decision-makers at a time when the Captain was being humiliated by being made to appear before a three-member committee assigned to defuse the crisis.
What has helped Sidhu further his agenda is the perception that Amarinder Singh will contest the election with considerable headwinds of anti-incumbency, and that he has been an inaccessible leader for much of his term to Congress MLAs. So, the Congress leaders who coalesced around Sidhu – amounting to about 60 percent of the MLAs – are united not by their faith in his parallel leadership but, to some extent, by their own experience and ambition for larger roles. The Gandhis have reportedly calculated that a larger frontline role for Sidhu would in some way separate the party from Amarinder Singh’s unpopularity.
The large step up for Sidhu also serves another purpose – to force a succession plan in Punjab. The Captain is now 79. In 2017, he had said that would be his last election. A term in power has whetted his appetite for more. Sidhu, like many state chiefs, will be presented the natural face for Chief Minister once Singh retires. The Congress has claimed in the past – though without little to show for it – that in states like Madhya Pradesh, it was aiming for a similar transition with a veteran leader like Kamal Nath and a junior counterpart like Jyotiraditya Scindia.
The two junior Gandhis also want veteran party leaders to know that they will no longer tolerate regional satraps who ignore their instructions or strategy.
Singh was made aware that Sidhu, with the Gandhi family backing, was gaining support of party’s MLAs and MPs. His supporters persuaded him that it was time to stop fighting against Sidhu and fight for tickets for his loyalists.
Late last week, Rahul Gandhi’s leave-the-party ultimatum if you are scared was also message to recalcitrant senior leaders. Effectively, the siblings are taking back control from the vintage Sonia Congress. Will it pay off? Their delivery in election-bound states has been established as a risky proposition. Sources close to Amarinder Singh say he has communicated to the Gandhis that it is for them to ensure that Sidhu, who he refers to as “the Joker in the pack” does not cost them the Punjab election. Making sure Sidhu sticks to his own lane? Riddle me this.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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