Political grace and experience has made Punjab Chief Minister Amrinder Singh to reconcile with Navjot Singh Sidhu, foisted as party chief by an incompetent Hugh command. The lack of both these qualities, plus the blackmail factor – that he could switch to the Aam Admi Party (AAP) has helped Sidhu to achieve his ambition.
Truce could be temporary. At Sidhu’s installation, Amrinder reminded everyone, in a mix of contempt and unhappiness, that when Sidhu was born, he was “on the border” serving the Indian Army.
That a majority of MLAs and even ministers, flocked around Sidhu indicated a swift switch-over after the signal from the party’s top leadership. The Congressmen have been use to this ‘drill’ for the past 50 years, when the Gandhi family has come to mean everything.
Punjab could still be lost to the Congress. Indeed, “Punjab Gaya” is the near-unanimous refrain from worried Congressmen who cannot speak out, and from those concerned about the Congress, without being its supporters, if only to strengthen India’s democracy.
The decision to foist Navjot Singh Sidhu as the Punjab Congress President on Chief Minister Amrinder Singh and appointing four working presidents, none of whom is from CM’s camp, is yet another bad move by a party that has taken more wrong decisions in the last seven years than its 136-year history. This is no exaggeration. See how the national elections were lost twice and see losses in the states, including those that were won.
After prolonged indecision that fanned internal feud, the abrupt Punjab decision came along with some more on parliamentary strategy. Interim chief Sonia Gandhi has reconciled with some of her Group-23 critics. Granting her mood for reconciliation, humiliating a strong and popular chief minister, besides triggering more infighting in Punjab where elections are due next year, sends negative signals to Congressmen across the country.
The decision is collective, but essentially that of the Gandhi family – Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka — who held high-profile meetings with Sidhu while ignoring Amrinder. When alone, Sonia had in the past consulted many, but used her innate intelligence to adopt the right course. She had struck alliances and won the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. Rahul and Priyanka were not a factor then. Now, they are power centres that have not always acted in the party’s best interests. Decision-making is delayed, diluted and damaging to the party. So many leaders have quit and more may quit with each future election.
Undoubtedly, three Gandhis and Amrinder are decent human and political beings. The same cannot be said of Sidhu. As a cricketer, he fought with his captain. As a human, he killed an old man, the family’s only bread-winner, in a car-park brawl. When acquitted, he brazenly celebrated it and refused to regret or to condole the victim’s family.
As a politician, he flirted with the Akalis, was a BJP lawmaker and reportedly, won the 2016 Congress nomination to the Rajya Sabha after threatening that he could join AAP. Even in Congress and in Punjab politics, it would be difficult to find someone as unreliable and ambitious as Sidhu. For all his years in politics, he has little governance experience.
Rahul and Priyanka have appeased him, probably overruling Sonia, to demonstrate their power. Their own record in judging people and assigning political tasks has been dismal. One can only speculate if they are impressed by Sidhu’s popular image as an entertainer and his flamboyant television appearances. These cannot compensate for lack of experience and credibility that the young Gandhis themselves lack.
One reason cited for Sidhu’s anointment is as ‘successor’ to Amrinder, who is approaching eighty. This makes it doubly worse. Such decisions, even if taken, are held back till after the elections. With Sidhu at the helm, the party could lose the next election, requiring no ‘successor’.
To accommodate a flighty person who is temperamental, the Congress has annoyed old party loyalists. Initial indications are that Amrinder may not take his humiliation quietly after being denied even a face-saving. His appeal that Sidhu should apologise for public utterances, virtually rejected by the Gandhis, has made Sidhu cocky and sown seeds of further dissensions.
Although there are always exceptions, political tradition and wisdom in Punjab, populated by a large religious minority, militate against both, the CM and the Congress chief being Jat Sikhs, and both from Patiala. The Gandhis ignored Amrinder’s call that a Hindu should be the party chief. This is valid argument when the BJP has unleashed a majoritarian political agenda across the country. The Congress has given BJP a mighty handle for a divisive campaign.
These are peculiar times. Nobody remembers Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Pakistan visit, uninvited, to meet then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, after which Pathankot and Uri terror attacks happened. Now, BJP could revive Sidhu’s Pakistan visit and embracing Army Chief, General Qaisar Javed Bajwa.
In politics, Sidhu, like Imran Khan across the border, can only be a meteor. Both lack political sagacity. Imran is the army’s proxy in power. Sidhu has no such prospect.
Three parties have traditionally dominated Punjab. After BJP-Akali alliance ended over farmers’ agitation, Congress had the best chance. With AAP and BSP entering, Congress has now opened the land of five rivers to a five-party clash.