The composition of committees constituted by interim Congress president Sonia Gandhi, on Monday (December 6) to look into different aspects of her party’s preparedness for the upcoming Punjab assembly polls is a curious one. With barely three months left for the Punjab polls and no respite to her party’s steadily mounting challenges, Gandhi has tasked her key aide Ambika Soni to head the Congress’ election coordination in the state. Former state unit chief Sunil Jakhar and Rajya Sabha MP Partap Singh Bajwa have been named chiefs of the party’s campaign and manifesto committees respectively.
At first glance, the names make perfect sense. A Rajya Sabha MP, Soni is a veteran in organisational matters and has served for years as AICC general secretary and member of the Congress Working Committee. She is also a rare member of the Congress Old Guard who enjoys not just Sonia Gandhi’s confidence but also shares a warm rapport with Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. Jakhar, who lost his post of the state Congress chief to Navjot Singh Sidhu some months back, is a prominent Hindu face of the party, a good orator and a leader who is respected across party lines in Punjab for his honesty, humility and, when the need arises, for mincing no words in putting forth his views even at a personal cost. Bajwa, a senior Jat Sikh leader from the state’s Majha region, is a former state Congress chief, confidante of Rahul Gandhi, bitter rival of former chief minister and now Congress rival Amarinder Singh, and a prominent voice of farmers’ rights.
Though a leader without a single electoral triumph to show in her over four-decade-long political journey, the 79-year-old Soni was considered a probable chief ministerial candidate by the party high command when the leadership unceremoniously sacked Captain Amarinder Singh. She declined the offer on grounds that the party must respect the convention of giving the Sikh-majority state a Sikh Chief Minister. Soni’s public stance in favour of a Sikh chief minister replacing the Jat Sikh Amarinder Singh had, as per several party insiders, effectively nixed the chances of the Congress naming Jakhar – a Hindu, like her – as Captain’s successor. The party eventually chose Charanjit Singh Channi as the first Dalit Sikh to become Punjab’s chief minister.
However, in the months since Channi’s surprise appointment, the Congress has hurtled from one crisis to another in Punjab. The slighted Amarinder has quit the Congress, announced his own party and is now in talks with the BJP and the Akali Dal faction led by SS Dhindsa for a pre-poll alliance. Channi has been hamstrung by the tantrum-a-day Sidhu, whose rebellion was also the principal factor in the ousting of Amarinder Singh. Jakhar has been channelling his wrath evenly at Channi and Sidhu. Sidhu’s relentless tirade against his own government, despite being the head of the ruling party’s state unit, has also upset other Punjab Congress leaders while Opposition parties like Sukhbir Badal’s Akali Dal and Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP are hoping that the mess within the Congress’ would pivot their respective parties to an otherwise improbable victory. Amarinder, aching to take his revenge on the Congress, too is keeping his newly announced party’s doors wide open to disgruntled Congress leaders who may want to jump ship.
Given these challenges, Soni seems like a reasonable choice to coordinate among the party’s warring factions and forlorn leaders. The case of Jakhar and Bajwa, however, is a tad more complicated – and, thus, also interesting.
As chairperson of the party’s campaign committee and also a member of another panel formed by Sonia Gandhi to screen candidates for the election (the screening panel is headed by former Union minister Ajay Maken and also has as its members Rahul Gandhi-aides Chandan Yadav and Krishna Allavaru), Jakhar will have to work closely with both Channi and Sidhu. It is public knowledge – thanks to his own tweets and public utterances – that Jakhar has a very dim view of both Channi and Sidhu. He has taken potshots at Channi for continuing with the same lapses in government that had ostensibly caused Amarinder Singh the chief minister’s chair while his asides at Sidhu’s endless and unpredictable paroxysms have been extremely curt. Sidhu too hasn’t held back his punches while rebutting Jakhar in public and the two, say party insiders, have not had a civil discussion on party matters in over a month.
Sources in Punjab Congress say Jakhar, who shared a warm working relationship with Amarinder Singh, had made his reservations about Sidhu and Channi known to the party high command. When Sidhu finally took over as the Punjab Congress chief at a massive public meeting in Chandigarh, Jakhar had made a not-so-veiled attack at the mercurial former cricketer as well as the Congress leadership for bending over backwards to appease those leaders who regularly throw tantrums – ye party de phuphad ne (these people are like uncles who complain incessantly), Jakhar had famously declared.
“Jakhar obviously feels that the party has taken his loyalty for granted and that the leadership thinks it can keep heaping such insults without any pushback. Jakhar is a hardcore Congressman and he will never desert the Congress but he is also someone who won’t hold back when he sees something going wrong; it is not in his nature to be diplomatic,” says a Congress MLA. “As chief of the campaign committee, he will have to obviously work closely with Sidhu and Channi, and since it is not in Sidhu’s nature to listen to anyone but himself, Jakhar will find his job very frustrating and there may be a showdown very soon,” the MLA adds.
The choice of Bajwa as chairperson of the manifesto committee is also likely to cause similar fireworks. Nursing the ambition of becoming Punjab’s chief minister for long, Bajwa has dropped enough hints of being upset with the out-of-turn generosity that Sidhu and Channi have been lavished with by the Congress high command. While Channi has been trying to gain Bajwa’s trust in recent weeks, Sidhu has largely been indifferent towards the Rajya Sabha MP.
Added to this mix is the growing rivalry between Bajwa and his younger brother, Qadian MLA Fateh Jung Bajwa. Both brothers, say Congress sources, are lobbying for a Congress ticket from Qadian and while Channi is reportedly backing Partap Singh, Fateh Jung has been lobbying his case with Sidhu. The elder Bajwa, however, claims that he has already got the party high command’s nod for contesting from his home turf of Qadian.
A section of Punjab Congress leaders believes that the appointment of Soni, Jakhar and Bajwa – or that of Ajay Maken as chairman of the candidate screening committee – is a portentous sign for Sidhu. “If you see Sidhu’s antics of the past few months, you’ll see his calling card has been his proximity to the high command, Every time he fails to get what he wants in Punjab, he dashes off to Delhi to meet Rahul Gandhi or Priyanka Gandhi; promptly clicks a picture with either of them and posts it on Twitter… I think Sidhu has finally exhausted this tactic and it will have diminishing returns for him henceforth,” says a senior Punjab Congress leader and former Union minister. The leader explains that the appointment of Nehru-Gandhi loyalists such as Soni, Jakhar, Bajwa and Maken shows that the high command wants to “take direct control of the Punjab polls and not rely solely on Sidhu”.
Given Sidhu’s propensity for embarrassing his own party and its chief minister, and that too with increasing ferocity as the polls near, the high command finally taking reins of Punjab affairs in its hands through other trusted lieutenants may, thus, be a belated effort to set the Congress’ chaotic house in order. Conversely, with Sidhu’s penchant for recurring rebellion, the Congress high command may also need to simultaneously develop contingency plans to offset a future – and likely – implosion within its ranks as the Punjab polls near.