Navjot Singh Sidhu, the Congress party’s rebel-in-chief in Punjab, is at it again. Sidhu, who had met Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, on Friday, and claimed that all his concerns with the party and its government in Punjab had been “sorted out”, has made public a letter he wrote to Congress president Sonia Gandhi, on October 15. Through the letter, Sidhu has listed out a 13-point agenda and urged the Congress president to direct the Punjab government to “act in the best interests of the people of Punjab immediately”.
— Navjot Singh Sidhu (@sherryontopp) October 17, 2021
The Amritsar East MLA has also sought an audience with Sonia to discuss the 13-point agenda, which he believes “might be the last damage control exercise or else, Mafia-raj ruling the state, patronized by the Badals” (the first family of the Congress’s principal rival – the Shiromani Akal Dali) will take Punjab to financial emergency, joblessness, corruption and agrarian crisis from which “there will be no return”. The letter once again exposes the fault lines in the Punjab Congress that the party high command has been struggling to cover up for months. The issues raised by Sidhu are largely a reassertion of demands he had been making since before the unceremonious exit of Captain Amarinder Singh as the state’s chief minister last month. However, the letter also makes a veiled attack at incumbent Chief Minister, Charanjit Singh Channi, and his council of ministers.
Sidhu had resigned as the Punjab Congress chief on September 28 following differences with Channi over the cabinet formation and appointments of the state’s director general of police and the advocate general. After over a fortnight of the party trying to douse Sidhu’s renascent rebellion, it was indicated by Harish Rawat, the party’s general secretary in-charge of Punjab, on Friday, that truce had been sealed after the rebel leader met Rahul Gandhi. Rawat had declared that Sidhu has withdrawn his letter of resignation.
There are, however, two clear indications from Sidhu’s letter that betray the confidence in Rawat’s claim. Firstly, the letter to Sonia is dated (October 15) for the day Sidhu met Rahul. Sidhu’s aides told The Federal that the letter had been sent to the Congress president earlier on October 15. The previous evening, Sidhu had also met Rawat and party general secretary (organisation) KC Venugopal and reportedly discussed the 13-point agenda with them. “He had already informed Rawat and Venugopal that he plans to write to the Congress president about the 13-point agenda. After he sent the letter, it was the Congress president who directed him to meet Rahul. The issues were discussed at the meeting with Rahul and Rahul agreed that the party must act in this direction,” a Sidhu confidante said.
Congress sources, however, claimed that by sharing the letter on Twitter, Sidhu has once again “betrayed the confidence of the Gandhis”. “Just yesterday, the Congress president had told party colleagues to not speak to her through the media. After meeting Rahul, Sidhu had said all issues were sorted out, so what was the need for him to now put this letter out on Twitter. He should have allowed the leadership some time to speak to the Punjab chief minister to ascertain the facts. At the CWC meeting (on Saturday), there was a discussion on the party’s preparedness in poll-bound states. Channi was present at the meeting. Sidhu’s letter did not come up for discussion as the high command may have wanted to discuss the issues separately with Channi,” a senior Congress leader who is also a member of the CWC told The Federal.
The leader added that by sharing the letter on Twitter, “Sidhu is trying to take the moral high ground once again by putting the leadership on notice. He clearly doesn’t believe in processes and is only concerned with having his way.” Further, the CWC member said though Sidhu used the official Punjab Congress letterhead, he did not use his designation of the Punjab unit president “confusing people further” on whether he had withdrawn his resignation or not.
Among the key demands that Sidhu makes in the letter are prompt justice in the 2015 sacrilege cases, crackdown on the drugs, sand mining and cable mafia, monopolising the liquor trade by bringing it under a state-run corporation, cancellation of the “faulty” power purchase agreements signed by the state with the private thermal power plants during the Akali-reign and reforms for the agriculture sector, employment generation and social justice. While the merits in Sidhu’s suggestions cannot be dismissed, Congress sources say the garrulous party leader has also taken a swipe at the chief minister in the guise of batting for better caste, community and regional representation in the state cabinet.
“Even after High Command’s progressive decision of appointing a Dalit chief minister to give the under-privileged more voice in the government, it has not been supported in the state in equal measure (sic),” Sidhu says.
The rebel leader, who has been sulking ever since Channi formed his cabinet apparently without complete endorsement from Sidhu, has told Sonia that the council of ministers “should have at least one Mazhabi Sikh (a denomination of the overarching Dalit/Dalit Sikh community in the state – Channi, the state’s first Dalit Sikh chief minister belongs to the Ramdasia denomination).” Sidhu has also demanded representation to Dalits from the state’s Doaba region (the districts lying between the Sutlej and Beas rivers which account for over 20 assembly seats and have a high concentration of Dalits) and “at least two representatives from backward caste communities in the cabinet”.
With assembly polls in Punjab just three months away, the Congress, say sources, could unwittingly bolster the Opposition’s charge of the vote-bank politics by the beleaguered Grand Old Party if Sidhu’s demand for a cabinet expansion on caste and community lines is accepted by Channi within a month of the swearing-in of the present council of ministers. However, party leaders are also aware that by not giving in to Sidhu’s demands, the Congress may be hurtling towards another showdown with the former cricketer who the Gandhis had put on the vanguard in their bid to oust Amarinder Singh. A catch-22 situation?