Has the Congress high command finally reined in Navjot Singh Sidhu, the party’s maverick Punjab unit chief? Over a fortnight after he stunned party colleagues by announcing his resignation as PCC chief on Twitter, Sidhu met Congress leader Rahul Gandhi in Delhi, on late Friday evening.
Though the loquacious former cricketer refrained from answering questions from journalists on whether he will continue as the PCC chief, Sidhu said that he had apprised Gandhi of his concerns and that all issues “have been sorted.”
The meeting with Gandhi came a day after Sidhu held discussions with Harish Rawat, the Congress’s Punjab in-charge and KC Venugopal, the party’s national general secretary (organisation). Rawat reiterated on Friday that the leadership has assured Sidhu of addressing the issues raised by him and that the Amritsar East MLA has “withdrawn his resignation.”
Congress sources have told The Federal that though Gandhi did give Sidhu a patient hearing, the mercurial PCC chief was also sternly reprimanded at the meeting for regularly embarrassing the party and undermining its Chief Minister (Charanjit Singh Channi).
That Sidhu had to wait for over a fortnight to get an audience with Gandhi after announcing his resignation on Twitter on September 28, sources said, was also a “clear signal from the high command of its disapproval of Sidhu’s recent conduct.”
The Punjab Congress chief’s uncharacteristically subdued response to journalists after the meeting with Gandhi and other central leaders of the party, said an aide of the mercurial leader, was an indication that “only a temporary ceasefire has been accomplished.”
The aide said that though Sidhu reiterated his faith in the high command, he hasn’t personally announced a withdrawal of his resignation. He added, “the focus will now shift back to Chandigarh where he (Sidhu) and the CM will need to find a way to work together in resolving differences in their approach towards fulfilling the 2017 poll promises Congress made to the people of Punjab, before the state goes for assembly elections” in February-March 2022.
The causes of strife between Sidhu and Channi, as reported by The Federal earlier, are a cocktail of personal, political and procedural matters. The former cricketer, who was at the vanguard of the shrill rebellion among Punjab Congress MLAs that led to the recent unceremonious exit of Captain Amarinder Singh and Channi’s surprise elevation, has been unhappy with the new CM over three key issues.
The new cabinet that Channi formed after taking oath as CM – the induction of tainted MLA Rana Gurjit Singh as minister, the allocation of the home portfolio to deputy CM Sukhjinder Randhawa, and the relatively smaller representation of Sidhu’s loyalists in the cabinet – along with his decision to give additional charge of Punjab’s Director General of Police to IS Sahota, and of appointing controversial lawyer APS Deol as the state’s Advocate-General, are among the main points of discord between Sidhu and Channi.
Soon after announcing his resignation as PCC chief, Sidhu had also declared on Twitter that he would not accept Sahota as the state’s DGP nor condone Deol’s appointment as Advocate General. Sidhu’s opposition to the two appointments stems from Deol’s involvement as a lawyer in defending the accused in the 2015 sacrilege cases and allegations that Sahota too had shielded the real culprits while indicting “innocent Sikh youth” in the controversial and politically sensitive matter.
While sources in Punjab Congress admit that Sidhu’s opposition to the appointments of Sahota and Deol are politically justified, they also say that with his sudden resignation and regular pot-shots at the new CM – the first Dalit Sikh to hold the post in Punjab and a man the Congress wanted to showcase as a testament of its commitment towards empowering Dalits – Sidhu had effectively ruined his personal camaraderie with Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. Priyanka Gandhi had been instrumental in Sidhu’s appointment as PCC chief in July despite stiff resistance from Amarinder Singh and a large chunk of Punjab Congress MPs, MLAs and senior leaders.
In fact, when Sidhu resigned as PCC chief, many of his detractors in the Punjab Congress had tried – evidently in vain – to convince the high command to accept the resignation. With important challenges like Singh threatening to float his own party, Channi’s limited appeal among Punjab’s electorate and the party’s internal turmoil worsening its electoral credibility in Punjab just four months ahead of the polls due in the state, weighing heavy on them, the Gandhi siblings didn’t want to open another battlefront with Sidhu.
Sources say the high command found itself in a tricky corner where it didn’t want to let go Sidhu, the unpredictable leader on whom the Gandhis had already staked much, but also wished to signal that he wasn’t above party discipline.
As a result, the Gandhis had not immediately waded in to personally resolve the mess created by Sidhu’s sudden resignation. Instead, on September 30, two days after his resignation, Sidhu was forced to drive from his home in Patiala to Chandigarh to meet Channi and other party leaders. Congress sources say Channi had already been assured of full support from Rahul Gandhi, but was also told that he must pacify Sidhu without compromising the office of the CM.
The Federal had reported that though Sidhu and Channi discussed the contentious issues for nearly three hours, no final assurances had been given by either side. It is learnt that though Sidhu had sought an appointment with the Gandhi siblings after the inconclusive September 30 meeting with Channi, no time was given to him.
The Lakhimpur Kheri tragedy on October 3 and the political furore it triggered in poll-bound Uttar Pradesh, too, delayed a meeting between Sidhu and the Gandhi siblings, as the latter wished to focus on the Congress’s broadside against the BJP over the alleged murder of farmers in Kheri.
Meanwhile, Sidhu too tried to endure himself again to the Gandhis by rallying a massive cavalcade of supporters from across Punjab to Lakhimpur Kheri, and announcing a hunger strike in protest against the alleged shielding of Ashish Mishra, son of Union Minister of State (Home) Ajay Mishra, whose cavalcade had mowed down the farmers in Kheri.
Sources say that when Sidhu finally met Rawat, Venugopal and Rahul Gandhi over the past two days, he was told clearly that he had “crossed a line” and that his tantrum-a-day politics will “not be tolerated.”
A senior party leader said that Gandhi reportedly told Sidhu at Friday’s meeting that the Congress had given him a “huge responsibility”, that Priyanka had backed him “against the advice of many leaders,” and that his recent actions were “unfortunately proving your (Sidhu’s) critics right”.
“Rahul heard him at length and told him that his concerns will be addressed but also advised him against using public platforms to air grievances. Sidhu was told in no uncertain terms that the party had played a huge gamble by making him PCC chief and it is now incumbent on him to run things smoothly. A strong message was sent that under no circumstances will the high command allow Sidhu to undermine Channi or give the impression that Sidhu is the Super CM. The ball is now in his court,” a party veteran told The Federal.
The high command already has its hands full as the Congress Working Committee (already on) will discuss the party’s internal turmoil both centrally and in several state units and will address the prickly issue of elections for a full-time president to take over from Sonia Gandhi.
Rahul Gandhi, the former and likely future Congress chief, may have forced Sidhu to abandon thoughts of another rebellion for now. However, given his reliable consistency in fanning troubles for his own team – be it during his cricketing days or in his political innings with the BJP, and now the Congress – is it only a matter of time before the voluble Sidhu takes to the warpath against his colleagues again?