For the crisis-ridden Congress party in Punjab, the more things change, the more they remain the same.
Within a fortnight of effecting an acrimonious change of guard in the poll-bound state by replacing Captain Amarinder Singh with Charanjit Singh Channi, the state’s first Dalit chief minister, the Congress got a bolt from the blue, on Tuesday, with the surprise resignation of its state unit chief, the mercurial Navjot Singh Sidhu.
While the leadership change was effected to end deepening factional feuds within the party and reverse perceived anti-incumbency against the Singh administration, Sidhu’s resignation as Punjab unit chief now threatens to push the Congress deeper into the abyss of its internal conflicts just four months ahead of the Assembly polls in the state.
“The collapse of a man’s character stems from the compromise corner. I can never compromise on Punjab’s future and the agenda for the future of Punjab. Therefore, I hereby resign as the President of Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee. Will continue to serve the Congress,” Sidhu said in his resignation letter addressed to interim Congress chief Sonia Gandhi.
— Navjot Singh Sidhu (@sherryontopp) September 28, 2021
Sidhu posted the letter on Twitter, stunning many of his party colleagues. Sources said the Congress high command — Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra — had no clue about Sidhu’s and that the letter was sent by the controversial leader to KC Venugopal, AICC general secretary (organisation), around the same time that it was put out on Twitter.
Channi, who addressed a scheduled press conference in Chandigarh shortly after Sidhu tweeted the letter, also claimed that he was not aware of the resignation and had “full confidence” in the PCC chief.
Sidhu’s letter came on a day when the Congress leadership was already on the edge due to speculations that Amarinder Singh, whose term as Punjab chief minister ended prematurely on September 18 largely due to the rebellion led by the former cricketer, could call on Union Home Minister Amit Shah or BJP national president JP Nadda in New Delhi — as a precursor to the Patiala royal’s defection to the saffron party.
Singh scotched the rumours soon after his arrival in Delhi from Chandigarh by asserting that “no meeting with any politician” is planned and that he was in the national capital only to collect his belongings from Kapurthala House, where the Punjab CM has an office.
However, the Captain, seething ever since his unceremonious ouster and scathing in his criticism of the Punjab Congress chief who he dubbed an “anti-national”, made it a point to say of Sidhu’s resignation: “I told you so. He (Sidhu) is unstable.”
Sidhu has, for now, refrained from explaining the reasons for quitting the post that he had fought hard to get just two months ago despite firm resistance not just from Singh but also a large chunk of Punjab Congress leaders, including parliamentarians like Manish Tewari, Partap Singh Bajwa and Ravneet Singh Bittu. However, it was Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s unequivocal backing that had led Sonia Gandhi to clear Sidhu’s appointment as the PCC chief on July 18.
Sources in the Punjab Congress say Sidhu had been unhappy about the induction of some ministers in the recently sworn in cabinet of Punjab and also at administrative appointments made by the new Chief Minister.
After days of consultation with Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and other senior party colleagues, Channi had finalised the blueprint for his new cabinet last week.
“Sidhu wanted the Congress to replicate the BJP’s recent move in Gujarat where an entirely new cabinet was sworn in. The party high command did not agree to this because it did not want to open up new fronts against senior MLAs like Brahm Mohindra and others close to Amarinder Singh who were already unhappy with the recent events. Finally, Channi was told to retain eight ministers from the last cabinet and induct seven fresh faces but this too became a problem with Sidhu because he wanted to handpick the entire cabinet but ended up getting just a handful of his people like Pargat Singh and Raj Kumar Verka,” a senior Congress leader told The Federal.
Sources say the tensions with Sidhu escalated when Rahul Gandhi decided to oversee the cabinet formation plans. “Instead of giving Sidhu a free hand to avoid risking the impression that he was the super CM and Channi was only being projected to get the Dalit votes, Rahul chose to oversee the cabinet formation personally. The party could not risk upsetting other senior MLAs, or allowing Amarinder Singh loyalists to rebel. As such, most of the senior ministers from Singh’s cabinet were retained. What became a bone of contention was who would be the new inductions and this is where Sidhu seems to have lost out,” one of the party’s observers for Punjab told The Federal.
The choice of new ministers, however, became controversial.
The Congress chose to induct Kapurthala MLA and its strongman from the Doaba region, Rana Gurjit Singh, whose name had surfaced in illegal sand mining and other corruption- related cases earlier, leading to him being dropped from the Amarinder Singh cabinet once earlier.
Not just Sidhu, but seven Congress MLAs from Punjab’s Doaba region as well as former Punjab Congress chief MS Kaypee had urged Rahul Gandhi to not allow Gurjit Singh’s return to the cabinet. Sidhu was also reportedly upset with Channi’s relative, Aruna Chaudhary being inducted into the cabinet. The PCC chief had also insisted on a wider representation of other denominations of Dalit Sikhs. He claimed that since the CM is a Ramdasia Dalit Sikh, the ministry should have representation of Mazhabi Dalit Sikhs, which was again overruled.
The next setback for Sidhu came when Channi decided to give 1988 batch IPS Officer Iqbal Singh Sahota additional charge as Punjab’s Director General of Police. Sidhu had reportedly wanted Channi to appoint 1986 batch IPS Officer Siddharth Chattopadhyay as the DGP after the government allowed incumbent DGP Dinkar Gupta to go on one month’s leave.
While these decisions by Channi made it clear to Sidhu and other Punjab Congress leaders that the new CM would not act as a rubber stamp for the more flamboyant and loquacious PCC chief, there were reportedly two decisions taken in the last 24 hours that finally broke Sidhu’s patience.
These were the appointment of controversial lawyer APS Deol as Punjab’s Advocate General and the distribution of portfolios to the new cabinet ministers — neither of which reportedly had Sidhu’s seal of approval. Deol had represented former Punjab DGP SS Saini in the 2015 sacrilege cases as well as an earlier corruption case.
As Sidhu and a large chunk of party MLAs had made the botched-up investigations in the sacrilege cases a major ground for their rebellion against Amarinder Singh, the choice of Deol – who had defended Saini’s role in the matter – was troublesome from the beginning.
There are others in the party who believe that Sidhu’s unhappiness with the party began the moment the high command rejected his claim for chief ministership and chose Channi instead.
“Contrary to perception, Channi’s appointment was not on Sidhu’s advice. When the party was discussing appointing Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa as the CM, Sidhu had told the party’s central observers that if Amarinder was to be replaced with another Jat Sikh CM, then his candidature should be considered. This queered the pitch for Randhawa who was eventually made the deputy CM while Channi was chosen as the CM. After the party publicised its move of giving Punjab its first Dalit CM, it was clear to Sidhu that if the Congress won the Assembly polls due in February-March 2022, it would be difficult for him to replace Channi as it would play out poorly for the Congress nationally,” says a senior Punjab Congress MLA.
Congress sources say the party high command is expected to make an effort to pacify Sidhu but add that the Gandhis “are unlikely to go out of their way this time to appease Sidhu because his resignation and continuing tantrums reflect very poorly on their decision of rejecting the advice of senior leaders and appointing him as the PCC chief in the first place.”
There are indications that some of Sidhu’s loyalists in the cabinet and the Punjab Congress could also tender their resignations — Sidhu confidante and newly sworn-in WCD and Social security minister Razia Sultan has already resigned — in solidarity with the former cricketer.
The renewed tensions within Punjab Congress precipitate the party’s problems further at a time when it should be focusing on fulfilling its poll promises with only four months left before the Assembly elections.
Meanwhile, Sidhu’s resignation has also robbed the Congress of riding national headlines for a positive reason: the induction of young and feisty leaders Kanhaiya Kumar and Jignesh Mewani into the party which has, in recent years, gained notoriety for its recurring rebellions and ever-expanding list of defectors.
The Punjab drama is, by all indications, far from over. Expect another salvo from an angry Captain Amarinder Singh and a fresh outburst from Sidhu very soon. Wait for the fireworks.