At least 28 Punjab Congress MLAs, along with former state minister Navjot Singh Sidhu, have rebelled against Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh, just ahead of the 2022 Assembly elections.
According to sources, a group of rebel ministers went against Amarinder due to various reasons including him allegedly giving more power to bureaucrats than elected representatives. They have also cited ineffectiveness in tackling corruption, the sand and drug mafia, the ‘inaccessibility’ of the CM, and Dalit under-representation in the state, the sources added.
Some, including Sidhu, also flagged the issue of delays in ensuring justice for families of victims killed in the Kotkapura firing.
Kotkapura firing incident
In 2015, after various instances of desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib recorded in Punjab, the Sikhs protested. On October 14, 2015, police opened fire on protesting Sikhs in Kotkapura, in which two people were killed. The then Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Badal and top police officials were accused of giving orders to shoot. The Congress, in the 2017 elections, promised that action would be taken against them.
A special investigation team (SIT) was also constituted to look into the case. But, in April this year, the Punjab and Haryana High Court rejected the SIT report. This led to protests against Amarinder, with leaders like Sidhu coming out directly against him, accusing him of favouring the Badals.
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However, a senior Congress leader said the fight was all about the post of president of Punjab Congress Committee (PCC). He told The Federal: “Sidhu wants a big position in the PCC. The Captain (Amarinder Singh) is not willing to give (the post to Sidhu) as he is new to the party and many others who have worked for years are already in the line. The current president Sunil Jakhar is very close to Captain and Sonia (Gandhi) as well.”
Captain vs Sidhu
The differences between Captain and Sidhu are not new. In 2017, when Sidhu joined the Congress from BJP, he had a big role in mind. Yet, Amarinder gave him the Tourism and Local Self-Governance portfolio.
In 2019, the Chief Minister relieved Sidhu of the Department of Local Bodies, citing his bad performance, and offered him the Department of Power. Sidhu resigned from the Cabinet. This increased the differences between Captain and Sidhu.
“After the Punjab and Haryana High Court rejection of the SIT report on Kotkapura firing, Sidhu got a chance to speak against Captain. There are other MLAs as well who feel the same way as Sidhu about the Kotkapura case. They accompanied him,” the senior Congress leader said.
“But this is not of any use. The party has made up its mind to go with Captain as the CM face for the 2022 Punjab elections,” he added. “Sunil Jakhar will remain the president of PCC. Except for Sidhu, no other MLA who rebelled against Captain has that big a desire to remove him or Jakhar. Sidhu is also very new to the party. He doesn’t have enough influence in the party either. He is still considered an outsider.”
Little impact on Congress
Political experts in Punjab maintained that Amarinder’s Congress will bear no loss from current disputes in the party. Ajay Pal, the founder of Trolley Times and a political expert, told The Federal: “Amarinder declared in 2017 that it would be his last election. But he is again a CM face in the 2022 election.”
“This is because he knows that there is no competition currently in the state and he can easily sail through the elections. Punjab Congress, unlike the national congress, runs like a regional party. Even Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka can’t say anything to Captain as he was close to Rajiv Gandhi and is a popular face in Punjab,” he added.
Pal further said: “Captain is still more credible than Sidhu in Punjab. He knows how to resolve disputes within his party. He will do something before the next elections. Sidhu is more media-friendly. As of now, Captain is easily winning 2022 elections in the state.”
“There is no other party in Punjab right now that can challenge the Congress. The BJP and Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) have already lost their credibility. The BJP has already been drowned under the farmers’ storm. SAD is trying to ally with the CPI and BSP. But SAD is a party of upper castes and the rich. The other two parties represent the poor and lower castes. It will be a very difficult alliance. However, all the parties including Congress will try to field some farmer leaders to win the trust of farmers,” Pal explained.
Is Congress loss an AAP win?
The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has also initiated its Punjab campaign. The party won 20 seats in the 2017 Assembly elections, the second-highest in the state. With party leader and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal going to the farmers’ protest and holding maha panchayats in the state, AAP is also trying hard to win the elections.
Political critic Prince Kalanauria said: “The one party which is gaining ground in Punjab after the Congress is AAP. However, it is very difficult for them to win. They don’t have any big faces right now. Their biggest face is Bhagwant Mann, who has already appeared on stage drunk many times. There were reports that he bought the seat for ₹2 crore. He has lost credibility.”
“Also, the 20 MLAs who won the last elections have not done anything in four years,” he observed. “It is a very difficult road for AAP. There were reports that Navjot Singh Sidhu could join AAP. Sidhu, who is still not credible after changing parties, will lose his entire popularity if he now joins AAP.”
Labh Singh, an AAP worker from Barnala in Punjab, told The Federal: “We are preparing to win. The people of Punjab need a change. They are fed up with the Congress as well. We have many big faces coming in August this year.”
A Third Front
To counter the Congress, a third front is also in the making in Punjab, with like-minded leaders in the state thinking of getting together. Political activists like Deep Sidhu and Lakha Sadhana could also be a part of it.
The leaders of SAD and AAP, who did not get recognition in their respective parties, are likely to announce a party soon. Former SAD leader Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa has already requested Sidhu to join him to form a third front.
Senior Akali leader Karnail Singh Peer Mohammad told the media: “Leaders such as Navjot Singh Sidhu, Pargat Singh, Sukhpal Singh Khaira, Bains brothers, and Dr Dharamvira Gandhi can change the picture of the state and we hope they join us for the betterment of Punjab.”
The new front could also field some farmer leaders to give tough competition to the Congress, Pal added.
Deputy CM post for Sidhu?
A three-member committee, set up by Congress chief Sonia Gandhi to resolve the Captain vs Sidhu issue, is meeting all MLAs from Punjab. Sources confirmed that the party will appoint more than two deputy CMs, one being Sidhu, to end the stalemate.
On Monday night, senior Congress leader Harish Rawat, who is part of the committee, told media that there had been no change in party leadership and the committee had spoken to 28 people and been informed of some concerns, including a lack of action in the 2015 desecration case. He also said the MLAs had “high expectations from Amarinder Singh, hence the resentment”.
A Congress leader said the party did not want Sidhu to leave. “The central Congress leadership wants Sidhu in the party because of his oratory skills,” said the leader. “When Rahul went to Punjab, he was advised by Congress leaders to call Sidhu at events to get a large crowd. The Congress, not only in Punjab but also in other states, wants to capitalise on Sidhu’s orating skills against the BJP. That is why the Congress will agree to make him deputy CM.”
“For the 2022 elections, every party is trying to appease farmers and Sikhs. There is resentment against Captain as he didn’t favour farmers and Sikhs, but again, he never stopped farmers from going to Delhi borders or protesting within the state as well. Unlike in Haryana, where cases have been filed against the farmers, Punjab has no case against any farmer,” said Kalanauria.
He added: “On the other hand, there is AAP, which wants to capitalise on the sentiments for change in Punjab. The Third Front is also very active among farmers and Sikhs. It will be interesting to see the Punjab elections. Currently, Captain is way ahead of others, but others are also trying hard to win the trust of farmers and Sikhs. However, farmers maintain they will not vote for anyone.”