Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s meeting Punjab MLAs this week to end the factional war in the state unit has only redrawn the battle lines. With a majority of MLAs showing solidarity with former chief minister and deputy leader of Congress in Lok Sabha, Captain Amarinder Singh, the fate of Punjab Congress chief Partap Singh Bajwa now hangs by a thread. Is Bajwa on his way out? In separate interviews with HT assistant editor Sukhdeep Kaur on Friday, while Bajwa contended he will continue at the helm till he enjoys the confidence of the party high command, Amarinder said Bajwa is on his way out, as the party seems to be now convinced that he has proved to be a failure.
HT: A majority of the MLAs attended your Patiala luncheon and Amritsar anti-drug rally, and have now rallied behind you before Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi. Do you think it signals the end of Bajwa’s innings?
Amarinder: The party high command has to take a call, and will take one soon. It has also taken feedback from other sources, not just the MLAs. I believe it would by now be convinced that he has proved a failure. Of the 43 Congress MLAs, 35 were at the Amritsar rally. Every MLA wants to be re-elected but fears will be unable to under his (Bajwa’s) leadership.
But Bajwa says the MLAs are loyal to you, as you led the state Congress for more than 15 years?
Bajwa has been there for two years. Does he need a decade to prove his leadership? He has rubbed everybody the wrong way. His image has always been dubious. As a leader you have to not only take your party along but also be seen by people as an alternative to the ruling party. It is for the first time that the ruling regime and the opposition are on the downhill together.
But Rahul will be at Bajwa’s Moga rally in March. Does it not indicate that Bajwa still enjoys his confidence?
Bajwa had planned it before my lalkar rally in Amritsar by going over to Rahul. I was asked if I could postpone my rally, and I had said I had made all arrangements. So it does not show that Bajwa has the backing of the high command. Much has changed after lalkar rally and the MLAs’ meetings with Rahul. As for the Moga rally, today (on Friday) I was in Ludhiana, where I heard from the Moga leaders that Bajwa’s younger brother, Fateh Jang Singh Bajwa, was asking people to collect `4 crore for the rally. Why do you need so much money for a rally? People turned up for my Amritsar rally on their own. The lalkar rally is one of the biggest two in my 47-year political career, and all state Congress leaders, including me, will be at Rahul’s rally.
Has Rahul met you after he met the MLAs? Will you seek that you be brought back as state Congress president?
I believe he will talk to me after the Delhi elections. I am open to wherever he wants to adjust me, as PPCC (Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee) president or chairman of the campaign committee. We have quite a few leaders capable of being appointed PPCC chief. They (the high command) can appoint anyone, though I would not like to take any names.
Will Bajwa’s removal not trigger similar demands in other states where the Congress is in factional wars?
It has to be case to case. You cannot demand the sacking of a PCC chief in cases that are not genuine. In the case of Punjab, we also have to contend with the AAP (Aam Aadmi Party), so we can’t delay the change of guard.
Do you see the AAP as a bigger challenge post Delhi polls?
Though the AAP has lost its appeal in Punjab since the Lok Sabha elections, it will be a problem for us if it wins Delhi. It has grown strong in Delhi at the expense of the Congress. If it forms the government in that state, it will get a boost in Punjab, too. The people of Punjab are forward looking; they like mass movements.
Is being on the national scene as deputy leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha not a bigger role?
I told Congress president Sonia Gandhi that Delhi politics did not interest me. I was there till 1984, and have had my fill. I prefer to be in the state politics and retire after having served Punjab.
There is a growing feeling that you are soft on the ruling family of the Badals and Majithia but take on the BJP more aggressively. Also that it has something to do with your court cases?
I have no love lost for the Badals or (Punjab revenue minister Bikram Singh) Majithia. How can they help me in anything? My cases are in the court of law. The Ludhiana city centre case and the Amritsar improvement trust case have dragged for more than nine years. In the Ludhiana case, no charges are framed yet, as the cross-examination of the witnesses is on. The Amritsar case is based on the Vidhan Sabha committee report the purpose of which was to throw me out of the assembly and which the Supreme Court had dismissed while reinstating me. The sessions court has asked the vigilance bureau to segregate this report from the case. I am seeking legal remedy and have known the Majithias for four generations. But I have been attacking him since the day arrested drug lord Jagdish Bhola took his name. What have I done in the past 16 years but attack the Badals, and they also have always tried to knock me out. A lame-duck (state Congress) president who cannot rally the party behind him suits the Akalis more.
The Congress is in an old versus new guard tussle since Rahul was appointed vice-president. Are you open to the idea of the party’s appointing a younger PCC chief?
It won’t work to have a young PCC chief. You cannot overlook experience. And age is no yardstick of a good leader. One can be unfit even at 40, and someone can be 80 but fitter mentally and physically. Look at Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, he is going strong even at 93, though he claims to be 86, which is not possible. My brother’s father-in-law and Badal were in the same batch in Lahore College. He died at 93. Badal cannot be seven years younger than those in his batch.