Desperate situations call for desperate measures. That's the message in the appointment of Gurdaspur member of Parliament Partap Singh Bajwa as Punjab Congress chief in place of Capt Amarinder Singh. Having procrastinated for a year since the party's shocking debacle in the Punjab assembly elections, the Congress high command has finally effected change of guard in what is clearly a rearguard action to pull the party away from the edge of a precipice.
The latest Moga mauling was ostensibly the last straw. And, Amarinder could sense it coming as was evident from the blame-game he triggered as a last-ditch effort to stave off the inevitable. Such antics only queered the pitch for the erstwhile scion of Patiala royalty and forced the high command's hand to jettison him in tune with the ' time-to-save-the-party' chorus that had been growing shriller by the day.
Putting Bajwa, 16 years younger to his 71-year-old predecessor, in the hot seat is part of the high command's carefully-crafted strategy to bring about a generational shift in Punjab and resuscitate the party, now gasping for breath, ahead of the high-stake Lok Sabha elections in 2014. A dyed-in-the-wool Congressman with a knack for grassroots politics and appreciation of ground realities, the new Congress chief faces a set of formidable challenges.
After all, never before has the state Congress rank and file looked so demoralised and directionless as it does today. Nothing brought this out more tellingly than the fact that the principal opposition failed to even put up election agents at all polling booths in the Moga byelection. Truth be told, even front-ranking Congress leaders - from Capt Singh to Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, Jagmeet Brar and Sunil Jakhar - come across to be mortified and clueless on how to take on the seemingly unstoppable Sukhbir juggernaut.
As someone who lorded over the state Congress for a decade and a half - a rare feat, indeed - the Captain would have earnestly wished to leave on a winning note. Ever since he snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in the Punjab assembly elections last year, he had precariously hung on, with a slender hope to redeem himself in the Lok Sabha polls. But, his political descent from a charismatic leader to a castaway liability was faster than he could have imagined. In retrospect, Amarinder would be repenting not to call it quits gracefully after he presided over two consecutive assembly defeats - the first in 2007 and then in 2012.
With the high command in a bind on his successor, Amarinder interpreted such dithering as TINA (there is no alternative) factor in his favour. Even more astonishing was the cavalier way in which he failed to take head-on the SAD-BJP government, which has been blundering along since its second coming. In its very first year, the Badal government's lacklustre showing was a godsend opportunity for an opposition, numerically as strong as 47 MLAs in the 117-member assembly, to bounce back. But Amarinder was found sorely wanting. Last year, while his dejected cadres reeled under the rough-riding Badal Government, the Maharaja, as is his wont, chose to go on a safari to South Africa!
When in power from 2002-07, Amarinder singularly resurrected the Badals by his "will-fix-them-politically-and-legally" fixation. Out of it, his actions willy-nilly helped the first Akali dynasty to entrench itself. Amarinder's undoing had as much to do with his failure to reshape his politics in sync with new realities and aspirations of Punjab as with his coterie-led working style that revelled in flattery and chicanery. Obsessed with having the Jat peasantry, an Akali bastion, on his side, the Captain made all his political moves towards this vaunted objective that met with limited gains.
But he ended up alienating the party's traditional votebanks among Hindus and Dalits. Sukhbir has, in contrast, been broadening his party's social base through smart caste and communal engineering, all at the expense of the Congress. Worse, Amarinder sowed the seeds of internecine feuds in the run-up to the party's bid for power in 2012. So overconfident were he and his schemers-at-the-evening-soirees of their comeback that they engineered sabotage to defeat detractors and ended up rocking the party's boat itself.
The trouble with serious political mistakes is that often they become obvious long after they are made. Small wonder then that Amarinder has left behind a fractious legacy. The key question is: Is it the last sunset for the Captain? His baiters in the Congress are glad to be rid of him but it's too early to write his political epitaph. For, Amarinder, as a young Congress leader put it, "may not have political feet but he has a political brain". Surely, he would remain a key figure in the Punjab Congress, at least till the Lok Sabha polls.
Taking Amarinder along will be another daunting challenge for Bajwa. Clearly, the Majha chieftain has a tough row to hoe.