Amid reports that former Patiala royal family scion Captain Amarinder Singh may sound the war bugle to lead his own army in the 2017 poll battle in Punjab, hectic backroom diplomacy is on to prevent his breakup with the party.
While a section of his loyalists are posturing for a split, MLAs whose association with the party goes down several years, if not generations, are trying to ensure that the high command heeds their demand of handing over the reins of the party in Punjab to Amarinder.
Many of them met party president Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary Ahmed Patel in New Delhi with a new proposal after Sunday’s kisan rally. The delegation included Congress Legislature Party (CLP) leader Sunil Jakhar and senior leaders Lal Singh and Tripat Rajinder Singh Bajwa. The MLAs, dyed in Congress wool, told Patel that the party could meet Amarinder’s demands midway by appointing him as the state party chief but not concede to his demand on retaining Jakhar as the CLP leader.
It was proposed that Rajya Sabha member Ambika Soni could be appointed as the chairperson of the campaign committee and Lal Singh or a Dalit leader as the new state CLP leader. This way, the party could put its formula of giving the three important positions to a Jat Sikh, a Hindu (Soni) and an OBC (other backward class) or SC (Scheduled Caste) leader.
“Though Patel assured to take the proposal to Sonia, he said it had come rather late as the party president and vice-president Rahul Gandhi had already held deliberations on the issue with state leaders and reached a decision,” said one of the MLAs who was part of the delegation.
Another MLA, also requesting anonymity, stated that according to Patel, Amarinder’s defiant attitude towards the party president and vice-president and taking a line contrary to that of the party had not gone down well with Sonia and Rahul. “If the party brings in Amarinder, all appointees of Rahul, be it state chiefs of Haryana, Rajasthan or West Bengal, will face similar demands,” the MLA said.
Jakhar, when contacted, said they had met Patel and he was willing to do whatever possible to strengthen the party in Punjab. “I will never come in the way of bolstering the Congress in Punjab. I would do whatever is required of me and have offered to be removed from the post of CLP leader if it helps to forge unity in the party,” he told HT.
Soni unwilling tobe brought in
It is reliably learnt that Soni has told party supremo Sonia of her unwillingness to be entrusted with the responsibility of a “house on fire”. MLAs close to Ambika said she did not wish to be brought in till Amarinder, too, supported her appointment. “We were with Amarinder during his rallies. Soni cannot match his popularity and the Congress cannot again force a state chief who fails to pull crowds,” a MLA close to Ambika said.
Behind Amarinder’s open salvos against Rahul are their not-so-pleasant meetings. “At a recent meeting, Sonia had to tell Rahul not to speak in a loud voice to Amarinder, saying that the Captain had been his father’s close friend. Amarinder is not willing to take this treatment anymore,” said a confidant.
During a dinner meeting at the Captain’s Delhi residence on Saturday, a written statement was proposed to be sent to Sonia supporting him.
Posturing is fine, breaking away from the Congress may be not. “It is not easy to float a new party or join hands with those with ideological differences. Amarinder is not denying the possibility as he wants to flex his muscles before the party high command. When it comes to breaking point, many will develop cold feet, including those prompting him to do so,” said another Congress MLA, who says his loyalty is for the party, though he supports Amarinder as the Congress’ best bet in Punjab.
It is not just Punjab where the Congress is witnessing an open civil war. The old guard versus new battlelines are getting redefined in the region as former Haryana CM Bhupinder Singh Hooda and Himachal CM Virbhadra Singh, a former royal like Amarinder whose daughter is married to the Captain’s grandson, are also closing ranks. The two were seen at Amarinder’s book launch in New Delhi on Sunday. MLAs privy to the discussions say the three CMs, sitting or former, were “highly critical” of Rahul’s style of functioning and expressed “dissatisfaction” at the state of affairs in the party.