“Who can unite warring Congress factions in Punjab?” This is the prime question being posed to state party leaders by All India Congress Committee president Sonia Gandhi and vice-president Rahul Gandhi, who are holding extensive parleys with senior partymen to find out who can portray the “picture of unity” in the faction-ridden state unit.
However, going by the consultations over the last two days, first with former Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh and later incumbent state chief Partap Singh Bajwa, the hunt has so far proved elusive.
Bajwa on Wednesday had separate meetings with both Sonia and Rahul. Amarinder, who had met Sonia on Tuesday, is learnt to have suggested to hand over the reins of the party to him or getting one of his loyalists at the helm. He is most keen on Congress Legislative Party leader Sunil Jakhar succeeding Bajwa, who, on the other hand, is learnt to have projected that such an eventuality would unleash a fresh round of factionalism in the party which has lost two successive state elections under Captain.
Rajya Sabha member Ambika Soni, who is being pitched by some MLAs as an acceptable option to all factions, too, had a meeting with Sonia on Tuesday. It, however, seems highly improbable that Amarinder would be comfortable working under or along with a senior leader such as Soni who has own set of loyalists among MLAs and other factions and could nurse ambitions of becoming the chief minister. The coming together of Bajwa, former Punjab CM Rajinder Kaur Bhattal and former MP Jagmeet Brar at recent rallies is a clear indication that anti-Amarinder groups are aligning to take him on.
Senior Punjab Congress leaders believe Amarinder will not be comfortable with the name of anyone who stands a chance to be appointed CM if the party fares well in the 2017 state polls. ”He wants to have another shot at the chief ministership. If he is not allowed a free run, he would not mind an organisational leader such as Lal Singh who neither nurses the ambition nor is popular enough to become the CM. Jakhar, too, will make way for Amarinder. So he is keen that the new chief should be someone from his team and most importantly someone whom he trusts not to sabotage his chances,” a senior Congress MLA close to Amarinder said.
Congress general secretary incharge of Punjab, Shakeel Ahmad, said the meetings are being held by the party president and vice-president to look for someone who can present a “picture of unity”. Hinting that the process for finding a new chief is on, he said, “The party wants its cadre and people of Punjab to see the Congress a united force. It is too early to say if and who will be appointed as Punjab chief but they (Sonia and Rahul) are trying to pick someone who can present a picture of unity,” Ahmad said.To thwart the chances of Ludhiana MP Ravneet Bittu, some Amarinder loyalists are projecting former Ludhiana MP Manish Tewari as the dark horse if the party wants to go ahead with its plans to appoint a Hindu face as Punjab Congress chief. Like Ambika Soni who had lost the Anandpur Sahib elections from Punjab, Tewari’s poll credentials are not very high as he had virtually fled the election scene in face of high anti-incumbency.
The consultations by Sonia and Rahul have started after a defiant Amarinder, party’s deputy leader in Lok Sabha, not only gave the monsoon session a miss but also took a contrary view on dharnas staged by Congress outside Parliament.
He had a joint meeting with the duo on August 21 to “clear misunderstandings” and conveyed that he would not leave the party or split it. Amarinder had returned upbeat after the meeting following an assurance that he would be party’s face for the elections both as campaign committee chairman and probably the “undeclared” CM candidate.