The Congress high command on Thursday finally set the ball rolling for the much-awaited revamp of the state party unit, directing incumbent state unit chief Partap Singh Bajwa and Congress Legislature Party (CLP) leader Sunil Jakhar to put in their papers. All India Congress Committee (AICC) general secretary incharge for Punjab Shakeel Ahmad told reporters in the evening that party president Sonia Gandhi had accepted their resignations.
The move has set the stage for the return of former Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh, party’s deputy leader in the Lok Sabha, to the top job two-and-a-half years after Bajwa replaced him. During this time, Amarinder had not only openly challenged the authority of Bajwa, an appointee of Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, through parallel show of strengths but had also been vociferous in demanding his ouster.
Rahul held a series of meetings in the past two months with party MLAs, district presidents, Amarinder and Bajwa to resolve the leadership tussle and seek suggestions on the revamp of the state unit.
With a majority of the party MLAs rallying behind Amarinder, a beleaguered Bajwa had to finally make way for him. Amarinder is also seen as the party’s best bet in Punjab against the ruling Akali-BJP alliance, which is facing the ire of farmers and Panthic groups ‑ both its core constituencies ‑ following a series of incidents of sacrilege of Guru Granth Sahib and the killing of two protesters in police firing in Faridkot district.
Jakhar’s resignation from the post of CLP leader, Congress sources said, would help the party put its social engineering formula into place by appointing a Jat Sikh, a Hindu and a Dalit leader to the top three posts of state unit chief, CLP leader and campaign committee chairman. Senior MLAs Lal Singh, Rajinder Kaur Bhattal and Charanjit Channi, a Scheduled Caste (SC), are the front-runners for the CLP leader’s post.
Ahmad did not specify when the restructured state unit would be announced.
‘Show of unity’
Rahul had been able to put up a show of unity between Amarinder and Bajwa during his Punjab visit earlier this month and later while leading a delegation to meet President Pranab Mukherjee, but it was only after Amarinder, a reluctant MP by his own admission, had been assured by him to be brought back at the helm of affairs in the state.
The move would end the intense factionalism raging in the Punjab Congress which had hit the party’s poll fortunes during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, taking the party’s seat tally down to three out of 13 ‑ against eight in the 2009 elections. The rookie Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) sliced away a huge chunk of anti-incumbency votes to win all its four Lok Sabha seats from the state. While Amarinder was resurrected after defeating Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) stalwart Arun Jaitley from Amritsar, Bajwa lost his Gurdaspur seat to Bollywood actor Vinod Khanna of the BJP.
With the Congress having lost two successive state elections under Amarinder’s captaincy, Rahul, who had announced him as the chief ministerial candidate in the run-up to the 2012 assembly polls, was not keen to concede ground to the former CM. As the party refused to budge, a bitter Amarinder had even questioned Rahul’s leadership, triggering speculation that the former CM planned to break away from the party.