The Congress isn’t yet out of the seismic zone in Punjab
The adage of a picture telling a thousand stories can apply in the reverse in politics, given the proclivity of politicians to present one face behind closed doors and another when out in the open.
For this reason, the picture-perfect August 20 meeting in Chandigarh between Captain Amarinder Singh and Navjot Sidhu seemed a chimera for those aware of their caustic chemistry. It was their second face-to-face dialogue in recent weeks, after the first at which the newly appointed state party president was aggressive and the chief minister (CM) curt.
Last week, the two ventured to make up for the opportunity lost in their maiden encounter. The Captain was consciously warm, the cricketer-turned-politician purposely deferential.
For his part, Sidhu sought to defuse tensions rooted in his past unbridled attacks on the CM by calling him a family elder. The studied cordiality had them agree on setting up a ten-member group for “policy coordination” between the party organisation and the state government. They concurred as much on a roster arrangement to make ministers take turns to visit the Congress’s Chandigarh office for interaction with the party cadres and the public.
The buzz in the Punjab secretariat was that in a subsequent interaction with a senior government official, Sidhu praised the Captain for making him feel belonged at his residence. Widely perceived to have the CM’s ear, the official with whom he spoke has been in the firing line of a clutch of legislators, including ministers, for being overbearingly officious with them.
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Branded as “Majha Brigade” after the region they represent in the assembly, the recalcitrant ministers, Tript RS Bajwa, Sukhjinder Randhawa and Sukhbinder Sarkaria, had led the pushback against the CM when the central leadership made Sidhu the party chief against his advice. Their exclusion from the mutually agreed policy coordination panel can therefore be interpreted as a pragmatic climbdown or concession by the state president for a working relationship with the CM.
But mercurial as he invariably is, Sidhu’s tweet after the closed-door meeting that formalised the panel made no mention of the CM. Tagging a picture of his with Singh and two other party leaders who accompanied him in the talks, he blandly wrote: “Highly positive Co-ordination meeting on proposal for roaster of ministers to sit at Punjab Congress Bhawan !! (sic).”
Inveterate political observers were quick to compare the social media post with the one he made a day earlier while drafting a former Indian Police Service Officer, Mohammad Mustafa, as one of his four advisors. “Love to be associated with Razia Ji and Mustafa sahib,” he indulgently wrote for the IPS officer who had turned against the CM on being overlooked for promotion as director general of Punjab police. His wife Razia Sultana continues nevertheless as a cabinet minister under Singh.
In fact, Sidhu’s decision to have a team of advisors besides the four working presidents under his command as the party chief, has befuddled many in the party. Besides Amar Singh, a former IAS who is now a Congress MP, his advisors include a health activist, Pyare Lal Garg, and an ultra-left political commentator, Malwinder Singh Mali.
The last two named have since been reprimanded in a statement by the CM for their comments which were out of synch with the Congress’s stated position on Pakistan and Kashmir. The Captain apparently went public when an intervention by a senior All India congress committee (AICC) official failed to persuade Sidhu to make Garg and Mali recant. A caricature on Mali’s facebook page of Indira Gandhi hoisting a skull atop a gun has triggered another controversy; the tagline “every repression is defeated” seen as a throwback to Operation Blue Star and the anti-Sikh riots that followed her assassination.
Any productive meeting between the temperamentally apart Singh and Sidhu is a happy event from the Congress’s perspective. But the uproar soon thereafter over the Mali episode goes to prove that one swallow does not make a summer.
Now that they’ve a consultative platform, both sides have no reason to talk through the social media. Their party might be better placed than its rivals, but it isn’t unassailable. The Aam Aadmi Party and the Akali Dal are bound to gain ground if the internal Congress bickering continues unabated and its leaders keep speaking out of turn.
That Sidhu has had his way in appointing advisors — in the manner of a chief minister in waiting — is viewed as a proof of the high command’s diminishing clout by even the dissident Majha leaders.
“Don’t ask me, ask our central leadership. Could this have happened on Indira Gandhi or Rajiv’s watch,” wondered one of them. He forecast the fault lines getting wider on ticket distribution closer to the elections.
“Our party will sink fathoms deep if the big two don’t bury the hatchet,” bemoaned another minister. With all his faults, the Captain, he said, has kept his composure in the face of Sidhu’s provocative commentary. “They both , especially the unabashedly ambitious PCC chief, should know that we wouldn’t have a government or a CM if they work at cross purposes.”
Bar a durable rapprochement, the party will remain in the seismic zone it finds itself today. It might be easier said than done but is certainly worth a sincere effort. Sidhu will be better off if he doesn’t misconstrue the Captain’s patience as his rubber spine.