Over the past two weeks, the panel spoke to 150 party lawmakers and functionaries. Singh and Sidhu, who have been locked in a bitter verbal war, also met the panel. Gandhi will now take the final call.
Over the past two weeks, the panel spoke to 150 party lawmakers and functionaries. Singh and Sidhu, who have been locked in a bitter verbal war, also met the panel. Gandhi will now take the final call.

Amarinder in charge, key role for Sidhu: Cong panel

The committee made five major recommendations, said a panel member on condition of anonymity.
By Sunetra Choudhury, Navneet Sharma, Hindustan Times, New Delhi/chandigarh
UPDATED ON JUN 11, 2021 02:15 AM IST

A Congress panel seeking to resolve factionalism in the party’s Punjab unit recommended that chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh retain charge and former minister Navjot Singh Sidhu be accommodated in a key role, as part of proposals to boost the party’s prospects in next year’s assembly polls, senior leaders aware of the developments said on Thursday.

The three-member committee, comprising Rajya Sabha member Mallikarjun Kharge, party in-charge of Punjab Harish Rawat, and former Delhi MP Jai Prakash Agarwal, submitted its report to party chief Sonia Gandhi on Thursday.

Over the past two weeks, the panel spoke to 150 party lawmakers and functionaries. Singh and Sidhu, who have been locked in a bitter verbal war, also met the panel. Gandhi will now take the final call.

The committee made five major recommendations, said a panel member on condition of anonymity.

This included keeping Singh in charge, accommodating Sidhu either in the party or as a top minister, revamping the party organisation, reaching out to marginalised castes and give key positions to Dalits, and filling up vacancies in boards and corporations to fit in party leaders.

The panel member quoted above said the suggestion to give space to the cricketer-turned-politician was based on feedback from the party’s 80 Punjab legislators. ”They all said that it was going to be necessary to have both leaders and not just chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh,” he added.

A proposal by some MLAs that Sidhu be made one of two deputy chief ministers also finds mention in the report, though Singh has resisted that idea in the past. The chief minister’s office said Singh was open to appointing Sidhu as a minister but the latter wants a larger role.

Sidhu might also be offered the position of campaign committee in-charge but he is more interested in heading the party’s state unit, currently led by Sunil Jakhar, said people aware of developments. Singh is bitterly opposed to this idea and has voiced his disapproval in the past.

A second panel member said several MLAs and leaders complained about the CM’s style of functioning, lack of accessibility and dependence on bureaucracy but only a handful -- including Sidhu, Jalandhar Cantonment legislator Pargat Singh and Amargarh legislator Surjit Singh Dhiman -- demanded a change of leadership.

“It (committee) did not have the mandate to look at change of guard. Unlike the time when [Rajinder Kaur] Bhattal staked claim during Amarinder’s first term [2002-2007] or other states that have two-three strong groups, no claimant has put forth his case for the chief minister’s position here,” said the member, who did not want to be identified. The detractors’ grievances were included in the report along with the chief minister’s response.

Tensions between Singh and Sidhu have simmered since 2019, when the latter quit the cabinet after his portfolio was changed. But the bitterness mounted in May after the government suffered a legal setback in a 2015 Kotakpura police firing case.

The infighting comes amid a churning in the party’s Rajasthan unit -- two of only three states that the Congress is in power without a coalition.

Experts say that the rivalry might damage the Congress in assembly polls next year, an election it is otherwise expected to win, largely on account of the farm protest that broke the 23-year partnership of the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), leaving the former on a weak wicket and ensuring the temporary oblivion of the latter in the state.

The panel’s report touched upon the party’s poll prospects and emphasised that the Congress should project a united face in the polls. It also referred to the Congress’s recent loss in Kerala, another state where the party’s chances were marred by infighting and dissension.

Just like in Punjab, the report said according to the first leader quoted above, Kerala seemed to be an achievable victory but then “there was many a slip between the cup and the lip.’’

The report said the Punjab government will have to work hard in the remaining months to retain power and cautioned that though weakened, Akali Dal and BJP should not be taken for granted.

The panel suggested a revamp of the party structure and including more disgruntled leaders in boards and corporations. Gandhi had dissolved the organisational set-up in Punjab in January 2020, but its reconstitution has been in limbo, though Jakhar sent a draft list of new office bearers nine months ago.

The other key recommendation was to increase the representation of Dalits and backward communities in government. This was the demand of several MLAs as well, said the first leader quoted above.

The panel suggested that the Punjab government bring in affirmative laws for backward classes, like regularisation of slum areas and budget allocation to SCs according to population

A senior state unit leader termed the committee’s suggestions as “much ado about nothing”.

“Rawat was anyway trying to get Sidhu back into the state cabinet. Why did the party have to wash its dirty linen in public? In my view, (UP leader) Jitin Prasada’s sudden exit and the rumblings in Rajasthan Congress will have a bearing on the situation in Punjab and vice versa,” he said on condition of anonymity.

He was referring to former Union minister Prasada joining BJP on Wednesday and former Rajasthan deputy chief minister Sachin Pilot, who rebelled against CM Ashok Gehlot, asking that his demands be met.

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