Cong grapples with Punjab infighting
An incumbent Congress chief minister who just a few months back looked set to return to power, the characteristic in-fighting that has come to be the norm in many state units of the party, and a high command that appears to be encouraging the dissidents to speak up.
All are part of a high-stakes drama being played out in Punjab and Delhi, with there being no certainty that a meeting between state chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh and a three-member committee (Mallikarjun Kharge, Harish Rawat and JP Aggarwal) set up by the party high command to resolve the issue, will result in anything substantive.
At the core of the issue, according to one camp, is the chief minister’s style of functioning; according to the other, it is the ambition of some of the Captain’s rivals, including Navjot Singh Sidhu.
But the issue has become larger than that now -- something that should worry the party ahead of next year’s state elections that it looked set to win under the Captain, largely on account of the farm protest that broke the partnership of the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Bharatiya Janata Party, leaving the former on a weak wicket and ensuring the temporary oblivion of the latter in the state.
Captain Amarinder Singh’s team says there’s no problem at all. “It’s just a checklist before the polls,’’ said finance minister Manpreet Badal , on the meetings the committee has been having. “There is no rebellion at all.’’
Yet, HT learns that the 79-year old chief minister is particularly miffed that the party’s high command has asked an intermediary to encourage legislators to speak out against him.
“Harish Chaudhary, a Rajasthan minister and former AICC secretary in charge of Punjab elections, has been calling up MLAs for the past 10 days,’’ said a person close to the CM who asked not to be named. “Chaudhary was speaking to dissidents and encouraging them to speak out and he was supposedly acting on behalf of the party leadership. The CM has spoken to Rahulji (Rahul Gandhi) about this.’’
Congress spokespersons did not respond to calls and messages seeking comment, but the fact that calls were being made was confirmed by one of Gandhi’s aides who insisted it is part of a feedback gathering mechanism. Chaudhary denied calling MLAs for this purpose. “I was in the state for seven years, so of course, I have a relationship with many people. We were checking on each other, to help each other during Covid. I have nothing to do with the upcoming elections.”
HT also learns that Punjab Congress chief Sunil Jakhar politely told the committee that the problem is above their pay grade. Pointing out that the CM is senior to them all, he said the problem could only be solved by the Gandhis.
Jakhar’s position is key because it’s his job that Sidhu wants. The former cricketer quit Amarinder Singh’s cabinet in July, 2019 when his portfolio was changed. While the CM has told Delhi that Sidhu is welcome to have his job back, Sidhu wants to be PCC chief. Sidhu is believed to be close to Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who was instrumental in getting him to join the party in 2017.
But the larger issue is how the party has handled the whole affair, said a key Punjab Congress leader who asked not to be named. “It’s not about Sidhu being a threat to the CM or even Partap Singh Bajwa (another dissenter) being a threat. It’s just that this should have all been sorted out a year ago; the high command has just let it linger. ’’
The CM, who reached Delhi on Thursday afternoon, will meet the three-member committee at 11am on Friday. On reaching the Capital, he went into a huddle with aides and advisers at Kapurthala House. The committee, meanwhile, completed its discussions with other party leaders, even many of the 37 party candidates who lost in the 2017 state polls. Agarwal said the committee would give its report in the next two to three days. “The meetings went off smoothly. There was no serious groupism. There are a few leaders who have some disagreements but nothing that cannot be sorted out. That’s why the committee has been formed,” he said.
Interestingly, before Singh left for Delhi , he inducted three rebel AAP MLAs, including former leader of Opposition Sukhpal Singh Khaira and two first-timers Jagdev Singh Kamalu and Pirmal Singh Khalsa, into the Congress, a move that will only strengthen his hand.
The chief minister said their induction has been approved by Congress president Sonia Gandhi. “Since AICC general secretary (in-charge of Punjab) Shri Harish Rawat and PPCC president Shri Sunil Jakhar were busy in the consultation process with the three-member committee in Delhi, their blessings would be sought in a few days,” he said.