High turnout of MLAs as Sidhu rallies support
Newly appointed Punjab Congress chief Navjot Singh Sidhu met several lawmakers, ministers and leaders on Wednesday, in a significant show of strength by the cricketer-turned-politician who is locked in a bitter conflict with chief minister Amarinder Singh over control of the party.
The leaders, including four cabinet ministers, Sidhu’s predecessor Sunil Jakhar, and other senior functionaries, gathered at Sidhu’s residence in Amritsar, before travelling to the Golden Temple and other shrines. Visuals showed large crowds with no masks or distancing at the Sikh holy shrine, with Sidhu surrounded by other leaders.
They paid obeisance at the Golden Temple and Akal Takht amid a heavy rush of devotees. The leaders also offered prayers at two prominent local Hindu shrines, Durgiana Temple and Ram Tirath Temple.
Sidhu’s camp claimed that at least 62 of the Congress’s 80 MLAs attended the visit but state intelligence agencies put the number closer to 42. The state goes to the polls in early 2022.
Sidhu avoided the media but minister Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa said, “We have not counted how many MLAs have turned up today, nor was it a show of strength. All have come to pay obeisance at Sri Darbar Sahib which is not a place of holding such show.”
The development came a day after Singh’s aides said the chief minister won’t meet Sidhu until the latter apologised for his public attacks during the past month. On Wednesday, Sidhu’s associates made it clear that the former minister wasn’t going to budge.
“After all he is president of the Pradesh Congress now. Apology for what? People are with Sidhu,” said Ghanaur MLA Madan Lal Jalalpur.
Three former Aam Aadmi Party legislators who joined the Congress in Singh’s presence last month, and four newly appointed working presidents -- Sukhwinder Singh Danny, Kuljit Singh Nagra, Pawan Goel and Sangat Singh Gilzian – also attended the event.
Sidhu was named the state unit chief on Sunday as part of a revamp plan that involved appointing four working presidents from different communities, overriding strong objections by Singh and his loyalists.
An upset Singh has not publicly commented on the appointment nor met Sidhu since, indicating that the acrimonious factionalism that roiled the party since May remains unresolved.
The Amritsar East MLA will formally take over on Friday in a low-key ceremony attended by Congress general secretary Harish Rawat, who was also part of the three-member central panel tasked with tamping down tensions.
Singh has not been formally invited for the event, said a person aware of developments. “It’s an important event and it is the duty of every Congressman to attend it. In the past too, invitations were never sent to anyone in the party for such an event,” said cabinet minister Tript Rajinder Singh Bajwa, who was once a Singh loyalist but now supports Sidhu.
Tensions between 79-year-old Singh and Sidhu, who quit the state cabinet after the CM changed his portfolio in 2019, have simmered since then but flared up in May after the government suffered a legal setback in a 2015 case of police firing on a crowd protesting the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book.
Sidhu quickly rallied support as leaders opposed to Singh coalesced around him and publicly accused the CM of enabling corruption, prompting the Congress to set up the three-member panel. The panel met around 150 functionaries – including Singh twice -- and submitted its report to party chief Sonia Gandhi on June 10.
On Sunday, Sidhu got the coveted post of state unit chief, a position that bestows significant powers to him in an election year. But there has been no public rapprochement between the two warring factions with experts saying the infighting can bruise the Congress in the assembly elections.