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Is Sidhu being pushed to the wall? War within is now a public show

Cloak-and-dagger games: Proposed law on ‘cable mafia’ comes back with objections; Cong MLAs from Majha eyeing cabinet berths leave Sidhu a lone ranger against Majithia too

punjab Updated: Jan 25, 2018 10:08 IST
Sukhdeep Kaur
Sukhdeep Kaur
Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
Captain Amarinder Singh,Rajinder Kaur Bhatta,Amarinder
Navjot Singh Sidhu

It’s history repeating itself in Punjab under the watch of chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh. Just the plot and the actors have changed.

During his last tenure (2002-07) as CM, Amarinder had seen a revolt during his first year in power by then state Congress chief Rajinder Kaur Bhattal. To ensure allegiance, Amarinder has this time kept half of his cabinet berths dangling, yet the cloak-and-dagger games within the party and government are fuelling an uprising.

Days after the party’s Rajya Sabha MP Partap Singh Bajwa went ballistic against the style of functioning of the Captain government, local bodies minister Navjot Singh Sidhu has taken on his own government and party over being sidelined in the mayoral polls.

This is the third major controversy to hit the government in the past two weeks, after the ouster of his confidant Rana Gurjit Singh from the cabinet and the Punjab and Haryana high court’s decision setting aside appointment of retired IAS officer Suresh Kumar as the CM’s chief principal secretary.

In Amritsar, Karamjit Singh Rintu was made the mayor as Amarinder had promised to “compensate” him after his claim to the ticket in last year’s state polls from both Amritsar East or North was overlooked. Sidhu, who left the BJP to join Congress, contested from Amritsar East that his wife had held, while North went to Sunil Dutti. Congress candidates — including Inderbir Singh Bolaria, who had switched over from the Shiromani Akali Dal —won all five assembly seats in Amritsar.

As the local government minister, Sidhu was the face of the municipal polls in the state. He was part of all meetings and press briefings at Congress Bhawan in Chandigarh on the subject. He also got the CM to unveil a vision document at Amritsar and the two other municipal corporations where polls were held. The choice of rural development minister Tript Rajinder Bajwa to oversee mayoral elections at Amritsar could be to have an outsider, but there is more to the game than meets the eye.

The plot and actors

Bajwa, Aruna Chaudhary and Sidhu are the three ministers from Majha, a region that gave the Congress a landslide mandate in last year's polls.

The MLAs who were leading a campaign seeking a probe against former Akali minister Bikram Singh Majithia and cable transmission company, Fastway, saying it was patronised by the previous Badal regime, have been using Sidhu’s shoulder to fire at Amarinder.

There are four contenders for the remaining nine slots in cabinet from Majha. Dera Baba Nanak MLA Sukhjinder Randhawa, Rajasansi MLA Sukhbinder Singh Sukh Sarkaria, Raj Kumar Verka and OP Soni. The first two are Jat Sikhs. The region and religion math does not allow Captain to have more Jat Sikhs from Majha. Verka and Soni can hope to sail through being a Dalit and Hindu, respectively.

Those involved in spy games in the government — by reporting to CM on what his ministers and MLAs say — worked overtime to ensure the so-called anti-Majithia campaign by 40 MLAs fizzled out, leaving Sidhu a lone ranger.

At stake are cabinet berths. One wicket (Rana Gurjit) has already fallen and the Majha lobby is being credited for it.

Slowdown on Fastway

How Sidhu’s proposed law to take on the cable czar, Fastway, by reducing tax on direct-to- home (DTH) services and also tax multi-system operators such as Fastway and local cable operators, will reveal their income and number of connections is debatable. But it was made in a hurry. Nine of the bill’s clauses were clashing with central laws. They have been removed. Yet, the legal remembrancer (LR) has again returned it with objections this week.

“Sidhu is not being allowed to work. He dealt with everything from delimitation of wards to setting the tone of the MC polls,” one of his close aides said. But Sidhu refuses to talk beyond mayoral polls. “I am speaking for democracy in the party. Local government is my department and I am not even kept in the loop on any meeting taking place on the issue,” he said.

A restless Sidhu is new to power games in the Congress. It started with outwitting him for deputy CM’s post. But he has mass appeal and added to Congress fortunes in the 2017 mandate. He is also seen as the main contender in the succession game after Amarinder declared to groom one. The CM has since announced he is open to playing another innings.

Leader of opposition Sukhpal Khaira has now invited Sidhu to come on a common platform (did he mean Aam Aadmi Party?). But the former batsman knows how to choose a winning side. He told reporters few months back that he touched his “guru” Union finance minister Arun Jaitley’s feet when they met. The Amarinder camp flagged it to party president Rahul Gandhi as a sign of his “unreliability”. Sidhu was listed as a star campaigner in both Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat elections but he gave them a miss. The war was already on. It is now open for public showing.

First Published: Jan 25, 2018 09:40 IST