New Delhi: Repeatedly humiliated by the Congress high command over the past few months, the Punjab Chief Minister, Captain Amarinder Singh, pre-empted a move to forcibly push him out through a voting process, by resigning from his position, four months ahead of the Assembly polls in the border state. The Congress Legislature Party, which met soon afterwards in Chandigarh, passed a one-line resolution, authorising Sonia Gandhi to name his successor. Significantly, MLAs, considered to be Amarinder’s loyalists, attended this crucial meeting.
Even as speculation started over who would be named the Chief Minister, the shrewd Captain has kept his options open and is likely to make his moves once the new team is announced by the Central leadership. At a press conference outside the Raj Bhawan, the Captain said that he would discuss his future strategy with his supporters before making up his mind on his own future.
Hectic lobbying within the party’s Punjab unit has commenced and several names including those of Navjot Singh Sidhu, Pratap Singh Bajwa and Sunil Jakhar started doing the rounds. The Captain has made it known that if Sidhu is made the CM, he would oppose him. No non-Sikh has been the Punjab Chief Minister since the reorganisation of Punjab in 1966. Prior to that Bhim Sain Sachar, Gopi Chand Bhargava and Comrade Ram Kishen were the CMs.
The first indication of the Captain being replaced came when ten minutes to midnight on Friday, Harish Rawat, general secretary in charge of the state tweeted to ask all MLAs to be present at the CLP meeting at the Punjab Congress office on Saturday evening. It was also announced that Ajay Maken and Harish Chaudhury would be the AICC observers at this meeting.
The Captain was taken by surprise and is understood to have phoned Sonia Gandhi, complaining against his continuous humiliation. “Enough is enough”, he told her while informing her that he would be resigning before the CLP meeting. His defiance led to conjectures on whether he would fight back or float his own party to contest the elections.
An apologetic Sonia Gandhi attempted to placate him and told some of her colleagues that she did not want the Chief Minister to resign. However, she found it difficult to turn down the decision made by her son, Rahul and daughter, Priyanka. She finally buckled under pressure and gave her consent for the CLP meeting.
The Captain is, without doubt, the tallest leader of Punjab as far as stature goes and therefore changing him at this juncture can have serious political ramifications. However, his popularity had started diminishing after several of his loyalists, largely from the Majha belt, revolted against him and began supporting Sidhu. The charge against the CM was that he had been soft on the Badals, with whom he had a secret understanding and was also in close touch with the BJP leadership.
The unsubstantiated allegation gained momentum after the state government failed to bring to book those responsible for the acts of sacrilege of the Holy Book over five years ago. The Captain came under attack, as encouraged by the high command, MLAs started going to Delhi to express their lack of confidence in his leadership.
The Captain attempted to manage dissent through the national press, but on most issues, the Chandigarh and Jallandhar-based media held a contrary view. The farmers’ agitation led to social unrest and things started taking a nosedive for the worse. His downfall was, in the meanwhile, being plotted by the high command on Rahul and Priyanka’s assistance, Sidhu was foisted as the state party president, much against the wishes of the Chief Minister, who had to accept the decision under duress.
In fact, the uprising against Amarinder started soon after he, at the instance of a close relative, brought Prashant Kishor to Punjab to help in assessing the situation. PK and other close aides of the Captain arrived at the conclusion that at least 35 to 40 sitting MLAs would have to be replaced in order to quell the anti-incumbency factor. This led to insecurity amongst the MLAs who started expressing themselves against the state leadership.
On the eve of the 2017 Assembly elections, the Captain, after being named as the Chief Ministerial candidate of the Congress, had announced that it would be his final election and in the last year of his term, he would assist the high command in naming his successor.
However, his coterie convinced him to change his mind and he declared that he would seek another term in 2022. This going back on his commitment irked the high command and last year before he fell sick, Ahmed Patel, Sonia Gandhi’s political Secretary told The Sunday Guardian that there was a proposal to replace him in the last six months of his term. Ahmed Patel is no more, but what he had predicted has come true.
The situation in Punjab is very similar today to what it was for the party in Delhi in 2013 when Sheila Dikshit was considered invincible by her admirers. The Congress, particularly after the latest crisis, would find it extremely difficult to revive itself, unless the new leadership is able to win the confidence of both the party workers and the people. The support of the farmers would be essential for this to happen.
There is a section within the Congress which believes that the Captain was attempting to derail the party after realising that his days in power were numbered. The decision to hike liquor prices in the election year was seen as one such move. Although he had lately become accessible, but his aloofness from the party cadres for four and a half years was seen as a negative point against him.
However, his resignation could complicate the political game in the state and if the high command chooses someone other than Sidhu, the factionalism could become even more acute in the party. It is very important for the Congress to win the 23 Hindu seats in the 117-member Assembly since the BJP’s chances have been decimated because of social boycott of its leaders by the people in view of the farmers’ agitation. This may be difficult since the Aam Aadmi Party is making inroads in the state politics.
However, the Captain is not the one who would give up. He is a soldier who understands the importance of winning a war even if a battle has been lost. He will never accept Sidhu’s leadership but would oppose him tooth and nail. He could spring a few surprises if his health permits. But what has happened in Punjab may not necessarily be good for the Congress, which, till six months ago, was expected to sweep the Assembly elections next year. No such thing can be predicted at this stage.