New Delhi: The Congress high command has apparently been superseded by election strategist Prashant Kishor, who from all available accounts, is calling the shots in Punjab, and has reportedly proposed that in order to neutralize anti-incumbency, at least 30 of the sitting party MLAs should be changed before next year’s Assembly elections. In addition, he appears inclined to shift certain MLAs from their present constituencies to other segments, thus creating total panic in party circles.
AICC general secretary, Harish Rawat, who is in charge of Punjab, is seemingly out of the loop, and at present is recovering from the Covid-19 virus in a hospital. He had earlier been surprised when Prashant was re-engaged to devise the party’s electoral strategy, primarily at the behest of a politician’s relative. In fact, this person and Prashant Kishor, who was accorded a ministerial status by the Punjab government, are the new power centres in the state and are in total command of the situation.
Several party MLAs have complained to the central leadership that by granting overriding powers to the duo, the Congress would rapidly slip from its primary position in Punjab, where it is expected to retain power in 2022. These MLAs claim that the popularity of the MLAs was being assessed on the basis of CID reports furnished by the police department; something similar had happened in the early 1980s in Karnataka when Chief Minister Gundu Rao gave tickets based on Special Branch reports provided by then an upcoming but later a distinguished police officer, D.R. Karthikeyan. The move backfired.
It is also a subject of discussion that the entire exercise of dropping MLAs and giving hope to aspirants could be aimed at ensuring greater unity within the organization. The buzz is that some of the sitting ministers could also be denied tickets. The ministers under the scanner include Balbir Sidhu and Shyam Sunder Arora. However, political circles are of the firm view that the Captain at this stage, would not annoy the high command, and Prashant Kishor and others may merely be testing the waters for him.
What the Captain surely may do, after the outcome of the ongoing Assembly elections is known, would be to go in for a major reshuffle of his ministry, before the 2022 polls. The objective would also to reassert himself as the supreme leader and thus send a clear signal to the high command to give him a free hand.
Needless to say, Amarinder continues to be the most respected leader of Punjab and the Shiromani Akali Dal, once considered the main challenger, is facing huge dissensions from within. This despite allegations that the CM has been soft on the Akalis during his four-year tenure, and is unlikely to change his stance, notwithstanding his public posturing.
The break-up of the SAD-BJP coalition has damaged both, particularly the saffron brigade, whose activists are facing the wrath of the common people, more so after the Centre’s rigid stand against the agitating farmers. In such a scenario, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) could make a comeback, especially since it would be backed by Congress MLAs who may be denied ticket for the elections.
The situation in the state has become very complex for the Congress, whose state unit was dissolved some time ago and is yet to be freshly constituted, with the PCC chief, Sunil Jakhar, likely to be replaced shortly. The high command has been wanting Navjot Singh Sidhu to be Jakhar’s successor, but the Chief Minister is not willing to cede ground. A shrewd and perceptive politician, Amarinder realises that if Sidhu, a Jat Sikh like him, becomes the PCC chief, he would automatically be viewed as his successor.
The Captain had at one point wanted Manish Tewari, a Punjabi Hindu, to be elevated to the PCC president’s position, but the proposal was shot down by the Central leadership. Sidhu’s appointment to the post is also opposed by leaders such as Pratap Singh Bajwa, who are the Chief Minister’s detractors but would prefer that somehow Sidhu should be prevented from getting the assignment. Other than Bajwa, even Finance Minister, Manpreet Singh Badal is not favourably inclined towards Sidhu since he too feels that he could be the likely successor to Amarinder at some stage.
Bajwa, who is considered close to the current Congress leadership, would also not be acceptable to the Captain, who instead would want one of his supporters to get the job. Bajwa is opposed to Jakhar and, amongst Amarinder’s close followers, can perhaps back only someone like Sports Minister, Rana Gurmit Singh Sodhi, if it comes to making difficult choices. Both Sodhi and Bajwa have one thing in common. They cannot stand Jakhar and publicly describe him as a non-starter in Punjab politics.
Sodhi has also been the interlocutor in the reconciliatory efforts initiated by Harish Rawat and has played an important role in facilitating the meetings between Sidhu and the Chief Minister even though nothing substantial has come out of them. The only position acceptable to the former cricketer other than that of the PCC chief is that of Deputy Chief Minister, with the choice of portfolios home and local self-government. Under no circumstances would Amarinder allow that to happen.
In the complex political scenario that is emerging, Sidhu has been putting out sarcastic tweets aimed at the CM.
He realises that if he continues to be ignored and marginalized in the state, his immense popularity and grassroots connect would diminish. Therefore, if he does not get what he wants in the Congress, the two options left for him would be to either identify himself with the farmers’ cause by joining them and subsequently float his own regional party or to explore the possibility of going to the Aam Aadmi Party, which is too eager to accept him in its fold.
However, from available accounts, Sidhu nurses a grouse against AAP chief, Arvind Kejriwal, who, he feels, had not treated him properly in 2017 and thus owes him a public apology. Kejriwal has evolved as a politician in these past five years and perhaps may walk that extra step to assuage Sidhu’s hurt feelings and at an appropriate time could project him as the AAP’s CM face if all goes well. AAP is simultaneously attempting to get former Akali Dal leader Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa into the party. Both Sidhu and Dhindsa would make the AAP challenge very formidable in a hypothetical situation.
Arvind Kejriwal had entered Delhi’s electoral arena by taking on the sitting Chief Minister, Sheila Dikshit from her New Delhi Assembly segment. He had not only emerged victorious but Dikshit forfeited her deposit after being trounced by 26,500 votes. Therefore, if he and Sidhu indeed patch up in the political game of possibilities, he may persuade the former cricketer to contest not from his present constituency in Amritsar but from his hometown Patiala, against the present Chief Minister in what could be a battle of all battles that would take the fight straight into the rival camp. If this unlikely contest were to take place, it would be the biggest ever electoral confrontation in the border state and would go on to determine the future course of politics.
Thus, the Congress must take all these factors into account and re-organise its PCC since the new chief would need time to acquaint himself with the ground realities as they exist.
The Congress must find at an early date a Sidhu rehabilitation plan, before it is too late. The reality is that Sidhu would indeed be the “X” factor of the 2022 elections.