By spending several hours with Amritsar MLA and former cricketer Navjot Singh Sidhu, both the Gandhi siblings, Rahul and Priyanka, have sent out a strident message to Punjab Congress leaders in general, and Chief Minister Amarinder Singh in particular, that the erstwhile test opening batsman had their full backing.
It is a well-known fact that Sidhu’s ambitions were being driven by the Gandhis, but during the past few days, the political developments in the capital have given rise to speculation on whether the Captain would be open to their suggestions or wait for some sort of intervention from Sonia Gandhi.
The matter is no longer regarding reconciliation between the dissident leader and the Chief Minister, but if any settlement were to be in the offing, it would have to be, on one hand directed at Sonia Gandhi, while on the other side, the two Gandhi siblings. It is difficult to believe that without consulting the interim president, Rahul and Priyanka could have unilaterally invited Sidhu to Delhi. However, an official word on this would provide the requisite comprehensibility.
In all likelihood, the Captain, next week, once again, may be summoned to Delhi to apprise him of what transpired at the meetings held with his principal detractor, who is openly aspiring to be the state PCC chief. In other words, so far as the Gandhi siblings are concerned, they have already chosen Sidhu to be Amarinder’s successor, a matter which may not have gone down too well with others in the party.
What has astonished political circles is that the Gandhis have never granted so much time to any senior leader from Punjab or anywhere else, to discuss a crisis, and thus if Sidhu was with them for a considerable long duration, it is obvious that he is favoured by them.
The apprehension is that if the Captain decides to oppose his nomination how would Sidhu be made the PCC chief or given a significant assignment? Would it not lead to a major confrontation between the high command and the Chief Minister, which Sonia Gandhi, given her characteristic style of being a status quoist, may not permit? In that case, would she overrule both Rahul and Priyanka? And if she does, would it not amount to cutting them to size?
It is for Sidhu to rise to the occasion, and if the situation snowballs into a major confrontation within the Congress—which he proposes to promote—he should withdraw his candidacy in order to do a face-saving exercise for the brother and sister. He is definitely the “X” factor of next year’s Assembly polls, and thereby, can contribute in some other manner.
There is every probability that the Captain may refuse to give in, and decline to accept the formula put forward by the high command. If this were to happen, the central leadership would find it virtually impossible to dislodge him from his position, given that other critics of the Chief Minister have consequential doubts over Sidhu.
The twist in the tale is that if the high command finds itself in a weakened position, following a string of defeats, the Captain too is not on a strong wicket. If sufficient pressure is exerted on him by Sonia Gandhi, he could cave in and bargain to continue as the CM till the end of his tenure. This could be a momentous gamble since a provoked Amarinder, could make his government take decisions in the remaining months that necessarily may not be in the overall interests of the party. Such is the way of life in realpolitik.
The ground situation in Punjab is rather similar to the Delhi occurrences of 2013; the entire media was backing Sheila Dikshit, refusing to acknowledge that she could be vanquished, even after Arvind Kejriwal declared that he would be contesting against her. The outcome demonstrated that the Congress era had come to an end in the capital. Sheila had governed for 15 years yet in the process had been detrimental to the party.
The contrast between Delhi then, and Punjab now, is that the Captain, unlike Sheila Dikshit, has been a mass leader, who enjoys a higher stature than others in the state. However, he has become vulnerable due to his inaccessibility to the political class, and as a consequence is facing dissensions from his own flock. His position certainly is not as sound as it was in 2017, particularly because of his alleged proximity to the Akalis, and his failure to keep the promises made after swearing on the Holy Scriptures.
The attacks on the Chief Minister, have also furnished a handle to the Akalis to lash out at the Congress. The accusation is that if his own party is not publicly supportive of him, how would the people of Punjab be so.
The social unrest in Punjab has further complicated matters and the farmers’ agitation is surely going to impact the Assembly polls. The two mainstream parties have their own set of problems and a new regional outfit or the Aam Aadmi Party could exploit the situation to their advantage. Kejriwal is sounding most confident and has commenced his campaign in the state, which he could have won last time, had he, instead of himself, projected a Jat Sikh as the Chief Ministerial face.
This is where Sidhu’s strength and negotiating power lies. Nothing would prevent him from going to AAP or elsewhere, if he does not get what he wants. Between us.