It has been a long fortnight in Punjab politics. Two resignations at the top of the government and the state unit of the Congress, punctuated by a new chief minister at the helm, seems to have sailed the governing party in the state into choppy waters. Significantly, these developments seemingly constrain the window for damage control for the state Congress as the assembly poll is only four months away.
But what could add to an already eventful two weeks is the sense that the situation is still fluid.
The Congress will try to find a midway between appearing assertive and persuading Navjot Singh Sidhu to take back his resignation as state party chief. After having had his way with the party in getting former chief minister Amarinder Singh to resign, even a temperamental Sidhu could weigh in the risks of overplaying his hand with his wishlists.
The state government, headed by new chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi, is already staring at the prospect of dual power centres in the government. The latest episode shows that Sidhu is likely to use the party office to meddle with the functioning of the state government. That’s the trade-off he could settle with in a post-Amarinder arrangement after having missed the bigger prize of the chief minister’s office for himself.
In recent months, the Congress high command had faction-ridden issues to contend with in states like Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, where it’s in power. But contrary to the other two states it governs, it is in Punjab that its decisiveness in replacing the chief minister became only a precursor to a fresh crisis. In foisting Sidhu as the state unit chief, the Congress had its calculations in mind. It’s only that the ambitions and insecurities of the leaders can run counter to such calculations. In the case of Sidhu, far from the reasons he went public with, there seem to be two key impulses shaping his current response.
First, having lost his own case in the race for chief ministership, Sidhu would have done better for himself in backing fellow Jat Sikh, Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa, for the chief minister’s post. That could have been the best bet for him as the chances of Randhawa cultivating an exclusive political constituency for himself were lessthan that of Charanjit Singh Channi, the state’s first Dalit chief minister.
In short, if the Congress finds a way back to power after the poll next year, Sidhu had a better chance of replacing Randhawa. Coming from the same influential political group, the risk of missing out in balancing social equations in the leadership would be neutralised to a large extent.
The new chief minister, however, brings a new social proposition to the party’s politics in the state. Belonging to the Dalit community, a numerically significant section of state population, Channi can develop political capital on his own. This would be more probable in the event of a Congress win under his chief ministership in the state election next year. This is a prospect that would rankle Sidhu, along with his miscalculation in not siding with Randhawa’s claim on the chief ministership. As a reflex action, Sidhu seems to have opted for putting immediate pressure on the new chief minister, and using such pressure to extract more concessions from the party high command. In this scheme of things, the resignation could be a handy, if risky, tool, knowing that even a miffed high command would be placatory just to see that the party’s recent decisions don’t look ham-handed and hasty.
Second, Sidhu’s career in politics has hardly been an advertisement for the art of waiting as a political virtue. The period that followed his resignation from the BJP in 2016 saw him hobnobbing with the AAP for a chief ministerial projection in the 2017 assembly poll, and eventually joining the Congress only when the chances of the AAP choosing him as a chief ministerial face became slim. The method to his impulses obviously lies in generating a momentum that comes with a man in a hurry, revealing restless ambition too easily.
While remaining with the party, he resigned from the state cabinet in 2019 after serious differences with Amarinder’s leadership began surfacing. His mercurial nature, moreover, makes him a dicey political resource, even an unreliable one. In the process, the lack of strategic patience has entailed his presence in state politics.
Some political observers in the state also argue that Sidhu’s turn towards Sikh causes – panth-centric issues like the sacrilege incidents – isn’t in line with traditional Congress politics in the state. The Shiromani Akali Dal, the party’s old rival in the state, is the prime claimant of panthic-voters in Punjab, and it isn’t clear whether Sidhu’s attempts at advocating panthic causes would make large dents in the SAD’s stronghold. There is also a possibility that Sidhu might have earmarked the large group as a political constituency for himself within the Congress. It comes in the context of the fact that the Congress, along other groups, has a strong support base among Hindus, who constitute 38.49 percent of the state population.
Even in a Sikh-dominated state, where Sikhs constitute 57.69 percent, the strong support among Hindu voters has stood the Congress in good stead over the years. However, Sidhu’s effort – either guided by the need to break new grounds for the party in addressing panthic causes or nurturing a support base for himself – might be counterproductive.
“Mr Sidhu’s attempts to foray into ‘panthic’ voters could backfire as the Hindu voters could swing”, Ashutosh Kumar, professor of political science at Punjab University. While that remains a possibility, it isn’t clear whether Sidhu’s tilt towards panthic causes has the blessings of the Congress top brass or not.
The Congress will need a quick reset and efficient damage control to deny any derailing of its return to power in Punjab early next year. While ironing out the faction-ridden party setup remains a challenge, the party would also be alert to the need for effective political messaging to its core voters. However, its most crucial challenge would be to see that the churnings within the governing party do not allow new political forces to sneak into Punjab’s power corridors.