In the Captain versus Skipper tussle inside the Congress in Punjab, Navjot Singh Sidhu has now got the upper hand by being appointed as the Punjab Congress Chief against the wishes of Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh. This is set to spice up the three-cornered election in Punjab in 2022.
The party sees it as a smart move to bring a fresh face forward in Sidhu to blunt the anti-incumbency and general negativity against the Captain-led Congress in Punjab, attempt a generational change with Captain touching 80 as the oldest serving CM in the country, and most importantly assert the party High Command’s dominance and control. Captain, however, remains a master of underarm bowling with many tricks up his veteran sleeve and would look to trump Sidhu post elections to the CM’s chair if the party wins.
Congress Vs Congress
The manner in which the appointment finally came, amidst persisting acrimony, shows it is now Congress versus Congress first in Punjab. The chief minister has said he would meet Sidhu only after a public apology from him for his statements against the CM in tweets and media interviews.
The CM’s letter and phone call to Sonia Gandhi to not make Sidhu the party chief has also fallen on deaf ears. The two may eventually share a campaign stage and have a photo-op soon with a customary Punjabi jhappi (hug) but their mutual mistrust and a bitter tussle on ticket distribution is imminent.
The real grouse in Captain’s camp remains that Sidhu used his access to Priyanka Gandhi Vadra to get what he wanted and a seemingly winnable election till three months ago has been botched up with poor handling by the high command.
But Vadra convinced Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi on Sidhu’s case that the party can win in Punjab only if Sidhu gets a top position or anti-incumbency will drown the party. Congress is attempting something it did not in Madhya Pradesh with Jyotiraditya Scindia or in Rajasthan with Sachin Pilot – making space right at top for young blood.
The high command has also sent a message that its decision matters the most. Captain may still be made the head of the campaign committee to soften this blow while Rajya Sabha MP Partap Singh Bajwa may get charge of the manifesto committee. But the creation of the two power centers, one in the party and the other in government, may mean the two will work at cross-ends rather than together as the moot issue now will be who becomes CM if Congress wins in Punjab. What does not help is Captain not having a high opinion about Sidhu’s electoral appeal or administrative skills and considering him unreliable and one propped up with no real support base.
Sidhu has tried to lately counter that criticism by meeting a battery of MLAs, ministers and former Punjab Congress chiefs to project a more accommodative version of himself, even as Captain made his moves to derail the impending appointment. Seeing the winds of change and the ‘future’, many MLAs and ministers have made a beeline for Sidhu now.
“His campaign will be high-voltage. He will take on the Badals like no one else. It will electrify the Congress cadre and set the tone for the elections after his visit to Amritsar and Golden Temple,” an MLA aide of Sidhu said.
Akali Dal Banks on a New Narrative under Sukhbir
Sidhu’s appointment as Congress state chief will make it a direct contest between Sidhu (57) and Sukhbir Badal (59), who is being projected by the Akali Dal as its chief ministerial face. The party has also stitched an alliance with the BSP that could hold it in good stead in the Doaba region.