Why Congress Cannot Afford to Lose Sidhu

It is a devil or the deep sea choice for the Congress in Punjab. Accommodating Navjot Singh Sidhu as the state Congress president, much to the chagrin of Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh, would create two power centers in the party ahead of the election. Not doing so carries the risk of losing Sidhu.

Congress strategy of having two warring leaders in top positions in a state has not really worked lately. In Rajasthan, Sachin Pilot was made the Deputy Chief Minister and he continued as the state party chief after elections but remained in a sparring match with Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, bringing a real scare to the Rajasthan government’s fate last year. CM Gehlot ultimately had his way and Pilot lost both his posts.

In Haryana, Bhupinder Singh Hooda got charge of the state election just before the polls in 2019 while Kumari Selja was made state party president – a frictional arrangement that eventually cost the party the election. The Hooda camp said it got charge very late and it was Hooda who still made the election a close fight even as the party suffered heavy reverses in Selja’s purported strongholds of North Haryana.

But in Madhya Pradesh, Kamal Nath as the Chief Minister objected to twin power centers being created and hence Jyotiraditya Scindia was not given the post of state party chief, a post which Nath retained along with being the Chief Minister. Scindia finally quit the party to go to BJP, bringing down the Nath government in the bargain. In handling the Sidhu case, it is the MP fiasco that weighs heavy on Congress’ mind.

Sidhu Factor

Two state Ministers close to the CM in Punjab told News18 that appointing Sidhu as the state party chief would further muddy the waters for the party in Punjab rather than resolve matters. “Going into the elections, the next tussle then would be over ticket distribution with both camps (Captain and Sidhu) seeking more tickets for their loyalists as Sidhu has Chief Ministerial ambitions and needs support of the MLAs after polls. Right now, even the CM’s adversaries do not support Sidhu for state president post,” one senior minister said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

This, the second minister said, would bring party factionalism out in the open during distribution of tickets, possibly delay the process and leave selected candidates ultimately with bare minimum time to campaign. One such glaring example of the same was in Uttar Pradesh in 2017 when amidst the tussle between Akhilesh Yadav and his uncle Shivpal Yadav who then had hold over the party cadre, Samajwadi Party’s ticket distribution took a long while and the campaign was delayed. Ultimately, a divided house in the party led to its crushing defeat.

“After the kind of words that have been said by Sidhu publicly against the CM, can you imagine both of them sharing an election campaign stage? The tension has in fact been simmering for long,” the minister said, pointing out how Sidhu while sharing stage with the CM last during the farmer agitation had said he was made to sit quiet for long by the party in Punjab. The CM has in fact made a case for Sidhu to be severely punished rather than be placated.

However, not accommodating Sidhu is something the Congress High Command does not want to risk as he remains a popular face in Punjab, especially on account of his aggressive stance against the Badals. Aam Aadmi Party’s announcement of having a Jat Sikh as its CM face in Punjab and AAPs past negotiations with Sidhu in the last elections has helped strengthened the case of Sidhu’s virtual indispensability before the party High Command.

What Next?

Sidhu getting a long audience with the Gandhi siblings in Delhi is said to have cleared the way for his impending elevation to the top position in the state party unit but the Punjab CM has already sent out a message to Delhi on Thursday by hosting a host of Hindu leaders of the party for lunch and rallying them in his favour against Sidhu’s speculated elevation. The CM says the party’s state chief should be a Hindu, to manage religious and regional balance, as both he and Sidhu are Jat Sikhs and from Patiala.

An arrangement to make a Hindu leader as the working president of the party, along with Sidhu’s elevation, could be a compromise formula but this may only be a short-term truce. The lessons lie in Rajasthan and Haryana where tension is again simmering over Pilot seeking his due and the Bhupinder Singh Hooda camp standing up in Haryana for the removal of Selja. A win, or a loss in Punjab, could again see an implosion for the Congress in the state.

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