The Problem for Congress in Punjab

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“We are neither making runs nor are (getting) out and the over is getting over,” said a close aide and advisor of Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh. In a border rural constituency of Punjab, an MP reaches for a condolence meeting and is confronted by a 75-year-old Congress worker who asks him whether he supported the chief minister? When the MP replied in the affirmative, the worker said, “Please! don’t kill us. I have been a Congress worker but the fact that Congress has been in power has not helped us at all. We don’t even get to see our CM.”

The two comments sum up what the problem is for the Congress in Punjab. An inaccessible chief minister, squabbling MLAs, ego hassles and multiple aspirations, all have left the central leadership confused and unable to find a solution. According to sources, the central leaders clandestinely sent a team to all districts of the state to get a ground assessment even as the three-member panel was meeting with the MLAs and leaders. The report has been tabled to the Gandhis and it does not sound good for Amarinder.

In almost all rural constituencies, there is anger simmering over the rising electricity rates and outages. So much so that they have refused to accept Amarinder’s alibi that blamed the Badal government for the current power crisis in the state. They ask, “What was he doing for four-and-a half years? And why was this poll promise not fulfilled?”

The report became the basis of the questioning by Rahul Gandhi even as he met MLAs, MPs and leaders from Punjab. Sources say Rahul’s line of questioning indicated that he had sort of made up his mind that Captain Amarinder Singh couldn’t be the 2022 face of the party in the polls.

Rahul and Amarinder have an uneasy equation. While there are photo-ops where they are seen hugging each other and smiling, it’s tough for Rahul to accept the fact that during the last legs of the campaign in previous assembly polls in 2017, he was forced by Amarinder to announce his name as the Punjab chief minister when the Congress won.

The Gandhis have been looking for an alternative but no strong second line of leadership has been built. Till Navjot Singh Sidhu joined the Congress in 2018 and captured attention of the Gandhi siblings. From Day 1, the siblings and Sidhu got along well while Amarinder and Sidhu clashed. So much so that Amarinder was slowly distanced by the Gandhi siblings and was left to deal primarily with Sonia Gandhi. What made it worse and demeaning for the Punjab CM was that just like other MLAs, he had to deal with the three-member panel. Sources say a senior leader from Punjab met Sonia Gandhi to advise her that it should not be made a circus as it would downgrade the CM’s position in a poll-bound state. But that’s exactly what it has become.

Sources also pointed it out that the CM has reconciled to the fact that he may not become the CM again. And therefore, he is now looking at an honourable exit.

There are two problems for the Congress leadership: One is that a miffed Amarinder may stop campaigning completely, which may be a problem if a sitting CM does so. A source also said, “Minus the Captain (Amarinder Singh), who will sulk, where will the funds come from?” Even if the Congress agrees with Amarinder, his position has already been weakened, and that will not help the party. The choice for the party now lies between the devil and the deep sea.

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