Own goal in Punjab

Topics Punjab | Congress | Navjot Sidhu

The Congress party appears to have developed a talent for shooting itself in the foot, and the latest leadership crisis in Punjab offers a fresh example. This was a state in which the next elections, due February/March 2022, appeared to be a done deal, not least because of the opposition Shiromani Akali Dal’s earlier close association with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which had passed unpopular agri-reform Bills in Parliament. What is more, recently deposed chief minister Amarinder Singh had delivered for the party a brute majority in the Assembly of 80 seats out of 117; the party h.....
The Congress party appears to have developed a talent for shooting itself in the foot, and the latest leadership crisis in Punjab offers a fresh example. This was a state in which the next elections, due February/March 2022, appeared to be a done deal, not least because of the opposition Shiromani Akali Dal’s earlier close association with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which had passed unpopular agri-reform Bills in Parliament. What is more, recently deposed chief minister Amarinder Singh had delivered for the party a brute majority in the Assembly of 80 seats out of 117; the party has, in fact, not lost a single election, not even a by-election, during his tenure. The showdown between him and maverick cricketer-turned-comedian-turned-politician and fellow Patiala local Navjot Sidhu had been brewing since 2019, when the latter resigned as tourism minister.

This incident morphed into growing party dissatisfaction with, among other things, Mr Singh’s increasingly imperious style of governance, his failure to deal with the state’s burgeoning illicit drug trade, and accusations that he was too accommodative of the Badal family, which dominates the Akali Dal. This growing discontent prompted Congress President Sonia Gandhi to set up a committee to examine the problems with the state unit in May this year. The committee recommended that Mr Sidhu be given a role and the party structure reorganised. In June, in a personal coup, Mr Sidhu was appointed head of the party’s state unit, a decision Mr Singh categorically declined to accept.

 
What followed is a saga of mismanagement that highlights the predicament of the Congress party, in which the Gandhi siblings appear to play some sort of freelance problem-solving role. Rahul Gandhi, who resigned as party president after the general election debacle of 2019, and his sister Priyanka Gandhi have since met Mr Sidhu to hear his grievances, a move that escalated the crisis. Though it is possible to argue that a change of leadership was overdue, given the deep discontent against Mr Singh, the manner in which it was handled leaves much to be desired. The picture that emerges is of a rudderless party with a high command that is unable to draw red lines in a crisis.

The party brass has been in a constant state of fire-fighting since the setback in the five Assembly polls earlier this year. While desertion by young leaders continues to jolt the leadership, Mr Gandhi’s own enigmatic position within the party has caused more worry. In Madhya Pradesh, his apparent ennui in dealing with the rebellion of close ally Jyotiraditya Scindia cost the party a state it had won against the odds in 2018. In Rajasthan, the fallout of the discontent of another ally Sachin Pilot, whose rebellion against Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot cost him his post as deputy chief minister, has been festering for months and is yet to be addressed. And in Chhattisgarh, where Mr Gandhi appears to have promised a rotation of chief ministers, another bout of party infighting has begun. All of these controversies amount to own goals, and they have come at a critical time in the electoral calendar.


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