The abrupt exit of ageing and politically weak chief minister of Punjab, Captain Amarinder Singh, is a strong signal to Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot as well as TS Singh Deo and Bhupesh Baghel in Chhattisgarh to either shape up or ship out. Among many political calculations, risk, and bravado, the Gandhi trio — Sonia, Rahul, and Priyanka — wish to send out a powerful message to the Congress cadre. And, it is this: Supremacy of the Congress high command has to be accepted and practiced. It was the Gandhi trio's collective 'Iqbal'; dignity and responsiveness were at stake. And Gandhis have delivered with élan. Nobody revolted, handing over a one-line resolution empowering Sonia Gandhi to choose Captain's successor.
The big question now is who will be Captain’s successor? Politically, the Congress would be ill-advised to opt for an 'interim' chief minister to oversee crucial Assembly polls other than aspirant Navjot Singh Sidhu. Sidhu alone has the dash and ambition with respect to the grand old party. He has a relatively clean image and a support base among the Sikhs. Sidhu's stand on the Kartarpur corridor has won him many laurels.
Before his sudden fall from grace, Captain Amarinder Singh, considered an old warhorse, could not read the writing on the wall. Rather he kept pretending as if nothing was written on the wall. He was repeatedly asked and told to work as a team, to carry everyone along, to fulfil the 2017 state Assembly election manifesto promises. But the former Indian Army captain kept dithering.
A three-member Congress panel consisting of JP Aggarwal, Harish Rawat, and Mallikarjun Kharge had several rounds of talks with Captain, Navjot Singh Sidhu and other 78 Congress MLAs. The panel appointed by Sonia Gandhi had given a number of recommendations including a suggestion to appoint cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu as the state party president. Politically, it was seen as an attempt to project Sidhu as the chief ministerial nominee for February 2022 Assembly elections.
Captain kept resisting, dodging till one day Priyanka Gandhi Vadra got herself photographed with Sidhu at her Sujan Singh Park, New Delhi residence. Sidhu became the Punjab Congress chief and sought his pound of flesh in the political decision-making. Captain kept denying him even as Sidhu and his advisors turned restless, making some reckless statement.
AICC general secretary Harish Rawat kept trying to strike a balance. Rawat, essentially an organizational man to the core, was sympathetic towards Captain but the chief minister’s laid-back approach and indifference sealed Rawat’s hands. The AICC general secretary, after several rounds of talks with the party MLAs, had to give in writing to Sonia Gandhi that Captain had lost the support of the majority of party MLAs.
What does Punjab development say about the state of the Congress and its future?
First and foremost, it is a message for regional satraps, G-23 dissenters, and the rest to not take Gandhis for granted. Gandhis would prefer not to have a singular party ruled state than to be coerced, threatened, or slighted. Iqbal of the high command has to be honoured.
In more immediate terms, Punjab's Congress developments are a stern warning to Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot who has done everything possible to belittle the high command. The Gandhis have been at their wit's end to make Gehlot agree to expand his council of ministers, accommodate some supporters of Sachin Pilot. Gehlot has been delaying and avoiding. Congress insiders say the day is not far when two central observers would visit Jaipur to do the headcount.
Developments in Chandigarh have shown that essentially Congress MLAs are loyal to Gandhis than to any regional satraps. Those occupying seats of power in Jaipur and Raipur should take note of it.