Punjab is in the news for different reasons these days. The sensitive border state is in the grip of an intense struggle within the party in government, the Indian National Congress.
After a prolonged period of lull, political activity in the Congress picked up the pace with Navjot Singh Sidhu backed by a bunch of party legislators opening a front against Chief Minister Amarinder Singh.
The reasons for this group raising the ante are many. Top of the list is a grouse the government did not work hard to get those guilty behind the 2015 sacrilege and police firing cases to book. The charges continue that the law enforcing authorities were benign on the previous Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and some members of his team accused of various misdoings; and of course, the scourge of drug abuse in the state especially the rural and semi-urban areas remains largely unaddressed.
Then there is a perennial charge of the Chief Minister remaining inaccessible to most of his party legislators, members and workers. The list would grow as political parties prepare for the assembly elections due early next year.
After making a name as an international cricketer and a two-term BJP MP from Amritsar, Sidhu and his wife Navjot Kaur Sidhu joined the Congress, as did a few prominent people like former Hockey India captain Pargat Singh.
Within the Congress, Sidhu enjoys proximity to the Gandhi siblings with grapevine talk that it is this patronage that allows the former Indian cricket opener seeking to queer the pitch for Captain Amarinder Singh, whose equations with the new Congress leadership were never cosy.
Captain Amarinder Singh was on the verge of walking away and forced the new party leadership under Rahul Gandhi to announce his name as the Chief Minister candidate ahead of the 2017 polls. The Congress won a record number of seats with political pundits interpreting the numbers came with the tacit support of those who did not want the nascent Aam Aadmi Party to make inroads in the state.
There are several theories behind the current struggle within the Congress party. One, this is a normal tug-of-war as elections approach. Two, different factions are testing waters to re-assess strength within. Three, pressure tactics exerted at critical stages allow party leaders to bargain for tickets. Lastly, a challenge to existing order positions the dissidents as contenders for future leadership.
By the time elections arrive next year, Captain Amarinder Singh will turn an octogenarian. While he remains the most popular Congress leader acceptable to various sections including the politically dominant Jat Sikh community, the Congress at present does not have a clear successor. It is an unwritten political stance that a Chief Minister should be from the Jat Sikh community. The Akalis have a considerable backing of this section including the rich landed farmers and swathes of those residing in rural areas, which as a former Akali, Captain tapped with success. Apart from Sidhu, other aspirants for the post include Pratap Bajwa who was a State Congress Chief when Rahul Gandhi was the Congress president.
The Congress, over the years, balances its approach in the State. Since the top political post goes to a Jat Sikh, the party prefers members of a minority community to be the state party chief. This factor does not apply to other major parties in Punjab.
Political contest in Punjab remains largely a battle between the Congress party and the regional Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) that, besides earlier stints, carved a unique distinction of governing the state for two successive terms between 2007-2017.
The ground in Punjab changed since the 2017 assembly election as the Akali Dal broke its age-old ties with the Bharatiya Janata Party in protest against the three farm laws the Modi government enacted. The Akalis of Badals’ was one of the oldest allies of the BJP that came to its aid during May 1996 when the Atal Behari Vajpayee government was scouting for support. The current state of politics reflects there is little or no room for nostalgia.
Last time around, the Aam Aadmi Party made a major splash in the political pool of Punjab during the 2014 Lok Sabha by winning four seats. It made a serious attempt to wrest power in 2017. While it could not get to the pole position, the party dislodged the Akalis to end up as the principal opposition party in the assembly. It is another matter that intraparty squabbles over the agitation path to be adopted to justify its newfound role led to a dissipation of energies with leaders pulling in different directions. Today, one of its principal legislators crossed over to join the Congress.
There are other parties too but their sum total does not add up to be taken in the league of serious players in the electoral battle. These include the breakaway Akali faction led by former Union Minister Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa who hopes to tap the anger against his parent party from among the committed supporters of the regional outfit. The Bahujan Samaj Party once weaved its way during the mid-1990s Kanshi Ram’s period but remained on the margins since.
These are early days and as the saying goes, if a week is a long time in politics, the dissidents in Congress have a long period to till the ground and make it fertile for reaping a crop.
—KV Prasad is a senior journalist and has earlier worked with The Hindu and The Tribune. The views expressed are personal.
Click to read his other columns
(Edited by: By Ajay Vaishnav)
First Published: IST