NEW DELHI: After weeks of infighting and strong opposition by Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh, cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu was finally appointed the state unit chief by the Congress top brass in a bid to end factionalism in the party. Sidhu replaced Sunil Jakhar, a prominent Hindu face who was at the helm for over four years.
Sidhu’s election as the new state unit chief is being looked at as a carefully calculated smart move by the party top brass to end factionalism just ahead of the assembly elections. However, this stopgap solution has further widened the rift between the two powerful factions in Punjab Congress. It is also likely to spice up the three-cornered assembly election in Punjab in early 2022.
The decision to elevate Sidhu has evoked a mix of responses with some snubbing Captain Amarinder Singh while others attacking Sidhu for his vendetta politics. Sidhu’s appointment as Punjab Congress chief was announced despite serious objections raised by CM Amarinder Singh, who had written to interim Congress president Sonia Gandhi against his elevation to the post.
CM Amarinder had contended that elevating Sidhu – a Jat Sikh – to the post would upset senior leaders representing the Hindu community. However, in order to end factionalism and infighting, Sonia Gandhi appointed Sidhu as the party`s new Punjab unit chief along with four working presidents. They are Sangat Singh Gilzian, Sukhvinder Singh Danny, Pawan Goel, and Kuljit Singh Nagra – importantly none of them were endorsed by CM Amarinder.
A day before his appointment, Sidhu did hectic “lobbying” by reaching out to as many of his party colleagues while the “sulking” Chief Minister met Congress state in-charge Harish Rawat and categorically told him that he won`t meet Sidhu until he apologises for his “derogatory” tweets.
Reiterating that he would accept any decision taken by Sonia Gandhi, Amarinder Singh termed the meeting with Rawat as fruitful, adding the latter would take up the issues raised by him with Gandhi. It emerged that Rawat came to Chandigarh for a meeting between Amarinder Singh and his bete noire Sidhu, ahead of the official announcement of the latter`s appointment as the state unit chief by Sonia Gandhi.
However, an adamant Amarinder Singh, who is reportedly upset with Sidhu for targeting his government over the power crisis and the sacrilege issue, had categorically told Rawat that there would be no rapprochement until Sidhu apologises in public for his “derogatory tweets and interviews”.
CM Amarinder Singh had earlier written to Sonia Gandhi, warning that the party would split if Sidhu was given charge of the state Congress. In his letter, the Chief Minister had said that he will not contest under Sidhu if he is elevated to the top organisational post in the state.
The letter was delivered to Sonia Gandhi at her residence in Delhi before she met the cricketer-turned-politician on July 16. Just hours ahead of the revamp in the party’s state unit, 10 MLAs issued a joint statement in support of the Chief Minister and said Sidhu was a celebrity and undoubtedly an asset to the party, but criticism of his own party in public has created the rift.
However, despite all this, the party had tried to do a balancing act by meeting Amarinder Singh’s demand of keeping the focus on Hindus and Dalits. It is believed that Sidhu, who had been at loggerheads with the Chief Minister and had sought to be involved in key decisions ahead of the state assembly polls, has now been given a free hand with the appointment of 4 working presidents.
Insiders say that all CM Amarinder Singh’s riders to the elevation were violated. Even his demand of a public apology from Sidhu regarding his disparaging tweets was not met.
Cricketer-turned-politician Sidhu`s political innings with the Congress is new and his rivals see him as a turncoat politician. In March 2017, he was inducted as a Cabinet minister in the new Congress government in Punjab headed by Amarinder Singh.
At that time, Sidhu was not designated as Deputy Chief Minister, as was being speculated in political circles. Sidhu, who joined the Congress in January, just days ahead of the February 4 assembly elections in Punjab, won the Amritsar-east Assembly seat with a margin of over 42,000 votes.
Sidhu had earlier remained a Member of Parliament from Amritsar when he was part of the Bharatiya Janata Party. He was elected MP in 2004, 2007 (by-election) and 2009. He was nominated to the Rajya Sabha by the Narendra Modi government in April 2016.
Ahead of the 2017 Assembly elections, Sidhu had resigned from the Rajya Sabha and said, “At the behest of the Prime Minister, I had accepted RS nomination for the welfare of Punjab. With the closure of every window leading to Punjab, the purpose stands defeated, now a mere burden. I prefer not to carry it.”
Within the Congress, Sidhu had been lying low since his resignation from the state Cabinet in July 2019. He had resigned from his post as a Cabinet Minister in the state on July 14, 2019 after differences with Amarinder Singh over portfolio allocation. Sidhu was in-charge of local bodies but was shifted to the Power Department.
Time and again, he was meeting top party leaders, including Sonia Gandhi in New Delhi, and apprised them of the political situation in Punjab. Appealing to the people to join him and “be part of the resurrection”, Sidhu, who has never been far from controversies, even hogging the limelight as fallout — whether for good or bad.
After his elevation, Sidhu faces an uphill task of reviving Congress in Punjab as a lot is at stake for the party. It would be interesting to see if Sidhu will be able to steer his party to power again with Amarinder Singh remaining the Chief Minister`s face for the upcoming election, due to be held in early 2022.