Punjab Congress leaders explore exit options as Gandhis bat for Navjot Sidhu

Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh and former minister Navjot Singh Sidhu had their last 'reconciliation meeting' in March | Photo: ANI
Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh and former minister Navjot Singh Sidhu had their last ‘reconciliation meeting’ in March | Photo: ANI

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New Delhi: An influential section of Congress leaders in Punjab are preparing to split the party, sensing the high command’s inclination to hand over the state unit’s reins to Navjot Sidhu.

ThePrint has learnt it from detailed telephonic discussions with about a dozen senior Congress leaders in Punjab, including MLAs and MPs, over the past two days.

“When Pakistan is sending explosives through drones to attack our military installations, our party is going to showcase a leader (Sidhu) who is best remembered for hugging General Bajwa (Pakistani army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa, during Imran Khan’s oath-taking ceremony in 2018). If Rahul Gandhi has decided to become a political fidayeen, we are not going to be part of his suicide mission,” a senior Congress functionary told ThePrint.

Navjot Sidhu, who had quit the BJP to join the Congress in 2017, has had long-drawn run-ins with Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh from whose Cabinet he resigned in July 2019. A section of Congress leaders, including some MLAs, MPs and ministers, have been critical of Amarinder Singh’s style of functioning for a long time. Sidhu has, however, emerged as his main challenger, thanks to the Congress high command’s support.

Priyanka Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi spent four hours in two separate meetings with the cricketer-turned-politician Thursday. Congress leaders in Punjab have been given to understand that the Gandhis are planning to appoint Sidhu president of the Punjab Congress Committee.

The Gandhis had earlier constituted a three-member panel of the All India Congress Committee (AICC) to address the grievances of Amarinder’s detractors. While the CM visited Delhi twice to depose before the panel, the Gandhis didn’t meet him, choosing to entertain his detractors.

“The people in Punjab vote for Amarinder Singh, not for Rahul or Sonia Gandhi. If you treat an 80-year-old leader (79, in fact) so shabbily in full public glare, do you think voters are fools? You (the Gandhis) send Sidhu here (as Punjab Congress chief) and we are out,” another veteran Congress leader told ThePrint.

As it is, talks of Sidhu’s appointment as Punjab Congress chief are speculative. There is no formal word from the AICC about what transpired between the Gandhis and Sidhu in those meetings but the latter has come out with all guns blazing against the Punjab CM.

Also read: ‘When it suits BJP we’re minority, else part of Hindus’: Sikhs demand role in new minority unit

Hindus upset, so are Amarinder detractors

There is another problem in Sidhu’s appointment as PCC chief. Congress leaders believe that if a Jat Sikh is the CM and another Jat Sikh becomes the PCC chief, it may alienate Hindus.

At a luncheon meeting of Hindu leaders hosted by Amarinder Singh Friday, many of them were of the view that the Congress should “forget” about “38 per cent voters” (read Hindus in Punjab), with Sidhu as the party chief.

Amarinder Singh’s long-time detractors, meanwhile, are equally upset with the party high command. Their peeve: The Gandhis projecting Sidhu as ‘Captain’s alternative’, spending about four hours in two separate meetings with him in Delhi Thursday.

They are upset because Sidhu is relatively a newcomer in the party and his elevation would mean an end of their ambitions, for now. They argue that he had “vanished” after resigning from Amarinder Singh Cabinet in July 2019 while they had continued their “fight” with the CM.

“He leaves the BJP because he has chief ministerial ambitions. The Aam Admi Party doesn’t offer him that and so he joins the Congress in January 2017. He becomes a minister two months later. And now the high command wants to make him Punjab Congress chief, virtually declaring him Amarinder Singh’s successor whenever the latter retires or is forced to retire. So, what’s there for people like us who have spent 30-40 years in the Congress?” a Congress legislator told ThePrint.

Also read: Why Punjab CM Amarinder Singh is made to stand trial in Gandhi family court


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