Was it Navjot Singh Sidhu for whom the Congress party’s first family publicly undermined Punjab chief minister and late Rajiv Gandhi’s Doon school friend, Captain Amarinder Singh? Do the Gandhis think the cricketer-turned-politician is a better bet than Singh in Punjab assembly election the next February?
Not exactly. It’s not about Sidhu or Singh. It’s about the Gandhis and their idea of creative destruction to revive the party, no matter how unthinking or brazen it may look to those outside the family.
Let’s first try to decipher the Gandhi siblings’ game plan in Punjab. With opposition parties in the state looking disorganised and listless, the Gandhis have taken a calculated risk — a gamble rather. They must be betting on Singh to accept this humiliation with humility. After all, at 79, how much fight would he have left in him? Starting a new political innings at this age isn’t an easy option. Can he count on those rallying around him or against Sidhu in coming weeks and months? Singh, a seasoned politician, would know better.
Politicians are known to salute the rising sun — Sidhu, in this case. Although Singh made it clear that he would be abiding by the Congress high command’s decision, the latter must have calculated the worst-case scenario — a possible rebellion by him and a section of disgruntled MPs and MLAs. If at all that happens, the worst outcome would be: The Congress snatches defeat from the jaws of what currently looks like a sure shot victory in the 2022 Punjab election. Be that as it may, they seem to be prepared to live with a loss in another state.
That brings us to the central point about why this entire political battle in Punjab was about the Gandhis, and not about Sidhu or Singh.
The Gandhi siblings seem to have taken a call that they must break from the politics pursued by their mother, Sonia Gandhi, since 1998 — dealing with naysayers through dialogue, persuasion and reconciliation. That phase perhaps ended with the death of her principal advisor, Ahmed Patel, last November. As long as she depended on him for advice, she wouldn’t let Rahul vent out his contempt for ‘the system’ in the party — read old guards. Ahmed Patel would ensure that the old guards keep their frustration and impatience under check. So, even when the so-called G-23 shot off a letter to Sonia Gandhi in exasperation over the state of affairs, Rahul dissuaded them from a showdown.
The Gandhi siblings are prepared for a showdown now, knowing well that the organisational set-up – which enabled them to have their point persons on key positions — and Congresspersons’ belief in TINA (there is no alternative) factor makes their ouster next to impossible. Even if a section of Congress leaders find the party’s first family an electoral liability, the latter remains well-ensconced.
Secure in this knowledge, the Gandhi siblings have now decided to go for the kill — re-establish unquestioned supremacy. The detractors or naysayers must fall in line or leave. An Amarinder Singh in Punjab, an Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan, a Bhupinder Singh Hooda in Haryana, an Oommen Chandy in Kerala, a Siddaramaiah in Karnataka, a Ghulam Nabi Azad in Jammu and Kashmir, a Digvijaya Singh in Madhya Pradesh, or a Kapil Sibal in Delhi can’t decide what’s good or bad for the party. The Gandhis are the Congress and its fate must remain tied to them. If someone doesn’t agree, the message for them is unequivocal: My way or highway.
It was this message that the Gandhi siblings want to travel from Punjab to other states. Sonia Gandhi won’t come in the way any longer. She must hand over the family firm, the Congress, to her children, making them sole proprietors.
Veteran Congress leaders who think their decades-long ideological or political loyalty to the Congress — and even mass base — make them secure in the party are mistaken. Such loyalties don’t count for much to the Gandhi siblings.
See who all they have been appointing state Congress chiefs. Rahul Gandhi may be breathing fire against the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) ideology, but he is fine handing over the party’s reins in Telangana to Revanth Reddy, a former activist of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the students’ wing of the RSS, who joined the Congress in 2017. The new Punjab Congress president, Navjot Sidhu, left the BJP after 13 years in 2017 to try to realise his chief ministerial ambitions either in the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) or in the Congress. AAP convenor Arvind Kejriwal couldn’t have someone else become the CM of a full-fledged state. So, Sidhu joined the Congress. Nana Patole left the BJP to join the Congress in 2018; he was appointed Maharashtra Congress chief three years later. Congress veterans mustn’t, therefore, be in any illusion about their ideology and loyalty being a protective shield behind which they can question the Gandhis’ style of running the Congress.
They must, however, know that Rahul might have lost interest in ‘democratising’ the party, his first goal after becoming a general secretary in 2007, but he is actively pursuing his larger goal — of dismantling the ‘system’ in the party. In his first speech after becoming the Congress vice-president in 2013, Rahul Gandhi had spoken of the need to focus on “leadership development” so as to prepare, “in the next 5-6 years”, “40-50” netas or leaders who could run the country and “5-6-7-10” in every state who could become CMs.
As it turned out, six years later, in 2019, the Congress did get 52 MPs in the Lok Sabha but they couldn’t get the chance to run the country. Now that the party must wait for the Narendra Modi phenomenon to fade away some time in future, Rahul Gandhi seems to have decided to focus on the next project — developing 5-6-7-10 CM candidates in every state. Sidhu seems to be the first of this lot in Punjab.
Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)