New Delhi: “I don’t see the Congress without Rahul, Priyanka or Mrs [Sonia] Gandhi,” former Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee president Sunil Jakhar has said. While he acknowledged that the Congress needs structural changes, he added that he “did not want another Channi situation, where the change is worse than what you have replaced”.
The “Channi situation” is a reference to the change in CM last year that saw the Congress replace Captain Amarinder Singh with Charanjit Singh Channi. “A proper succession plan is required where the leader selected is a credible face,” he added.
Speaking to ThePrint days after the party’s drubbing in the 2022 Punjab elections, Jakhar talked about the road ahead for the Congress, and his one “unfinished agenda” as he retires from active politics.
The Congress, which won the 2017 Punjab elections, was reduced to 18 seats in the 117-seat assembly in this year’s polls. Jakhar blamed the poor showing on multiple people in the state unit, as well as the high-command, the Gandhi family.
According to him, the Gandhis are a “bad judge of character… to have put their trust in [Harish] Rawat and Channi”, but “the party needs them on board to ensure cohesion”.
While Rawat served as the All India Congress Committee (AICC) in-charge of Punjab until October last year, Channi took oath as Punjab’s first Dalit CM last September.
The latter took over the CM’s chair in the aftermath of a power struggle between former CM Amarinder Singh and state party chief Navjot Singh Sidhu. The spat culminated in Amarinder’s exit from the party, but tensions remained as party members took public swipes at each other.
The “Congress was made the butt of ridicule”, the veteran leader said, naming Channi, Rawat, Sidhu and senior leader Ambika Soni as responsible for the loss.
Jakhar’s comments follow Sunday’s Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting, which was held to analyse the poll rout. The Gandhis offered to resign at the CWC meeting but the offer was turned down by the CWC.
After the deliberations, senior leader Kapil Sibal admitted that the high-command should make way for other leaders within the party.
Talking about leadership alternatives and other Congress members, Jakhar, a prominent Hindu face in the Congress, said many were “either on the payroll of corporate houses or of other parties”. “The Congress needs change but one should learn from Punjab,” he said.
Channi ‘cheap replica’ of Captain Amarinder
Calling the results of the Punjab election a vote for change and a vote against the Congress — the AAP swept 92 assembly seats — Jakhar blamed much of the debacle on Channi and the “facade” created around him.
“We diagnosed the disease, but the medicine was much worse than the disease itself. The alternative was much worse than the person we had changed,” he said.
He added that Channi’s main qualifications were that he was “poor, honest and a Dalit”, but this “image was shattered” the day of the Enforcement Directorate raids when Rs 10 crore was reportedly recovered from Channi’s nephew and his associates.
He went on to call the former CM a “cheap replica” of Amarinder, and asserted that at least Channi’s predecessor “had charisma and an aura”.
“Channi made the Congress party the butt of ridicule,” Jakhar said. He claimed he had expressed his reservations about Channi earlier to Rahul Gandhi, and said he would not accept Channi as his leader. This, he added, was one of the reasons he “refused the deputy CM post offered to him”.
Having announced his retirement from politics, Jakhar said he was not returning but had one “unfinished agenda” — which was “to rid the Congress of Soni for engaging in the politics of religious identity”. “I will not sit down till she is reprimanded,” he said.
At a Congress meeting held to decide the Punjab CM last year, Jakhar said Soni opposed his name despite him getting the maximum votes among Punjab Congress members.
“She said ‘a Hindu cannot be CM of Punjab, because if a Sikh cannot be CM in Punjab then where else would he be CM’. What if someone from the BJP tomorrow says ‘only a Hindu can be the Prime Minister of India, because if a Hindu cannot be PM of India, which other country can he be PM of’. This kind of thinking is detrimental to the Congress, and she (Soni) put the party in a quandary,” the senior Congressman said.
‘Punjab is no Delhi’
With the Congress voteshare down to 22.98 per cent in Punjab this election, Jakhar said the need of the hour was “a proper leader at the top who rejuvenates the party workers… currently confused over the state of affairs”.
“Sidhu did not display the ability to carry people along. He only spoke about himself. If he was an upright man, he would have resigned after such a loss,” he added.
Sidhu Wednesday followed interim party chief Sonia Gandhi’s call for resignation of Pradesh Congress Committee chiefs of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Goa and Manipur in the wake of the assembly poll results and put in his papers.
Speaking about the AAP’s mandate, Jakhar said “Punjab is no Delhi”, adding that from “schools, to bureaucracy to officials — everything runs differently in the state”.
A lot of the AAP campaign in Punjab was focused on bringing the Delhi model to the state, especially in terms of education — a sector in which the AAP has revamped government schools and constructed swimming pools.
Speaking about the education model, Jakhar said Delhi did not even have 3,000 schools compared to Punjab’s more than 30,000. “The swimming pools would come later. Just ensuring hygienic conditions and drinking water would be a tall task for the AAP,” he said.
(Edited by Nida Fatima Siddiqui)