New Delhi: After a month-long churn in the Punjab Congress, Navjot Singh Sidhu took over as the state party chief Friday. Sidhu has been in the party for just over four years, before which he was a member of the BJP for more than a decade.
Last month, the Congress high command appointed Revanth Reddy — all of four years old in the party — as the president of its Telangana unit. Reddy cut his teeth in politics as a member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the RSS, which is also the ideological fountainhead of the BJP. Between 2003 and 2017, he served stints with two other parties — the regional Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) and Telugu Desam Party (TDP). He joined the Congress in 2017.
In February, the party appointed as its Maharashtra chief Nana Patole, who started his political career with the Congress in 1990 but left the party twice in subsequent years before returning in 2018. Between 2009 and 2018, he was with the BJP, with his political career also spanning stints as an Independent.
The elevation of turncoats to important positions in the Congress has baffled some members of the party.
For example, an aide of Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh — who is locked in a battle of prominence with Sidhu — said it beggared belief that someone who had joined the party years ago had been elevated instead of those who had been working for the Congress for decades.
Speaking to ThePrint, a few senior Congress leaders said the elevations bear a clear stamp of the Gandhi siblings — Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra — and are unquestionable.
Others noted that it was part of Rahul’s strategy to welcome anyone willing to fight the BJP. They also pointed out the significance of the fact that Sidhu, Reddy and Patole had all joined the Congress at a time when the party was down on its knees and faring poorly in elections.
Of the three states mentioned, the Congress is currently in office in Punjab and as an alliance partner in the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government in Maharashtra. The Congress has the fewest seats among the three MVA constituents — the Shiv Sena and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) are the other two — having won 44 of the 147 assembly seats it contested in 2019 (the assembly altogether has 288 seats).
In Telangana, it has six MLAs in the 120-member assembly.
Gandhi duo’s stamp of approval ‘final and unquestionable’
Top Congress leaders say these appointments are meant as a signal from Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra — a message that it is their call that will be final, and unquestionable.
“It is kind of an institutional capture by the Gandhi duo, where they know that these might be unpopular decisions within the party, but if they have their hearts set on it, then that will be it,” a Congress MP said.
“No objection, even if it comes from the CM himself in the case of Punjab, will hold any water,” the MP added.
Patole and Reddy, too, enjoyed the “stamp of approval by the high command”, said another Congress functionary.
“The ‘high command’ in all appointments like these basically means Rahul Gandhi. If they manage to build a rapport with him somehow, the stamp of approval comes in the form of these appointments,” the functionary added.
Reddy is believed to have entered the good books of Rahul Gandhi by developing a close relationship with his aides. Sidhu, too, made his entry into the Congress after meeting Rahul Gandhi, who personally welcomed him into the party. Patole is known to be a close confidant of Rahul.
A third leader said the elevation is part of Rahul Gandhi’s policy of “welcoming whoever wants to fight the BJP”.
Last week, while addressing a meeting of the Congress’ social media team, Rahul talked about the need to “not be scared of the RSS”. According to a member of the Congress social media department who was present at the meeting, Rahul said whoever is scared of the RSS can leave the Congress, adding that “those who want to fight and defeat BJP and RSS must be welcomed”.
Party leaders noted that the three leaders who have been made state unit presidents joined the Congress at a time when the party was in decline, while the ‘Modi wave’ was blowing with full gusto.
“Patole quit the BJP in 2018, and also gave up his MP seat. For him to do that and opt for the Congress, for whatever personal gains, is something that the high command welcomed with open arms,” a Maharashtra Congress leader said.
“It’s only smart because at a time when more and more Congress leaders are leaving the party to join the BJP, elevating those who choose to quit the BJP and join the Congress is a way of incentivising them, or luring more people into the party,” the leader added.
‘Singh was with SAD too… flip-flops common in politics’
In Punjab, there are members of the party who are believed to be upset about Sidhu’s elevation, even if they aren’t entirely fond of Singh himself.
MP Partap Singh Bajwa was removed from his role as Punjab Congress chief ahead of the 2017 state polls, and replaced with Singh, who then went on to become the CM face of the party.
The Amarinder Singh camp fears that’s exactly what might end up happening this time too, with Sidhu as the CM face. In the days preceding Sidhu’s appointment as Punjab Congress chief, his supporters reportedly placed posters identifying him as the “next CM face”.
Many veteran leaders of the Congress in Punjab, including Bajwa, met CM Amarinder Singh on the day Sidhu was slated to be announced as state party chief, in what was seen as a show of solidarity.
“Many party loyalists work night and day for decades for the party, but for what purpose? Someone who joined the party years ago is elevated so quickly,” an aide of Amarinder said.
Many Punjab leaders, however, appear to be completely in favour of Sidhu’s elevation. Sidhu Wednesday led a group of 62 MLAs — the party altogether has 77 MLAs in the House of 117 — to the Golden Temple in Amritsar in a show of strength.
“This means all of us support Sidhu and are happy with his appointment. There’s no denying that many of the promises made in the 2017 polls haven’t yet been fulfilled. So it was time for some change,” an MLA who was part of this group told ThePrint.
The MLA said “flip-flops” are a part of politics, pointing out that Amarinder Singh, too, quit the Congress in 1984 and joined the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), before returning to the Congress in 1998.
“He (Amarinder Singh) was also with the SAD for over a decade. But the Congress welcomed him back. So these things are common in politics,” the MLA said.
(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)