From invincible until a few months ago, Congress and Chief Minister Amarinder Singh's position in Punjab has turned chaotic for the party and comical for the observers.
A simple election ahead in 2022 was complicated by a hurried inclusion of Navjot Singh Sidhu, who was then elevated to the post of party's chief in Punjab with the blessings of 10 Janpath. Singh, without the support of the MLAs and political options post-2022, was forced to enter into an uneasy alliance with the Sidhu camp.
However, the alliance is already starting to come apart.
It all began with Singh, and rightfully so, lashing out against two of Sidhu's advisors in public for their anti-national statements. Singh stated that the statements were completely misplaced and antagonistic to the stated position of India and Congress, and urged the advisors to stick to only giving advice to Sidhu, the Punjab Congress president, and not offer opinions on issues they had little or no knowledge about.
Pyare Lal Garg had questioned Singh's strong statements on Pakistan, stating that any criticism of the neighbouring nation was not in the best interests of Punjab. Another advisor of Sidhu, Malvinder Singh Mali, in a Facebook post, had commented that Kashmir was a separate country and belonged to the Kashmiris and had questioned the need for Article 370 and Article 35A.
Interestingly, in August 2019, Singh had lashed out against the centre on the issue of Article 370, saying that it was unconstitutional of the centre to bifurcate the state. Singh's motivated remarks against the centre stemmed from the closeness he has enjoyed with the Abdullahs for long and the party line.
While Sidhu chose to remain silent on the verbal folly of his advisors, Singh made his disappointment public. Thus, the repercussions were immediate.
On Tuesday (24 August), four Punjab cabinet ministers and close to twenty-five MLAs revolted against the sitting CM, asking him to be replaced for failing to deliver on the election promises.
Reaching out to 10 Janpath, these dissenters stated their lack of trust in Singh openly and their loyalty to Sidhu. The cabinet ministers, speaking to the local media, stated that they would not be able to win the elections under Singh due to the unfulfilled promises and were hence seeking a replacement.
The MLAs have shifted their loyalties towards the rising tide. Sidhu, the obvious CM face for the Congress party in the elections of 2022 in Punjab, has been busy eroding Singh's influence and interests within the state unit. The erosion has been swift, for it began with fighting elections, with Singh being the CM face to Singh being a second fiddle to Sidhu, the new CM face, to Singh being replaced a year before the elections.
Sidhu, even with his ill-informed cadre of advisors, has a lot going for him.
Unlike Singh, who has his entire political legacy at stake at the dusk of his career, Sidhu, even with his political appointment being a year or two too early, does not have much to do in 2022. Thanks to the scripted melodrama around the farmer protests, the political odds favoured the Congress in the state by a mile.
Also, there is an imminent personality vacuum in the state's politics, given both Prakash Singh Badal and Singh are close to retiring from active politics and will not be the face of their respective parties in 2024 or 2027. Sidhu's appointment, even though hurried, gives him the first-movers advantage as another generation of leaders take control of the state's politics, and the Badal family finds itself politically vulnerable.
Truth be told, both Sukhbir Singh Badal and Harsimrat Kaur Badal do not enjoy the same scale of popularity as Sidhu will, given the ten years between 2007 and 2017 under the SAD government plagued with corruption and drug menace. The Akali couple have made hay using the shining political clout of Badal Sr, but for how long?
Where does it leave the Captain though, now without a team?
In his words, 2017 was supposed to be his last electoral pursuit, but the farmer protests changed that.
For years, Singh governed Punjab within the political clout of the Gandhis but minus their political influence, given the events of the 1980s and Operation Blue Star, one of the most painful chapters in the history of the state.
Touted as a nationalist, Singh, for a greater part of his political career, aligned to India's interests even if it meant going against the party or, specifically, the Gandhis. Yet, it was Singh who gave Congress a majority in Punjab in both 2014 and 2019 when the party was decimated elsewhere. However, it all changed in recent years.
Singh, aligning himself with the party rather foolishly, protested against the farm laws, similar to what his government had ushered with great success before 2007. On the issue of Article 370, he toed the party line.
In January 2020, Singh stated that the CAA was against the secular fabric of the country and went on to compare it with the ethnic and religious cleansing of Hitler's Germany. Toeing the Congress party line, Singh ignored the sufferings of Sikhs in Afghanistan and Pakistan and Hindus in Bangladesh and compared Modi's India to Hitler's Germany, calling people to speak against what he perceived as an unprecedented atrocity.
In attacking the ill-informed advisors of Sidhu, Singh may attempt to claim a moral high ground to make a backdoor entry for 2022, but a few months ago, he was making similar, if not the same, statements.
Turns out, Singh did all he could to appease the Gandhis, and yet, the Gandhis have not shied away from pulling a Greg Chappel on this Captain. He's now without a team, a turf, and if Sidhu's pursuits succeed, without a complete tenure. Unlike the other captain, he has scored enough self-goals against his credibility as well.
For Singh, the options from here are limited. He can toe the party line, and descend into political oblivion, leaving the state for Sidhu. This would give Singh some sympathy amongst the cadre and his supporters, but would tarnish his entire legacy of being a political heavyweight. As a Captain, as a Punjabi, that option must be off the table for Singh.
Two, he can exercise his authority within the party, or whatever remains of it, and demand the 2022 elections to be fought under him. However, with MLAs already deserting him, this option feels off the table too. Ten years ago, Singh could have floated another party, denting the Congress vote share, but unfortunately, today, it would amount to nothing.
Can Singh join the BJP or the AAP?
No, for he has burned too many bridges with both the parties, and joining either of them would be an equivalent of a political suicide, given Singh's stance on Khalistan, which the AAP likes to fiddle with for temporary electoral gains, and his take on CAA, 370, and more specifically, the farm laws, issues the BJP has taken ahead even when it cost them the state electorally. With BJP, Singh's best bet would be to join the party, and hope for a Rajya Sabha berth, but that is too far-fetched and too late.
The ideal option, within this limited framework, for Singh, is to reclaim his nationalist stance, and to come clean on the internal conflicts within the state unit. Sidhu's public patronising of Pakistan complemented by the statements of his advisors offer Singh enough political fodder to play with, if he wishes to.
Singh can make a public spectacle of his retirement, irking the loyal Singh voters in Punjab against Sidhu, and come clean on farm laws to doze off a dangerous political fire in the state and Delhi. The exit from the race of 2022 would still be imminent, but at least it would be respectable. The Gandhis have failed Singh, and it is time for the latter, as a Punjabi, to return the favour.
Singh has come too far to undo the damage and is too old to start with a clean slate. Of whatever remains of his political career, the next few months would not only usher his imminent exit but also decide the shade of his legacy. A leader like Singh deserved better, but he himself, through monstrous miscalculations, has crafted his own political obituary.
A failed nationalist indeed.
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