Amarinder Singh’s ouster, and the selection of his baiter Charanjit Singh Channi as Chief Minister of Punjab was scripted in Delhi by the Congress high command, which in effect is party MP Rahul Gandhi and AICC general secretary in charge of Uttar Pradesh Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. They pushed for the change of guard only months ahead of the next Assembly election tenaciously. Punjab is one of only three States where the party is in power. The party MLAs had turned against Captain Amarinder, but not before the Gandhis made it clear that they wanted him out. Capt. Amarinder, 79, had said of the 2017 Assembly election that it was the last in his career, and the party should identify his successor ahead of the next election which is now due in months. While the Gandhis appear to have taken it too seriously, Capt. Amarinder, as those in power often do, went back on his words. Capt. Amarinder says the reason for his change of mind — he now says his retirement is not imminent — is the choice by the Gandhis of Navjot Singh Sidhu as the party State president, whom he considers as anti-national and mixed up with the Pakistani establishment. The incoming Chief Minister, a Dalit Sikh, and the party chief have been acting in tandem to unseat Capt. Amarinder.
It is one thing to push for new leadership in the party and quite another to create a crisis in the process. The cost of this change for the Congress will be clear only in the coming days, but it is already evident that getting the party back in fighting shape will be an uphill task. Capt. Amarinder is exploring political options outside the Congress. While it may not be easy for him to build something new, he could queer the pitch for the Congress. His absence itself could be a drag on the feet for the party. Though admittedly inaccessible to ordinary workers and even party leaders, his sense of the people’s pulse in the communally sensitive border State has been critical for the party. His moderate image, secular approach, and nationalist rhetoric fit the Congress well. Mr. Sidhu and Mr. Channi have been making provocative appeals to Sikh religious grievances, in their efforts to outsmart the opposition Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the outgoing Chief Minister. His propensity for communal appealing, and his unstable temperament make Mr. Sidhu a sinister joker in the Congress pack. Should the Congress win, he will claim the Chief Minister’s post. With the SAD on the back foot for being part of the Union government when it enacted the three farm laws that the State’s farmers are up in arms against, and the BJP friendless and faceless, the Congress had appeared poised to retain power. Perhaps such advantageous circumstances emboldened the Gandhis to go for the jugular in Punjab. But the SAD might have got a lifeline, and the Aam Aadmi Party new hope while the Congress deals with its internal crisis.