Navjot Singh Sidhu's appointment as Punjab Congress chief appeared on track 24 hours ago. On Saturday, Sidhu met the incumbent state unit boss, Sunil Jakhar, in what appeared to be an attempt to prep up for his promotion.
The script could have headed for a happy ending ahead of next year's state elections, giving Sidhu the prominence he has been lobbying for in his power game with Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh.
Captain agreed to the peace formula but with a set of riders including his inclusion in key decisions ahead of polls, a free hand in selecting his own cabinet, and an apology from Sidhu.
Then came a key meeting on Saturday night that started what appeared to be another twist in the tale. What was supposed to be a done deal for a balance of power between Sidhu and the chief minister is now dragging on and facing stiff obstacles.
What's happening now?
A series of meetings in Sidhu and Captain camps has queered the pitch, casting a shadow on the party that has been grappling with the infighting for long.
- In a significant development that appeared to change the equations dramatically, Congress Rajya Sabha MP Partap Singh Bajwa met the chief minister on Saturday, as the talk of Sidhu as Punjab unit chief gathered force. (Bajwa and Captain have had their differences in the past and their coming together was closely watched by analysts).
- According to an NDTV report, Bajwa held a meeting of Punjab Congress MPs from both Houses on Sunday but the party insisted state politics will not be discussed
- Sidhu, meanwhile, was holding a meeting with MLAs on the CM's home turf of Patiala, reports said.
The outcome of these meetings could decide whether the Congress would be able to douse the flames immediately, or whether the drama would continue.
Why is this relevant?
These meetings are mostly a show of strength. Those who command the quorum might eventually be in a position to sway the decision in their favour.
Until Saturday, Sidhu's camp appeared on top. Captain had grudgingly given his nod to the elevation and Congress had relied on the 'additional working presidents' formula to balance caste representation. Sidhu was off celebrating, meeting Punjab Congress MLAs, current state unit chief Jakhar and even some ministers considered close to the chief minister.
After Sidhu's tweet subtly hinting at the elevation, media circles were abuzz with news that the appointment is all but a matter of final announcement, which was expected on Saturday. But that announcement never came, indicating that the Congress top brass is not beyond persuasion.
Why is Bajwa-Amarinder meet significant?
Bajwa has been a strident critic of the chief minister within the Congress. He had earlier targeted the chief minister over the issue of the pre-poll promise of taking action against the perpetrators in the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib and subsequent police firing incidents in 2015. He had also come out in support of MLA Pargat Singh, who had accused the chief minister's political advisor of threatening him.
However, the two leaders seemed to have set aside their differences in face of a common foe.
Both Bajwa and Captain had been against giving VIP treatment to Sidhu, a former Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP who joined the Congress ahead of the 2017 state polls (after parleys with the Aam Aadmi Party failed to yield desirable results for him).
To negotiate a strategy, Bajwa called on Captain at his residence on the day Sidhu held a series of meetings with Jakhar and several MLAs, including the chief minister's loyalists.
Besides Rajya Sabha member Bajwa, Punjab Assembly Speaker Rana KP Singh and sports minister Rana Gurmit Singh Sodhi also met the chief minister.
Congress MP Manish Tewari retweeted the photo and said it was good to see Bajwa and Captain together, and noted that the Rajya Sabha MP and the chief minister would make a good team ahead.
Good to see @Partap_Sbajwa & @capt_amarinder together along with our Hon’ble Speaker @RanakpINC & @iranasodhi .
Partap who I know since 1983 and Captain Sahib would make a good team for the times ahead
He is an old dyed in the wool Congress Man pic.twitter.com/cvtQtn6KtM
— Manish Tewari (@ManishTewari) July 17, 2021
Why is Congress MPs huddle significant?
The Sunday meeting in the presence of Bajwa is portrayed to be a discussion on strategy about the three farm laws and pending payment of farmers in the previous purchase.
Congress MP Jasbeer Gill told News18, "There was no talk (of Navjot Singh Sidhu). We discussed how the farmers' issue could be raised in Parliament. We also talked about high inflation & Punjab's taxes that are not released by the Centre."
But some news reports have suggested that matters of the state unit did come up for discussion.
News18 reported that a senior Congress leader has also conveyed to party president Sonia Gandhi about the opposition to Sidhu’s promotion, allegedly saying “he does not even know the road to the PPCC office in Chandigarh".
Meanwhile, the Sidhu camp isn't sitting idle. Sidhu has met at least 30 Punjab Congress MLAs between Sunday and Saturday. He is intent on building support for himself among the state's leadership to Captain's parleys.
Ten Congress MLAs issued a statement and urged the party high command not to "let Amarinder down, due to whose unrelenting efforts the party stands well entrenched in Punjab."
The MLAs said that pulling the party into different directions just six months before polls will only harm its prospects in the 2022 polls. They also supported the chief minister's demand that Sidhu should apologise for targeting the chief minister.
With inputs from PTI