The sudden decision of Navjot Singh Sidhu to quit as the Punjab Pradesh Congress President and a very public declaration assigning reasons for it put the party central leadership in a piquant situation.
Appointed barely three months ago overriding protests by the then Chief Minister Amarinder Singh and a section of senior state leaders, Sidhu threw a spanner in the works. This after having his way in ensuring the exit of the senior-most leader from the top political position in the state, stalling fellow Jat Sikh as a replacement and acquiesced to install Charanjit Singh Channi instead.
Amid a strong perception of drawing strength from his proximity with Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra and Rahul Gandhi, the Punjab state Congress chief created a shindig over the selection of representatives in the new Council of Ministers, allocation of portfolios and even the appointment of a senior law officer.
Now conventional logic dictates that it is the prerogative of the Chief Minister to select his Cabinet and Council of Ministers, allocate work accordingly and lead the team. The policy of collective responsibility of the Cabinet with the Chief Minister as its head is inherent in this constitutional arrangement.
With elections to the 117-member Punjab Assembly entering the home stretch, the Congress central leadership is on the test again due to a situation created by its hand-picked person tasked to lead the party at the polls due early next year.
Even if Sidhu has a strong disagreement with a bunch of legislators inducted into the new government by the Chief Minister and allocated work, no political party can be seen tolerating such a public showdown. After all, the Chief Minister’s selection bore the stamp of approval of the central leadership or euphemistically the “High Command,”.
In effect, the manner in which Sidhu demonstrated dissent and attempted to take a high moral ground portrays the central leadership in poor light on two counts straightaway. One insisted on a change of guard in the party leadership so close to polls and handed over the baton to Sidhu. The act is an acknowledgement of the trust those at the helm of the All India Congress Committee had in Sidhu and his ability to deliver results. That factor stands exposed.
The second aspect is even more damaging. Now, Sidhu sends a communication to the party president and soon it becomes viral on social media. So the Punjab Congress Chief leaves the party leadership with a fait accompli situation. Applying deductive logic it can be said, Sidhu’s claim of his inability to compromise portray the central leadership as one susceptible to such practices.
Will the central leadership accommodate Sidhu’s concerns? What can be the consequence? To placate Sidhu if the party concedes some ground, it will straightaway undermine the new Chief Minister, whose installation a few days ago was interpreted as a shrewd and calculated political move upsetting challengers.
On his part, the new Chief Minister took a safe stand asserting his relations with Sidhu remain good. Yet, political opponents have started stirring the cauldron with the Aam Aadmi Party stating Sidhu is against Dalits and could not accept a scheduled caste leader as the Chief Ministers. “This shows that Navjot Singh Sidhu is against Dalits. One poor son was made Chief Minister. This Sidhu could not bear. It is very sad,” AAP spokesperson Saurabh Bhardwaj was quoted as having told correspondents.
The former Chief Minister too added a delightful twist by arriving in Delhi amid a report he could meet BJP leaders, which Amarinder Singh denied while giving a parting “I told you so Sidhu cannot be trusted” shot.
If Sidhu was so concerned in avoiding a ‘compromised’ perception image, the Pradesh party chief could have taken the leadership into confidence and allow it to sort out the issue without creating further complications for the party, its Chief Minister in Punjab and the state unit.
Balancing competing interests is what leaderships are called to exercise especially in tough situations. The best possible deal is struck when groups with different interests sit down to take the conversation forward, otherwise, it is the end of the road for whoever blinks first.
Now, for a young politician like Channi, it is too precious an opportunity to waste. He has little time at hand to prove his credentials in the party and among his band of supporters and community as an administrator measuring up to the aspirations of the people.
A couple of days after he took office, Channi made a field visit to meet farmers whose crop was hit due to a calamity. The candid talk including the offer to reach him straight in case of compensation gets tangled in red tape or corruption reflects the pragmatic side of a politician in expanding his acceptance.
The Congress finds itself at a crossroads. The party organisation in Punjab will have to remain in order in the face of some resignations by supporters of Sidhu and also ensure the new government delivers on unfulfilled promises made by the party that led to the unpopularity of the veteran Amarinder Singh government. The clock is ticking away.