The Hindu – Sidhu’s meet with Rahul sends ‘wrong’ signals

Audience with high command hints at Congress’s culture of keeping alive dissidence not being dead, says analyst

Vikas Vasudeva

Chandigarh – Panjab – India, 12 June 2019. Navjot Singh Sidhu’s visit to New Delhi to meet Congress president Rahul Gandhi even as the former cricketer remains a minister without portfolio after having been divested of his originally assigned ministries, and given that he is yet to take charge of the newly allotted responsibility, has sparked speculation that he has sought the “high command’s” intervention in his tussle with Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh.

As part of a post-poll cabinet reshuffle last week, Captain Amarinder had divested Mr Sidhu of the key Local Government portfolio and allocated him Power and New and Renewable Energy Sources.

Mr Sidhu, who met Mr Gandhi, general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and veteran leader Ahmed Patel on Monday, is learnt to have apprised the “high command” about being singled out “unfairly” in the cabinet rejig on the pretext of party’s “poor performance” in the urban areas of the State in the general elections.

That Mr Gandhi, who had avoided meeting most senior party leaders including Chief Ministers of Congress-ruled States since the poll debacle and the Congress Working Committee meeting last month, agreed to meet Mr Sidhu has drawn criticism from political analysts.

“Cabinet reshuffle is prerogative of the Chief Minister and after the reshuffle has been done, if now the old portfolio of Mr Sidhu is reinstated it would be a bad move for the party,” said Ashutosh Kumar, professor of Political Science at Panjab University. “Mr. Sidhu’s audience with the high command also hints that Congress’s culture of keeping alive dissidence at the State level against the State leadership is not dead,” he remarked.

“Captain Amarinder is a mass leader who has in the past threatened the high command to break the party in case he was not declared as chief ministerial candidate in 2017,” Professor Kumar observed.

“Captain Amarinder, after the Assembly polls and Lok Sabha polls, has emerged as a strong leader and on the other hand Congress’s high command looks weak after its performance in the Lok Sabha polls,” he asserted.

Any effort to push for the reinstatement of Mr Sidhu as the Local Government minister in an attempt to resolve the ongoing tussle in the State unit risked undermining the Chief Minister’s authority and further worsening the rift within the party in Punjab, Mr Kumar opined.

The party, however, downplayed the significance of Mr Sidhu’s meeting, with Asha Kumari, the AICC incharge of Punjab affairs, asserting that every Congressman was ‘entitled’ to meet the Congress president. “As far as his taking charge of the new portfolio is concerned, if Mr Sidhu does not desire it’s entirely his wish. He is a minister of Captain Amarinder’s cabinet and it’s for the Chief Minister to decide who will hold which portfolio,” Ms Kumari added.

Ronki Ram, Dean at the Department of Social Science at Panjab University, said Mr Sidhu’s meeting with the party’s central leadership appeared like an attempt at capturing a “power stronghold”. “If the Chief Minister has to take decision on the dictation of party high command, it’s not in good taste,” asserted Professor Ram. “This shows party is highly centralised,” he added.

The two Punjab leaders have been openly at loggerheads in recent months with Mr Sidhu’s wife Navjot Kaur Sidhu accusing Captain Amarinder of blocking her Lok Sabha candidacy from Chandigarh. Later, the chief minister had asserted that “Sidhu’s remarks ahead of polling” had affected the party’s performance.

He had also blamed Mr Sidhu’s poor handling of the key local bodies portfolio as another factor for the Congress’s “poor performance” in urban areas. Mr Sidhu had retorted by asserting that he was being “singled out publicly” even though urban areas had played a critical role in the party’s victory in the Lok Sabha polls. The Congress won 8 of the 13 seats it contested, improving on its 2014 tally of just 3.

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