Captain Amrinder Singh, 79, Chief Minister of Punjab, India, had emotionally told voters while campaigning in 2017 that this would be the last election he would fight.
Less than a year before the state elections (to be held in early 2022), Singh has rescinded his retirement plans. The Congress party now faces a Navjot Singh Sidhu-sized problem.
The colourful former cricket player, Sidhu, 57, has rebelled against Singh because he is impatient to be Singh’s successor in Punjab.
The Congress High Command, with its considerably weakened political capital, can’t afford to alienate Singh, its tallest leader in Punjab and one of the few mass leaders it has nor can it snub Sidhu -- with his rocketing political ambitions.
The solution dreamt up by Delhi for Punjab? Set up a three-member committee consisting of leader of the Rajya Sabha, Mallikarjun Kharge, the Congress in-charge for Punjab, Harish Rawat and Jai Prakash Aggarwal.
A defiant Sidhu
Sidhu continues to be defiant in his meeting with the committee. He has publicly charged Amarinder Singh with going soft on the corruption cases against the Badal family, and shielding them in other cases. Sidhu repeated his charges against the Chief Minister and then went public saying his stand on the CM was the same.
In return, a livid Singh had earlier challenged Sidhu to contest against him from his home turf of Patiala, also his ancestral royal seat.
Singh said that Sidhu had been breaching party discipline repeatedly. Singh added that Sidhu, who had defected to the Congress from the BJP, was also looking to join another party as an option.
The public slug-fest between Sindhu and Singh showcases the huge problem that Congress will face with the polls barely months away. Singh had managed to corner the Akali Dal on the contentious issue of Farm Laws passed by the Modi government against which farmers across India have launched an agitation.
The Badal family had to quit the BJP-led NDA because it was seen as politically suicidal to support these farm laws in Punjab.
Dwindling power of Gandhis
The other takeaway from the big fight between Sidhu and Singh is the dwindling power capital of the Gandhi family with the Congress regional satraps.
Singh, who has an uneasy equation with former Congress president Rahul Gandhi, had earlier gone public saying that he would form a regional party if he was not given leadership in Punjab and made the face of the Congress party for the polls.
A phone call from Sonia Gandhi, interim Congress president saved the day and an angry Singh made peace with Rahul Gandhi and the Congress party.
Informed sources told Gulf News that “Singh looks at Rahul Gandhi as the unsuccessful son of his friend Rajiv Gandhi. While he has a lot of respect for how Sonia had steered the party, he is dismayed with Rahul’s lack of leadership and the team of unelectables around Gandhi.
Singh is also upset that Priyanka Gandhi has given public hearings to Sidhu, which have emboldened his ambitions against Singh.”
A source close to Singh adds, “neither the brother nor the sister can win a single national election for the Congress. All they can do is the politics of palace intrigues. Even Prime Minister Modi respects Singh as a mass leader and yet the Gandhi family gives so much traction to Sidhu with his unbridled ambitions”.
Trouble brewing elsewhere
As the Congress struggles with its leadership issues, a desert storm is brewing again in one of the few states it still has a government - Rajasthan where young Turk, Sachin Pilot had rebelled against his boss Ashok Gehlot, the incumbent Chief Minister.
After Pilot’s rebellion collapsed, he returned to the Congress party with “assurances” given by the Gandhi family, who promptly set up a committee to deal with his grievances against Gehlot.
The untimely death of Ahmed Patel (the politically savvy aide of Sonia Gandhi) last year from COVID-19, saw Gehlot render the committee meaningless.
Sources close to Pilot confirm he is restless and angry, as the promises made to him by the Congress party leadership have not been kept. Gehlot has firmly ensured that all the powerful portfolios are controlled by him (nearly 30 at the last count) and Pilot loyalists don’t get any of the fruits of office.
The central leadership of Congress seems helpless against Gehlot and periodically tries to placate Pilot with promises. Pilot has refused all offers made by the Gandhi family to join the central leadership as a general secretary of the All India Congress Committee with charge of several states.
Gehlot has also said that he had no interest in any central leadership job and would not budge from his Rajasthan top job.
Pilot who as state chief had worked on the ground for six years to bring the Congress to party is upset because unlike the other heirloom politicians of the Congress, he has a grassroots connect and is a 24/7 hardworking politician.
“Assurances were given but, nothing has been done. Gehlot runs a one-man government and is trying to make Pilot loyalists suffer. How long will Sachin suffer this” said a Pilot loyalist.
With dissidents galore and no political pie to share, the Gandhi family is in trouble. A reshuffle of the All India Congress Committee (AICC) will only be cosmetic since the mass leaders have seen the reality of an enfeebled family.
Final word from a senior Congress leader, “Sonia Gandhi has asked all three leaders - Pilot, Gehlot and Singh to move to the AICC. All have refused. They know power is only in the states where they rule”.