Is Punjab facing a realignment, in addition to a crisis? This is the question on the minds of political pundits in India. Punjab is one of the few remaining Congress-ruled states in the country.
Not only is it a border state, but also the breadbasket and rice-bowl of the country. An area with a rich historical and cultural past, the land of five rivers, which is what its name means literally, Punjab is crucial to India’s security, well-being, prosperity, and peace.
Since distant historical times, Punjab bore the brunt of multiple invasions, with their attendant destruction, spoilage, and plunder. It occupied a decisive place in the Sultanate and Mughal period as the transmitting corridor of imperial hegemony between Delhi and Kabul.
With the rise of Sikh power, Lahore became the most important city in northern India after Delhi. Following the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the Anglo-Sikh wars of the 1840s not only sealed British paramountcy but earned India’s erstwhile colonial masters a powerful martial ally.
Soon, during the Great Revolt of 1857, often called the first Indian war of independence, it was arguably the aloofness of the Sikhs from the rebels that allowed the British to retain their hold over India.
Epicentre of farmers’ agitation
Punjab also contributed more soldiers to Britain’s war efforts in both the world wars than any other part of India. Paradoxically, it also raised many revolutionaries against colonial rule.
With its more recent blood-soaked, difficult, and chequered history of the Partition and the Khalistan movement, Punjab is a highly sensitive state. Even today, the epicentre of the farmers’ agitation in India is Punjab.
Given this background, political manoeuvres in the state have caught the entire nation’s eye. Centre stage in the latest crisis are Punjab’s current Chief Minister, Capt. Amarinder Singh and his arch-rival, former cricketer and TV personality, Navjot Singh Sidhu. Singh, scion of the Patiala royal family, when he completes his term next year, will have ruled Punjab for over ten years.
The only one with a longer record at the helm of the state is the legendary Prakash Singh Badal, patriarch of the Shiromani Akali Dal. In four stints starting fifty years back in March 1970, Badal was the state’s CM for nearly twenty years. But Badal is 93. His party, too, has declined in influence in recent years.
Last September, the Akali Dal broke its alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India’s largest political formation, which is in power at the centre since 2014 under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The other two political players in Punjab are the BJP, which has never come to power in Punjab on its own, and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), whose only success is Delhi, where its president, Arvind Kejriwal, is the chief minister of the state. What will happen in the Punjab assembly elections next year?
Will infighting jeopardise Congress' prospects?
Will the Congress retain power, or will its infighting jeopardise its prospects? Politics in the state, both intra and interparty is governed by this overwhelming issue.
The captain’s record as the Chief Minister of Punjab is admirable. He has not only led his failing party to electoral victory in 2017, despite a Modi wave across the country, but also handled thorny challenges such as the farmers’ agitation quite adroitly. The bane of Indian politics, however, is infighting, squabbling, and backbiting.
The Congress in Punjab has been far from immune to it. Singh himself resigned as Member of Parliament and left the Congress to join Akali Dal after the Indian government, led by then Congress Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, sent troops inside the Golden Temple in 1984. It took Singh 14 years to return to the Congress fold.
Sidhu, the popular TV personality and former cricketer, is also, like Singh, a Jat Sikh from Patiala. Sidhu too has had his share of political turbulence and reversals.
After being thrice elected to the Lok Sabha from the prestigious Amritsar constituency on the BJP ticket, Sidhu resigned from the party and the parliament to join the Congress in 2017. One might argue that he has never got his due despite waiting so long in the wings. It is no secret that Sidhu has not got along with Singh.
That is why the announcement that Sidhu will be the next Congress party chief in Punjab has triggered a crisis. Singh has demanded an apology and withdrawal of several supposedly derogatory social media posts as the precondition for meeting Sidhu.
Though Singh reiterated that he would obey the Congress high command, that is, Sonia Gandhi, he also shot off a letter a couple of days ago warning of serious repercussions if Sidhu was elevated to PPCC chief.
Has Congress scored a self-goal again by promoting Sidhu against Singh’s wishes? Why not let the latter continue to lead Punjab by anointing him in advance as the party’s chief ministerial candidate in the 2022 state elections? One sensible answer to this question is that Singh is already 79 years of age.
Even if the Congress returns to power next year, can he run the state for another term, till he is 85? Also, Sidhu himself, it was rumoured, might jump ship to join AAP if ignored this time around too.
Singh is in good health, and has given no hints of his imminent retirement from active politics. Undermining his authority might thus prove a costly mistake for the Congress. In a four-cornered election, any dissension or disunity in the party is sure to prove detrimental to its re-election.
Worse, what if the captain leaves this team to lead another? An Amarinder Singh headed BJP will be a formidable claimant to power in Punjab. Indeed, such an eventuality would be nothing short of a tectonic shift, resulting in the rewriting of the political destiny of the state.
Right now, such a possibility may seem remote, if not impossible, in the murky machinations and mind games of Indian politics, nothing can be ruled out. In any case, the Congress will only have itself to blame if its displeased captain distances himself from his party once again.