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Gandhi siblings try to settle dispute between two Congress leaders, end up causing both of them to resign: How the Punjab crisis unfolded

The Gandhi siblings, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi, had tried to iron out the differences between Navjot Singh Sidhu and Captain Amarinder Singh, but their efforts proved to be catastrophically counterproductive, with both the leaders deciding to relinquish their respective posts.

Navjot Singh Sidhu on Tuesday resigned from the post of Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC), 10 days after former Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh had tendered his resignation. Sidhu took to Twitter to make the announcement.

In a letter addressed to Sonia Gandhi, Sidhu said, “The collapse of a man’s character stems from the compromise corner, I can never compromise on Punjab’s future and the agenda for the welfare of Punjab. Therefore, I hereby resign as the President of the Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee. Will continue to serve the Congress.”

The decision to quit as PCC chief came days after former chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh resigned from the post of CM. The Gandhi siblings, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi, had tried to iron out the differences between Navjot Singh Sidhu and Captain Amarinder Singh, but their efforts proved to be catastrophically counterproductive, with both the leaders deciding to relinquish their respective posts.

The Gandhi siblings perhaps thought that their intervention would end the party’s internecine conflict and strengthen it for the assembly election polls slated to happen next year. But far from forging unity, the mediation by the Gandhis had the opposite effect—it exacerbated the tussle between the two Congress leaders—leaving the party more vulnerable than it already was.

Captain Amarinder Singh resigns after enduring humiliation at the hands of the Congress leadership

Months ahead of the assembly state elections, the Congress government in Punjab saw themselves engulfed in an unnavigable political crisis. The two towering leaders of Punjab Congress were at loggerheads with each other. On one hand, it was Pradesh Congress Committee chief Navjot Singh Sidhu and on the other, it was Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh.

The crisis was triggered in sorts by the Congress party’s decision to bring Sidhu out of the woodwork and award him with the plum position of Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) chief. It was reported that Priyanka Gandhi, who had fashioned herself as the party’s ‘crisis manager’ after Ahmed Patel’s demise, had convinced the party high command for an expanded role for Navjot Singh Sidhu in Punjab Congress.

Captain Amarinder Singh and his camp had already expressed their reservations over Sidhu’s elevation in the party. The relationship between the two leaders had sharply deteriorated after Navjot Singh Sidhu’s brazen disregard of Captain’s suggestion against visiting Pakistan. Sidhu defied Captain’s advice and visited Pakistan, thereby causing a rift in their relationship that only widened as time passed by.

Since Singh wielded enormous influence on the party in Punjab, Sidhu was treated as a pariah and consigned to the fringes of active politics. Both leaders made no bones about their dislike for each other and neither did the two see eye to eye on any of the issues.

Yet, the party took the gamble of appointing Navjot Singh Sidhu as the PCC chief in July 2021. The party was focused on winning the upcoming assembly elections in Punjab and in their grand scheme of things, Sidhu had a key role to play, regardless of the reservations raised by Captain Amarinder Singh.

With Sonia Gandhi not keeping good health, the Gandhi siblings reportedly took the mantle of settling the widening friction between the two leaders in Punjab. Instead of resolving the conflict, their actions only added proverbial fuel to the fire. However, a Congress insider quoted by the Times of India said Sidhu was just a pawn in the battle of egos fought between Amarinder on one side and Rahul and Priyanka on the other.

But that decision of elevating Sidhu in their bid to clip the wings of Captain turned out to be disastrous. The discord within the Congress party came to a head when Captain Amarinder Singh decided to end his humiliation by resigning from the post of Punjab Chief Minister on 18 September 2021. Talking to reporters after submitting his resignation, Amarinder Singh said he resigned after he was humiliated by the party leadership. Referring to the frequent meetings of Congress MLAs, Singh said they suggested that the party had doubts about his leadership skills.

Gandhis take control of Punjab Congress to keep Sidhu ‘under check’

Gandhis thought changing chief minister in the state would end the turmoil before the assembly elections early next year. But that decision was beset with a fresh set of problems. With the fallout with Captain Amarinder Singh fresh in mind, Gandhis were reluctant to give free rein to new CM Charanjit Singh Channi and Navjot Singh Sidhu, lest other leaders in the state mimic Singh and start submitting their resignations. Within 4 days after being elected as the new Punjab Chief minister, Channi was summoned to Delhi two times to hash out a “consensus” cabinet, demonstrating party leadership’s resolve to keep the authority of the state government in its own hands and not allow local leadership to take control, a report published in News 18 said.

From administrative shuffle to the appointment of bureaucrats to the selection of ministers in the new Punjab Cabinet, Gandhis were reportedly having a say in all decisions concerning the state. The decision to take absolute control in Punjab state stemmed from the bad optics the party attracted in the wake of the unceremonious removal of Captain Amarinder Singh from the post of the chief minister.

As per sources, the Gandhis were even keen on keeping the Pradesh Congress Committee Navjot Singh Sidhu ‘under check’. The Gandhis also approached former Punjab Congress chief Sunil Jhakhar to consult him on the cabinet formation, indicating that they would also include those who are not firmly embedded in the Sidhu camp.

Gandhis were inclined towards appointing someone “neutral” as an election campaign party in charge to make sure that competing factions within the party do not indulge in recriminations over the appointment of the said person. Jhakhar was among the frontrunner in the contention. The Gandhis reportedly wanted to give an impression that voices within the party other than those belonging to the Sidhu camp will also be heard.

However, the heavy-handedness of the Gandhis did not sit well with Navjot Singh Sidhu, who chose to resign instead of continuing as a figurehead leader. As per sources, Sidhu was upset with the cabinet changes made by the new CM Charanjit Singh Channi, who was in all likelihood following the instructions he had received from 10 Janpath. It is also speculated that key posts granted to officials linked to the “sacrilege” case and the party’s disregard for Sidhu’s recommendations for the recent cabinet appointments also led him to resign from the post of PCC chief.

The Gandhis possibly thought their mediation in Punjab would not only end the enduring dispute between the two leaders but also establish their credentials as leaders worthy of taking over the party leadership. A peaceful transition of CM would have reinforced the notion that Gandhis were capable of shepherding Congress in the right direction. But instead of steering the storm-tossed ship of Punjab Congress out of danger, their intervention ended up taking it right at the eye of the maelstrom, with neither Captain nor Sidhu available to helm the ship back to safety. It would not be surprising if the Congress party in Punjab now finds itself circling the drain and eventually collapsing under the weight of the Gandhis.

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Jinit Jain
Jinit Jain
Writer. Learner. Cricket Enthusiast.

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