Captain Amarinder Singh, a leader with mass following, vehemently argued his case against rival Navjot Singh Sidhu. He, however, failed to convince the Gandhis. Congress president Sonia Gandhi decided that 57-year-old Sidhu is a better bet and appointed him as the chief of the Punjab unit of the party, ignoring his daily attacks on the chief minister and cosy tweets for Aam Aadmi Party.
The move comes just months before Amarinder Singh seeks re-election with a strong chance of winning the state, partly because of his personal reputation, and partly because the Opposition is fragmented.
Several meetings, letters to Sonia Gandhi, and a face-saving attempt of seeking Navjot Sidhu’s public apology were seemingly dismissed by the Congress High Command, and that snub is reflecting in the behaviour of some of the state ministers and leaders.
Ignoring the chief minister’s demand for an apology, around 60 Congress legislators gathered on Wednesday at the residence of the new chosen one - Navjot Singh Sidhu. Some 20 odd apparently sided with CM Amarinder Singh. The Congress has 80 MLAs in the 117-member state assembly.
Team Sidhu, which includes minister Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa, Tript Rajinder Singh Bajwa, Charanjit Singh Channi, Sukhbinder Singh Sarkaria, and outgoing state unit chief Sunil Jakhar, celebrated the appointment with a trip to the Golden Temple, where a large number of Congress supporters gathered.
The MLAs publicly said that there was no need for an apology by Sidhu, and that they were "surprised by the behaviour” of the chief minister. “Why can't the chief minister sink his differences with Sidhu,” Randhawa said, sending out a clear message to CM Amarinder Singh’s flock that the powercentre has shifted.
But how will this affect Congress chances of winning the state?
It was Captain Amarinder Singh’s popularity and anti-incumbency against the Akalis that won Congress the election in 2017, even when the BJP under Prime Minister Narendra Modi was on a winning streak in state after state.
Captain Amarinder, who silently took the political stab, still seems to be hoping for a reconciliation; may also be working on a Plan B with his loyalists.
The BJP, Akalis Dal and Aam Aadmi Party are closely watching every move in this political infighting. Punjab Congress minus Captain Amarinder Singh will put up a very weak defence against the Opposition’s aggressive attacks.
The Opposition has, on several occasions, mocked Sidhu for switching parties. On Amarinder Singh versus Sidhu row, BJP leader Anil Vij had advised the latter to not “spoil parties”. "It is (Navjot Singh) Sidhu's personal choice to join whichever party he wants. My personal advice to him is don't spoil parties by switching them frequently, make your own separate party," he said. Sidhu switched to Congress in 2017 after 13 years in the BJP.
Meanwhile, AAP got a thumbs up from Navjot Sidhu himself. "Our opposition AAP has always recognised my vision & work for Punjab. Be it Before 2017- Beadbi, Drugs, Farmers Issues, Corruption & Power Crisis faced by People of Punjab raised by me or today as I present "Punjab Model" It is clear they know - who is really fighting for Punjab," Sidhu had said in a series of tweets, clearly negating the work done by his own government in the state. But, this was before his appointment as party chief.
So far, Sidhu has seemingly played for himself but now the cricketer-turned-politician faces a team challenge. As a Captain of the Congress team in Punjab, he faces not only the opposition but the Captain himself.