Manish Tiwari | Chandigarh
Cricketer-turned-politician and now Punjab’s Power Minister Navjot Singh Sidhu may like to “put on a brave face” after the Cabinet reshuffle on Thursday, but he has actually been “put in his place” by Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh. The rejig of Punjab’s Council of Ministers was in the offing ever since Capt Amarinder made a statement that Sidhu aspires to replace him as Chief Minister.
This was going on for some time. After his Pakistan visit, one of the Sidhu’s statements that “he (the Capt) is not my boss…my boss is Rahul Gandhi” had not gone down well with Amarinder loyalists. Besides several other statements made by him and his wife that may not have been liked by the Chief Minister, his ‘friendly-match’ jibe at Capt Amarinder, alluding to an alleged ‘secret political deal’ between him and the Badal family, was the flashpoint. It sparked a storm even as the election campaign in Bathinda was at its peak.
The statement also earned him the wrath of the Chief Minister who announced that he would take up the matter with Congress president Rahul Gandhi. Instead of pushing Capt Amarinder out, Sidhu could only manage to push his back to the wall, leaving the CM with no option but to act decisively and assert his supremacy in the Punjab Congress.
Sources say Capt Amarinder had been off and on informing the High Command about Sidhu’s performance and statements. For the past several months, the Chief Minister had continuously been keeping the top Congress leadership in picture. On June 6, soon after the Punjab Cabinet meeting which Sidhu did not attend, all ministers had in one voice called upon the Chief Minister to make the change. And finally, he did.
While a section in the party and the State Government had been desperately trying to project the Capt Amarinder government as a non-performing government, the Congress in the State registered a big win in the Lok Sabha elections. This was despite “the EVM scare” and the “Modi wave” that crippled the entire Opposition across India. It only showed that the people of Punjab continued to have faith in Capt Amarinder’s leadership and they were willing to give more time to the Chief Minister.
Sidhu should draw lessons from the history of the Congress in Punjab. Former Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister of Punjab, Rajinder Kaur Bhattal had raised the banner of revolt with over 30 Congress legislators against the leadership of the then Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh in 2003. She lost the Vidhan Sabha elections in 2017 and is hardly anywhere relevant today. Former Finance Minister and one-time close confidant of the Chief Minister, Lal Singh who also briefly remained the acting party president, is now chairman of the Mandi Board.
Former PWD Minister and State Congress chief Pratap Singh Bajwa who would question the Capt Amarinder’s leadership is today not as strong as he earlier was. Punjab Congress president and Gurdaspur MP Sunil Jakhar too lost his seat to Bollywood actor and a political greenhorn, Sunny Deol. The margin of defeat was so big that Jakhar offered to resign from the party president’s post.
Howsoever hard Sidhu tries to pat himself on his back and give himself credit for the party’s comprehensive win in the 2017 Assembly elections, everyone knows that it was because of Captain’s charishma that the party could make it. In the past few years, whosoever tried to cross Capt Amarinder’s path either lost his base or political relevance. Despite knowing the past, Sidhu had been relentless in his tirade against the Chief Minister.
On the other hand, one leader who has been playing his cards well is the State Finance Minister, Manpreet Singh Badal. He has been maintaining a stoic silence and staying away from controversies. Over the past 10 years, he has realised how difficult politics is. Thus, after leaving the Akali Dal and merging his PPP into the Congress, he has been focusing on the responsibilities assigned to him. Manpreet Badal has so far been playing the game of politics according to his potential and stature.
The former Amritsar MP, Sidhu has already burnt his bridges with the BJP leadership after he resigned from the party following a tiff with the Badals and got an opportunity to join the Congress ahead of the 2017 polls. At this moment, he and his wife have not many options but to stop targeting Capt Amarinder, who has led the Congress in Punjab for the past two decades. The odds are against Sidhu and he must realise that this is not the time for him to assert but “wait for his turn”. In case, he chooses to push the Captain any further, in all likelihood, he may further get isolated in the State Congress — a risk which he can ill-afford at this stage of his political career.