When Navjot Singh Sidhu was appointed Punjab Pradesh Congress Commitee (PCC) president in July, followed by the humiliation the then Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh was made to go through, especially at the former's elevation ceremony, it was clear that the grand old party’s high command, essentially the Gandhi family, was done with the good Captain.
Though some believed at the time (and many still do) that it was a big mistake by Congress to challenge the leadership of Singh few months before the State goes to elections. Some even termed it self-destructive move. These voices are again being heard again when Gandhis have forced Captain to resign and replaced him with a lightweight thereby giving Sidhu full freedom to lead the party’s poll campaign.
However, to those with ears to the ground, the reading has been on the wall for long time now. The events that transpired after Sidhu’s anointment as president of Punjab PCC only confirmed this. As many as 62 sitting MLAs attended the breakfast meeting with Sidhu at his residence in Amritsar on 21 July. The fact that an overwhelming majority of MLAs paid obeisance to him at his house on one call shows his popularity on the ground and that they clearly see him as someone whose coattails they can ride to win in their constituencies again. This show of strength by Sidhu left little doubt on who the high command in Delhi would choose as next CM if the Congress returns to power. In the popularity contest, Captain has ceded a lot of ground to him.
In 2015, the same Captain, thanks to the support of the MLAs, was able to get Pratap Singh Bajwa replaced as state unit president. Now the tables have turned. It’s the popularity, stupid.
The point is that the Congress decision to anoint Sidhu as its next leader in Punjab is rooted in realpolitik; however that’s not the only criterion in Congress for someone to rise to higher ranks in the party organisation. The most important factor is always the intensity of sycophancy to the Gandhi family and Sidhu has beaten Captain on this front quite handsomely in a short time. Because Captain is a proud retired military man whose father was the last maharaja of the princely state of Patiala, he has enough self respect to not play second fiddle to someone like Rahul Gandhi.
Captain’s exit has started speculations about its impact on leadership changes in other Congress state units, especially in Haryana where like in Captain’s case , there is no love lost between Bhupinder Singh Hooda and Rahul Gandhi. While Hooda managed quite well when Sonia Gandhi was at the helm of affairs and the only voice that mattered within the party, the relations have turned sour after Rahul and Priyanka became important poles with considerable say in the party apparatus. This was the major reason why Hooda had to struggle to become the face of the party’s campaign before the assembly elections in 2019. It was only when it seemed that he would split the party and form his own outfit that the Congress gave in.
Hooda prevailed in the short term but Amarinder Singh’s treatment by the high command should definitely be a wake up call for him as I had written a couple of months ago.
However, this doesn’t mean that there is any immediate threat to his hegemony in Haryana Congress. Unlike Amarinder, he enjoys full support of most MLAs who owe not only their 2019 victory to him but are also banking on him to see them through in the next election.
What also needs to be understood is that neither Hooda nor Amarinder enjoy the kind of close relations Ashok Gehlot or Kamalnath do with Gandhi family nor are they as ideologically close as the latter. This is the reason why Congress can never think of making Hooda or Amarinder the national Congress president, a post it was reportedly willing to offer to Gehlot and Kamalnath in 2019 and 2021 respectively.
These rumours might not be true but are at least believable. Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Vadra are also quite comfortable with Gehlot and Kamalnath as they are considered quite loyal to the family and have never given any impression of as much as a whiff of dissent, either in voice or action, something that can’t be said about Hooda and Captain.
That is why the family has gotten rid of the inconvenient Captain at the first available opportunity, finding the perfect excuse of him being unpopular among MLAs and the public at the moment. Hooda is also on the target but problem is that the Congress doesn’t have any other leader in Haryana who can win a seat for the party other than their own. And with immense unpopularity of Dushyant Chautala’s Jannayak Janata Party among its own Jat base, Hooda’s clout has only increased. The impact of farm protests in GT Road belt (Chandigarh to Delhi) which has been BJP’s stronghold since 2014 is also going to benefit Congress.
This means that as party‘s optimism about winning Haryana grows, so will the infighting, and it may reach a crescendo near the elections which are still quite far and there is many a slip between the cup and the lip. But one thing is certain that the Gandhi family will try to get rid of Hooda at the first available opportunity.
If the party wins with overwhelming majority in 2024, then Hooda may be dumped for Randeep Singh Surjewala, current favourite of Rahul Gandhi camp. This was the modus operandi that Congress opted for when it chose Hooda over Bhajanlal in 2005. However, if it only gets simple majority, Hooda may get another five years and be replaced when he becomes unpopular just like Amarinder had.
The bottom line is this: Hooda can breathe easy for now but he is an inconvenient thorn for Gandhis to be removed at the time of their choosing. Whether he gets Bhajanlal-ed or Captain-ed, remains to be seen.
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