‘Assembly of the defeated’ or attempts to end infighting? Sidhu at centre of Punjab Congress churn

The Punjab Congress is undergoing a churn following its election debacle earlier this month. And at its centre is former Congress state president Navjot Singh Sidhu.

The cricketer-turned-politician stepped down as the party’s Punjab chief on March 16, a day after Congress president Sonia Gandhi asked him to put in his papers. At the time, an associate of the former cricketer had claimed that Sidhu had taken a vow of silence for two months, but four days later Sidhu invited seven Congress leaders to his home. A similar meeting held at the home of former Sultanpur Lodhi legislator Navtej Singh Cheema on March 26 saw 24 such leaders in attendance. Two more meetings are slated for the coming week, including one in Ludhiana on Tuesday, and the number of participants is expected to touch 36.

Though Cheema claimed that the meetings were held in an attempt to paper over internal differences, a senior Congress legislator labelled such meetings an “assembly of the defeated”, and pointed out that the attendees of the March 26 meeting included eight candidates who lost their security deposit and five leaders who were not given poll tickets.

Explaining why the meetings were being held, Cheema told The Indian Express, “Our infighting killed us. The high command could not stop it. We told Sidhu ‘if you want to work, then we will start’. If we do not unite now, it is all over for the party.”

Five-time Ludhiana North MLA Rakesh Pandey who lost this time to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) claimed that the meetings were about identifying the reasons for the party’s poor electoral performance. “This result was a big surprise for us. We need to sit together and then go back to the people,” he added.

Of the Congress’s 18 MLAs, only Bholath MLA Sukhpal Khaira and Phagwara legislator Balwinder Singh Dhaliwal have attended the meetings. Jalandhar Cantonment MLA Pargat Singh who was once considered to be Sidhu’s close aide has been conspicuous by his absence.

Khaira claimed that the meetings saw a frank exchange of opinions, with some advising the former Congress state president to temper his rhetoric.

Those who were at the meetings said Sidhu wants another chance to be the party’s state chief. However, former Rajya Sabha MP Partap Singh Bajwa and former state Home Minister Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa, both of whom won their seats, are said to be in the running for the job.

Sidhu, meanwhile, is back on social media with his slogan “Jittega Punjab (Punjab will win)”, tweeting how he will carry on the “fight for Punjab” with honesty. He was not available for comments, but former AAP legislator Pirmal S Dhaula, who joined the Congress last year, said many at the meetings felt the party could have fared better had Sidhu been given a free hand. “He had concrete solutions to the problems flagged by AAP. The party could have won had he been made the CM,” Dhaula added.

Another leader who was at the meeting claimed Sidhu appears to have turned a new leaf. “He confessed that he had never tried to make his dharrha (faction) in the party, but now he has realised the importance of taking along other legislators.”

But, the MLA who made the “assembly of the defeated” dig said, “The party chief (Sidhu) himself lost to a greenhorn. With what face is he asking for a second chance?”

Ridiculing Sidhu’s “Jittega Punjab” slogan, the legislator added, “He should say Jittega Punjab, assi saare haarange (Punjab will win and we will all lose).”

A senior leader from the region of Majha, who requested anonymity, also lashed out at the former cricketer, asking, “Does it make any sense for the man who destroyed Congress in Punjab to hold such meetings? He did not voluntarily resign, he was forced to.”

Self-interest and emerging fissures

Despite the talk about reconciliation, introspection, and unity, the fissures and competing interests in Sidhu’s group are out in the open. Cheema, the former Sultanpur Lodhi legislator, has blamed fellow Congressman and Kapurthala MLA Rana Gurjit Singh for the party’s poor result in Doaba while Khaira used the March 26 meeting to build a case for himself as the Leader of the Opposition.

Cheema told The Indian Express, “He (Rana Gurjit) fielded his son against me. (Former CM Charanjit) Channi crossed my constituency twice but did not campaign for me, thus sending a wrong message to the people.”

Khaira, meanwhile, claimed Sidhu had backed his bid to be appointed the Leader of the Opposition. “The Congress cadre, starting from block and district presidents upwards, all want me. They know that I am the only one who can stand up to this government.”

However, not everyone is convinced by the Bholath MLA’s claims. A Congress legislator recalled how Khaira had switched from the Akali Dal to the Congress to the AAP before returning to the party last year.

“Leadership issues are always decided by the high command,” said Bajwa, the Qadian MLA. “And I feel it should look for three qualities: loyalty, seniority, and capability. Persons chosen for these posts should be wedded to the party ideology. It is very important.”

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