The Congress central leadership’s decision to replace Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh Saturday signalled that the “weak” high command, often faulted for its indecisiveness, is beginning to assert itself with Rahul Gandhi and his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra playing key roles.
The decision has triggered a debate within the party and leaders are sharply divided on its merit. Many of the leaders of the G-23 grouping, for instance, are unhappy with his ouster. Some of them have already reached out to him. The big question now is: Will there be leadership change in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh too where factions have been at loggerheads?
In Punjab’s case, the party leadership, sources said, proceeded with so much care and caution that all legal pros and cons of replacing Singh were weighed even late Friday night.
Sources said AICC general secretary Ajay Maken, who was in Chandigarh Saturday as the party central observer, met Rahul Gandhi Friday evening and then sat with Rajya Sabha MP and lawyer Abhishek Singhvi to discuss the possibility of Singh recommending dissolution of the House or not accepting the party direction to step down.
By then, the party had a letter with the signatures of over 60 MLAs, above the halfway mark in the 117-member House.
“Legal and political options, including the effect of last-minute recommendations by an outgoing Chief Minister to the Governor despite the 60-plus signatures of MLAs against him, were discussed,” sources said.
It is learnt that the party had readied options of taking legal remedies if Singh were to refuse to resign. Even the draft resolution, passed at the CLP meeting Saturday, was finalised at the Maken-Singhvi meeting late Friday, sources said.
The party is yet to announce Singh’s successor. Sources said former PPCC president Sunil Jakhar, Rajya Sabha MP Partap Singh Bajwa and state minister Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa are in the race. Sources said many of the MLAs at the CLP meeting favoured a Sikh face as Singh’s successor.
Senior leaders of the party said it is simplistic to say that the Congress leadership has borrowed a leaf from the BJP playbook. But Singh’s removal, sources said, showed that the central leadership decided to bite the bullet after prevaricating for months. Internal surveys of the party, sources claimed, had shown that Singh was deeply unpopular and that the party would struggle to retain power under his leadership. More so, after the appointment of Navjot Singh Sidhu as the PPCC president in July as the two had been pulling in different directions, leaving the organisation and government in disarray.
Singh’s removal was not unexpected or surprising. The party leadership, sources said, mulled over it and decided against it when they appointed Sidhu as PPCC president. Most MLAs had then too complained against Singh’s style of functioning and flagged his dipping popularity.
But the leadership, thinking in a conventional way, decided to back him, hoping that he and Sidhu would patch up and work together. But some of the leaders pointed out that the party high command did little to make that happen.
A section of the party believes that the fresh letter by a section of the MLAs seeking a CLP meeting was done at the instance of the party high command which had made up its mind to replace Singh since he and Sidhu were not getting along. The Chief Minister, the leaders said, had shown no sign of changing his style of functioning despite repeated reminders from the high command.
Some leaders said the Gandhi family was not on the same page and this delayed the decision. “Mrs (Sonia) Gandhi was initially not in favour of replacing Singh. He is a veteran and they share warm and cordial relations,” a leader claimed. But Rahul and Priyanka, the leader claimed, believed retaining power with Singh in the saddle would turn out to be an uphill task.
Singh has been a family friend of the Gandhis. Speaking at the Express Adda on March 22, he praised Sonia highly and said he would support “hundred and one per cent” the leadership of the Gandhis in the Congress.
“Look, I have known Rajiv Gandhi. We were just one year apart in school. He came to school in ’54. And I have known him — a thorough gentleman, a wonderful person. Mrs Gandhi has been an excellent president. People may say anything, but I have seen her work. She is very perceptive, excellent and knows what she is doing. Generations change, time changes. Give a person a chance to just start attacking Rahul Gandhi or Priyanka ji. And I know them both very well. And they are both… very presentable, young, perceptive leaders,” he had said.
A senior leader said Sidhu, despite his acrimonious relationship with Singh, was also not enthusiastic about replacing him with another leader as it would create another power centre which he would have to deal with. Sources said Singh asked Sonia Gandhi to postpone the CLP meeting by a day or two when they spoke Saturday morning.
“This would have given him time to rally support. But the leadership read his mind and asked him to put in his papers immediately,” a leader said.
Singh upset the Congress script by speaking out that he felt “humiliated”. Sources close to him did not rule out him leaving the Congress and floating a regional outfit. In fact, Singh, at the Express Adda, had made it clear that he was not hanging his boots anytime soon.
“Before the election, I had said that this was going to be my last, but it’s not going to be my last term, till I can get Punjab out of the woods, which I think is my duty. And not only my duty, it’s also my love for my state… I intend to stay on, and I intend to fight it and I intend to win it,” he had said.
But what made the task easier for the party high command was the negligible support that Singh commanded among the MLAs. The assessment was that there would be no large-scale rebellion if the high command were to send a stern signal.
That, however, is not the case in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, sources said. Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and his Chhattisgarh counterpart Bhupesh Baghel command the support of a majority of the MLAs.
In Chhattisgarh, Rahul wants the Chief Minister to honour an unwritten agreement — of rotating charge — that Baghel and Health Minister T S Singh Deo had agreed upon in 2018 when the party won the elections with a huge mandate. But the surprise show of strength by Baghel prompted the central leadership to sit back and reflect.
Having decided to act decisively in Punjab, the big question now is whether the party will take hard decisions in Chhattisgarh as well. “Water is boiling in Raipur too,” a senior leader said.
The case of Rajasthan is not too different. Sources said the leadership — read Rahul and Priyanka — had promised Sachin Pilot that he would be made Chief Minister at least a year before the Assembly elections. But Chief Minister Gehlot, a veteran and an experienced political player, commands the respect of the majority of the MLAs.
The party had acted against Pilot with a heavy hand when he raised the banner of revolt. It stripped him of the post of Deputy Chief Minister and state Congress president.
“The leadership showed its decisive nature then also because he had overstepped the line. The signal was clear then too,” a leader said. “But he is back and he has not ruffled the feathers further. Let’s see what will happen,” the leader said.
The removal of Amarinder Singh also has a message for the G-23 grouping of the party, a senior leader said.
“That the high command is making an attempt to show that it is not weak and can act decisively should be in the mind of all,” the leader said without mentioning the G-23 or any of its leaders.
The decision to replace Singh, however, has not gone down well with some of the G-23 leaders.
“It will have a fallout. Five months before elections… It is unfortunate. And the fact that the high command has become an active party to remove him… asking MLAs to put in their signature… does not augur well,” a G-23 leader said.