Amid the escalating tension within the Punjab Congress and putting days of speculation to rest, former minister Navjot Singh Sidhu was appointed the Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee chief on Sunday.
Congress also appointed four working presidents for the Punjab unit — Sangat Singh Gilzian, Sukhwinder Singh Danny, Pawan Goel and Kuljit Singh Nagra.
Earlier on Sunday, Sidhu arrived in Chief Minister Amarinder Singh’s home constituency, Patiala, to meet party MLAs and garner support for his elevation. Sidhu met Shutrana MLA Nirmal Singh Shutrana and later went to Ghanaur MLA Madan Lal Jalalpur’s house along with several MLAs. Cabinet minister Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa was already present at Jalalpur’s house.
Jalalpur, who is considered close to Patiala MP and Amarinder’s wife Preneet Kaur, hosted Sidhu along with his workers. Jalalpur told the media, “I got a call from Randhawa that Sidhu would be visiting me. I have organised tea for him.”
Sidhu’s camp also released his pictures with at least 30 MLAs whom he had met on Saturday. “The number is growing,” said an aide of Sidhu.
Meanwhile, 11 MLAs on Sunday came out in support of Chief Minister Amarinder Singh whom they called the “tallest leader of masses” and appealed to the party high command not to let him down.
Bajwa, a strident critic of the chief minister, called on Amarinder Singh at his residence on a day when Sidhu held a series of meetings with Punjab Congress president Sunil Jakhar and several MLAs, including the CM’s loyalists. Besides Rajya Sabha member Bajwa, Punjab Assembly Speaker Rana K P Singh and Sports Minister Rana Gurmit Singh Sodhi also met the chief minister.
“Punjab Speaker Rana K P Singh, Rajya Sabha MP and former Punjab Congress president Partap Singh Bajwa and cabinet minister Rana Gurmit Singh Sodhi call on Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh at his residence,” tweeted the CM’s media advisor while sharing a photograph of these leaders sitting together.
Congress MP Manish Tewari retweeted the photo and said it was good to see Bajwa and Amarinder together and noted that the Rajya Sabha MP and the chief minister would make a good team ahead.
On Saturday, Congress general secretary in-charge of Punjab affairs Harish Rawat had met Amarinder Singh in Chandigarh. After the meeting, Rawat told the media that the CM reiterated his earlier stand that he will abide by the decision of the Congress president. “The CM reiterated his earlier stand today that he will go with Congress President’s decision. This is a huge thing in Congress,” said Rawat.
But Rawat was only partially successful as he could not make the Chief Minister and Sidhu meet for the token “all-is-well” photograph. Rawat urged Amarinder to meet Sidhu, but the Chief Minister refused, saying he will meet him only after he apologises.
In a string of tweets in May, Sidhu had hit out at the CM, mincing few words. On May 1, he shared a 2016 video clip in which Amarinder is heard “promising to act against the Badals” in the 2015 police firing incident at Faridkot if voted to power. Sidhu said, “Big Boast, Small Roast. Big Outcry, No Outcome.”
When early indications came in that Siddhu will be appointed the Punjab Congress chief, sources close to Amarinder had said he was unhappy, and had conveyed to the high command that he would not go into the Assembly elections with Sidhu as PCC chief. Later, clarifications and denials were issued by both Harish Rawat and the CM.
The seeds of discord between Amarinder and Sidhu were sown back in 2017, when the latter joined the Congress and the CM saw him as an upstart imposed on the state unit by the Delhi high command. With tension escalating between the duo, CM stripped Siddhu of his portfolio in June 2019 following a downward spiral that saw the latter openly attack a fellow minister over an alleged scam.
After laying low for a while, Sidhu mounted a fresh attack on the Captain on April 13 this year when he said the government was seen as being soft on the Badals, in cases relating to the desecration of Guru Granth Sahib in 2015 under the Akalis. The statement marked only the beginning of renewed conflict between the duo, which has kept the political pot boiling in Punjab ahead of Assembly polls next year.
Sidhu had on Friday met AICC chief Sonia Gandhi at her residence in New Delhi. Former Congress president Rahul Gandhi and Harish Rawat were also present during the meeting.
While Sidhu did not speak to the media after emerging from the meeting, Rawat said AICC chief is yet to take a final decision on the issue. “I had come here to submit my report on Punjab to the Congress chief and as soon as a decision is taken, I will come and share it with you,” Rawat said.
Sources privy to the developments in the meeting said that Sonia Gandhi had told Sidhu that he would be the next PPCC chief. She is learnt to have asked him to return to Punjab, “work hard and take everybody together”. Those close to Sidhu said they are awaiting the appointment letter which “could be out anytime”.
Sources also told The Indian Express earlier that before meeting Gandhi, Rawat had made an attempt to pacify Amarinder by calling and telling him that he had not said anything about making Sidhu the PCC chief.
Several Congress leaders who are considered close to Amarinder told The Indian Express on Thursday that a “revolt” was “brewing” in the state unit, and there would be an “explosion” if Sidhu was made PCC chief. “The party will break,” one leader had said.
Sources had told The Indian Express that the CM had made it known that he was not happy with the arrangement suggested by the party high command and a few leaders expressed their fear that the state unit could split. Sidhu had reportedly garnered support from at least five Cabinet ministers and 10-15 MLAs.
Sidhu’s appointment as the state unit chief means then there are now two Jat Sikhs on key posts — the other being Amarinder Singh. Sunil Jakhar, the previous PCC president, is a Hindu.
Party MP Manish Tewari had earlier tweeted the composition of state’s population in what was seen by many as a subtle hint to the party high command to appoint a Hindu face as the state unit president.
“Punjab is both progressive and secular… but balancing social interest groups is key. Equality is the foundation of social justice!” he said in a tweet, while giving details of Punjab’s demography mentioning that Sikhs constitute 57.75 per cent of the population while Hindus and Dalits constitute 38.49 and 31.94 per cent respectively. He tagged the Congress and Rawat in the tweet.