The past few weeks have seen high political drama in the state of Punjab where Captain Amarinder Singh resigned as the Chief Minister. This was followed a week later by the resignation of Navjot Singh Sidhu as the Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee chief, and finally hit its peak with the Captain meeting Union Home Minister Amit Shah. He has now confirmed that he will not remain in the Congress any further (Sharma & Ghosh, 2021).
The Punjab crisis has brought back, to the limelight, the factionalism in various state units of the Indian National Congress, which had, in March 2020, led to the collapse of its government in Madhya Pradesh following the exit of Jyotiraditya Scindia and his supporters. Even though factionalism within the party structure is not new as far as the Indian National Congress is concerned, the party is in dire straits now considering the upcoming state assembly elections and the ongoing talks for unity amongst the opposition parties. While the three states where the Congress is ruling with its own majority – Punjab, Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan – are reeling under factional pressures, other states such as Kerala, Karnataka, and Meghalaya too face similar issues.
Although it initially appeared that the rift in the Punjab Congress was resolved, the resolution was short-lived. The events that have unfolded over the past few weeks indicate that the crevices have widened beyond repair. There are two observations that need to be made in Punjab’s scenario.
Firstly, the Congress Legislature Party (‘CLP’) meeting that triggered Captain Amarinder Singh’s resignation was called after over 40 MLAs wrote to the All India Congress Committee (‘AICC’) against him. The CLP meeting and the subsequent appointment of Punjab’s first Dalit Chief Minister must be understood from the wider angle of disgruntled MLAs complaining that the Captain was unapproachable, and the negative mood in the state towards the Congress government over its non-fulfilment of certain key electoral promises, including action against the sacrilege incidents, the drug mafia, and the scrapping of the ‘faulty’ Power Purchase Agreements. The change of guard is an attempt to reduce the anti-incumbency sentiment towards the Congress with elections set to take place early next year. However, this may have come a little too late with just over four months left for the D-Day.
Secondly, and more importantly, did the Gandhis handle the situation well? The intention behind mentioning it as ‘Gandhis’ and not ‘the high command’ is to indicate that the Gandhi siblings – Rahul and Priyanka – are taking these crucial decisions despite not having any in-principle authority. Rahul Gandhi, at the moment, is an MP from Wayanad, and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra is the General Secretary in-charge of Uttar Pradesh. If Rahul (or Priyanka) wants to take these decisions, it is imperative that he (or she) takes over as party president.
Coming to the question of how they handled the crisis, it cannot be denied that they handled it poorly. The way in which the veteran leader Amarinder Singh was treated, Sidhu was made the PPCC president, and the controversial appointments that followed, which resulted in Sidhu’s resignation, are all examples of actions that complicated and worsened the crisis further. If the Gandhis must be commended for anything at all, it would possibly be for the appointment of Charanjit Singh Channi as Punjab Chief Minister, although he was a ‘compromise candidate’ (Manoj, 2021) and the effectiveness of this appointment can be ascertained only in the 2022 assembly election.
Rajasthan, which was appearing to be calm for the past few months, could be the next state where the Congress chooses to resolve the crisis. The Sachin Pilot-camp has been waiting for accommodation in the cabinet, but the cabinet expansion was postponed due to Ashok Gehlot’s angioplasty in August, 2021. Following Captain Amarinder Singh’s resignation, Gehlot tweeted a statement that he hoped that Captain Amarinder Singh would not take any step that may harm the party’s interests. Lokesh Sharma, officer on special duty to Gehlot, had posted a tweet that is seen to have been critical of the Congress high command’s decision of change of guard in Punjab. His closeness to Gehlot has made people think that it is an indirect swipe on the party leadership by Gehlot.
Sachin Pilot has reportedly met Rahul Gandhi twice within a week’s time. This may be an indication that a cabinet expansion and political appointments in Rajasthan Congress is on the horizon to accommodate the Pilot camp. However, the Punjab formula may not be implemented in Rajasthan since Ashok Gehlot is reportedly having a close grip on his loyal MLAs, who so far outnumber the loyalists of Pilot.
The apparent promise made to T.S. Singh Deo that he would be made the Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh in the middle of the government’s tenure has not been upheld so far, although the last word in this matter does not seem to have been spoken yet. Baghel has emerged as a strong OBC face of the Congress and enjoys the support of at least 36 of the 68 Congress MLAs (Special Correspondent, 2021). Deo, however, does not seem to be stepping down from his demand to become the CM. One way out of this quagmire may be to honour the promise made to Deo with the condition that the decision on the leader of the the party in the 2023 Assembly Elections would be taken later. To pacify Baghel and his supporters, Baghel may be given a key portfolio, such as Home Affairs, in the cabinet, apart from being inducted in the party’s electioneering. His supporters should also be accommodated in the council of ministers.
In terms of national implication for the Congress, what is intriguing in the Chhattisgarh case is the difference of opinion between Rahul Gandhi and his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. It appears that Rahul wanted to keep the promise that he had made as Congress President on rotational Chief Ministership between Baghel and Deo, but it was Priyanka’s intervention that has kept Baghel’s hold over the CM’s chair going (IANS, 2021). Even in Punjab, it is believed that it was Priyanka’s intervention that got Sidhu the top post in the Punjab Congress. The sway that Priyanka seemingly holds over and above what Rahul has in party decisions is noteworthy considering the leadership crisis in the party.
Another important state where the Congress is in a grim situation, but is being ignored by the national media, is Kerala. The Congress in Kerala, for a long time, has seen internal strife between the ‘A group’ and the ‘I group’, led by Oommen Chandy (‘OC’) and Ramesh Chennithala (‘RC’), respectively. However, the situation has changed dramatically now with the appointment of K Sudhakaran as the KPCC president and V D Satheesan as the Leader of the Opposition, who do not belong to the clutches of either of these groups. These appointments appear to be an attempt to resolve the factionalism within the state unit. The person pulling the strings behind these is believed to be K.C. Venugopal (popularly known as ‘KC’ in the political circles), AICC General Secretary and a close confidant of the Gandhi family. If this was not a sufficient blow to the veterans ‘OC’ and ‘RC’, the district presidents of 14 District Congress Committees were appointed without much of their consultation, a move that is being seen as a ‘surgical strike’ orchestrated by ‘KC’. Sudhakaran, and particularly Venugopal have been criticised by several senior leaders in the Congress state unit, some of whom have resigned and/or joined the CPI(M).
These do not speak well for the Congress especially in a state where it is a strong power. Rather than resolving the existing factionalism, this has created further tensions within the party as it led to the emergence of a third axis in the state. If the intention is to resolve the factionalism, the state leadership should take along the two factions with them in making appointments rather than dealing matters with an iron fist. Pacification, and not high handedness, would be the likely solution to the issue here. The sooner a course correction is achieved the better, as matters are getting out of hand with each passing day.
DIAGNOSIS AND TREATMENT
It would be amiss to say that the Congress has not faced internal tensions in the past. Let us not forget the historic 1969 split in the Congress party nor the fact that two ‘national’ parties – the Nationalist Congress Party and the All India Trinamool Congress – are offshoots of the INC. But the difference today is that the Congress no longer dominates the political scene in India. Any internal divisions in the party could have been resolved more easily if the party held sway amongst the masses and was in power at the Centre. The ‘Congress System’ that Rajini Kothari identified no longer exists. With the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) hell-bent on making India ‘Congress-mukht’ (Congress-free), the situation is grimmer for the INC.
The saving grace at the moment for the Congress is that the BJP appears to be on the backfoot after the second wave of COVID-19, which might have led them to reshuffle the cabinet at the Centre and replace the chief ministers who faced criticism for their governance and policies during this period as in Karnataka, Uttarakhand, and Gujarat. The Grand Old Party must seize this opportunity to resolve its internal issues if it wants to stay relevant in politics. First and foremost, the Congress must end the leadership crisis it faces at the top. Who should lead the party is a matter for a separate discussion, but what is important is that there must be someone who can independently lead the party.
Secondly, revitalise the party. Indira Gandhi set in motion a series of measures that have weakened the party’s organisational structure. Internal elections to the party posts are either not held or are held for namesake. Congress must look into its history and bring back the old democratic processes that formed its strength. The induction of Kanhaiya Kumar and Jignesh Mevani is a positive move towards the revitalisation of the party, but one has to wait and watch how it materializes on the ground.
These two measures are critical to strengthening the Congress. Once these are done, it would be easier to handle the crises it faces in various state units. One possible solution that may work in states like Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan is to give Baghel and Pilot a greater role in the party organisation. The role that would be given should be directed to reviving and strengthening the party, and could be accompanied by rewards conditional on the party’s performance in the upcoming state elections. The Punjab formula is not something that should be applied elsewhere. The BJP’s formula of changing CMs to fight anti-incumbency ought not to be applied in the Congress-ruled states since the Congress is both institutionally and politically weak at the moment.
IANS. (2021, August 28). Is Priyanka proving to be a trouble shooter after Ahmed Patel? Business Standard. https://www.business-standard.com/article/politics/is-priyanka-proving-to-be-a-trouble-shooter-after-ahmed-patel-121082800485_1.html
Manoj, C. G. (2021, September 20). From nowhere to top of the list: How Charanjit Singh Channi choice was made. The Indian Express. https://indianexpress.com/article/cities/chandigarh/punjab-new-cm-how-charanjit-singh-channi-choice-was-made-7520391/
Sharma, N., & Ghosh, D. (2021, September 30). Amarinder Singh To NDTV: “Not Joining BJP, But Won’t Remain In Congress.” NDTV. https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/amarinder-singh-to-ndtv-im-not-joining-bjp-but-am-leaving-congress-cant-handle-insult-2558790 Special Correspondent. (2021, September 22). Rahul likely to visit Chhattisgarh where a leadership tussle is on. The Hindu. https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/rahul-likely-to-visit-chhattisgarh-where-a-leadership-tussle-is-on/article36611253.ece
This article was written by Jedidiah Asriel, Guided by Goutham K A
Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.