Gandhis Initiate Purge; More Steps Underway To Revamp Congress
THE WEEK|October 03, 2021
The ruthless removal of Amarinder Singh shows a newfound decisiveness in the Congress high command. But the bravado has not answered the existential questions that the party and the Gandhis face
Soni Mishra

Amarinder Singh, by all means, was the captain of Punjab politics. The Patiala Maharaja ruled the state as he pleased and dealt with the Congress’s central leadership nonchalantly. At a personal level, he enjoyed access to the Gandhi family that very few in the party could match. Rajiv Gandhi was a childhood friend, and he is on a first-name basis with Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra call him “uncle”.

But on September 18, the formidable regional satrap was asked by the party leadership to resign as chief minister. The sudden turn of events also marked an assertion by the Gandhis of their authority. They had been facing questions about their leadership, style of functioning and vote-catching ability. For good measure, the royal and imperious Amarinder was replaced by a dalit Sikh leader with humble origins.

What happened in Punjab showed that the primacy of decision-making in Congress now lies with Rahul and Priyanka. There was a shift from the status-quoist and consensus-building approach of Sonia. On display was a decisiveness that has otherwise been seen in the way the Bharatiya Janata Party replaced a few of its chief ministers recently.

If Operation Punjab had the imprint of Rahul writ large, Priyanka played a key role in mainstreaming Amarinder's bete noire, Navjot Singh Sidhu. Rahul got deeply involved in the imbroglio when Sidhu went all out against Amarinder, and several legislators and ministers voiced their discontent with the government.

The change in Amarinder's fortunes might look sudden, but it was a long time coming. He seemed sitting pretty earlier this year, as the Akalis and the BJP parted ways over the farm laws and the Aam Aadmi Party was in disarray. But the captain failed to sense the rising discontent on the ground, alienated his MLAs and pre-empted his detractors by naming himself the chief minister face for the assembly elections.

The wheel of fortune turned in April when the Punjab and Haryana High Court rejected the report of the state government-constituted special investigation team's probe into the sacrilege issue. A series of incidents of desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib in 2015 is still an emotive issue in the state, and Amarinder had vowed to punish the culprits. All hell broke loose, with Sidhu and some ministers—who were formerly Amarinder's supporters—openly criticising him. Many other problems also tumbled out, such as the continuing drug menace and the faulty power purchase agreements. He was also perceived as being in cahoots with the Badals. The anger against the Amarinder regime and the anti-incumbency against MLAs meant that the legislators were keen on a change at the helm. They knew that Amarinder could not help them cross the finish line this time.

Following the waves of rebellion, Amarinder was virtually put on notice by the high command. When a letter signed by some 60 legislators reached Delhi, Rahul took charge of the final act. The midnight tweet by Congress general secretary Harish Rawat, who is in charge of Punjab, about a legislature party being convened the following day was the clearest indication that Amarinder's time was up.

Rahul sent his trusted general secretary, Ajay Maken, to Chandigarh to ensure that the operation was swift and clean. A day earlier, he had a meeting with Maken and the party's legal eagle Abhishek Manu Singhvi to chalk up a backup plan if Amarinder dissolved the assembly. The advice was that a letter signed by 60 MLAs would counter any such move.

In the end, Amarinder gave up. He stood deserted. His anger and pain over the ruthlessness with which he was ousted were evident as he spoke about the humiliation. He called Sonia to express his anguish. She merely said, “Sorry, Amarinder.”

Rahul's stamp on the change of guard was confirmed when he attended the swearing-in ceremony of Charanjit Singh Channi, the first dalit chief minister of the state. His elevation would help the party get a substantial chunk of dalit votes, which is about 32 per cent of the electorate—the highest in the country. The Congress had lost a sizable chunk of its share of dalit votes to the AAP in the last election.

Channi's appointment is being described as a masterstroke. Though driven by the compulsions of internal politics, it has immense symbolic value. “The Congress has pre-empted the other parties, which were promising a dalit chief minister or a dalit deputy chief minister. They will now have to redraw their strategy,” said Punjab Congress leader Raj Kumar Verka.

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