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Gandhis and the Punjab Congress muddle

By Vir Sanghvi
July 29, 2021 07:03 IST
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When events like these take place, it is easy for the BJP to portray the Gandhis as latter-day versions of the Borgias or Medicis, who toy with their nobles and promote favourites, points out Vir Sanghvi.

IMAGE: Navjot Singh Sidhu, right, with Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. Photograph: Navjot Singh Sidhu/Twitter

By itself, what has happened in the Congress unit in Punjab is not extraordinary.

Here's how you could look at it: The elderly leader of the Punjab Congress plans to lead the party into an assembly election next year. The Opposition is badly divided, so the leader will probably lead the Congress to another victory.

But he is 79, so this will be his last election as chief minister. It is time to look at the next generation and at the future and to choose people who subscribe to the Congress ideology.

A charismatic former cricketer catches the Congress leadership's eye. He would, the party's central leadership decides, be a good bet for the future. There is no need to disturb the chief minister who seems headed for victory. But why not put the cricketer in charge of the state unit as a foundation for the future?

Sounds good? Yes, it probably does.

So why then has all hell broken loose in Punjab over the decision to make Navjot Singh Sidhu chief of the state Congress unit?

Why are questions now being raised about the party's prospects at the next assembly election, which was once considered a sure thing?

The answers to those questions tell us a lot about what is wrong with the current avatar of the Congress.

One: There is certainly a case for generational change, gradually implemented, in Punjab. The issue is whether Sidhu is the right man to lead the Congress in the future.

He is charismatic and popular, but he is essentially a loner. He is not the leader of any powerful faction of the party and is something of a political adventurer anyway.

He defected to the Congress from the Bharatiya Janata Party only just before the last assembly election, after having first flirted with the Aam Aadmi Party.

When he was a BJP MP, he was loudly supportive of Narendra Modi and openly disparaging about Sonia Gandhi. In the last few months, there have been rumours that he has re-examined the AAP option.

At a time when Rahul Gandhi is running down the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh/BJP culture and talking about the Congress's values, is it logical to entrust the future of the Punjab Congress to a man who, till the last election, had spent his entire political career in the BJP and who still says that Arun Jaitley was his political guru?

Two: The chief minister of Punjab, Captain Amarinder Singh, was a friend of Rajiv Gandhi's. Even if you believe that the Congress should now look to the future, is it so difficult for Sonia Gandhi to call him in and discuss it?

Is Captain Singh likely to dispute that this should be his last election?

Is he likely to demand he be allowed to continue till he is well into his 80s?

And yet, no member of the Gandhi family -- not even Sonia Gandhi -- discussed the possibility of Sidhu's elevation with Captain Singh. He was made to rely on emissaries and when he met Sonia, the subject of Sidhu never even came up.

Three: The Sidhu candidacy did not emerge out of nowhere. For some time now, Sidhu has let it be known that he is on good terms with the younger Gandhis, especially Priyanka Gandhi. He drops in on them in Delhi and when asked about Captain Singh's objections to his actions (such as an ill-advised trip to Pakistan), says things like 'Rahul Gandhi is my only captain'.

There is dissent within the Punjab Congress, but Sidhu was no more acceptable to the dissidents than Captain Singh. But over the last few months, Sidhu's supporters have put forth the idea that Captain Singh is the past and Mr Sidhu is the future.

To strengthen this perception, Sidhu has tweeted photographs of himself with Priyanka Gandhi and has gone off to see Rahul Gandhi even after Rahul told the press that he was not meeting Sidhu.

By nurturing and nourishing Sidhu, the younger Gandhis have pushed the dissidents towards Sidhu, suggesting that his ascent is inevitable because he has the blessings of the family.

So strong has the backing to Sidhu been that he has cheerfully tweeted insults directed at the chief minister, confident that he will not be rebuked by the central leadership. This has strengthened the perception that he is the emerging leader, who can do no wrong in the eyes of the Gandhi siblings.

Four: All political parties face dissidence and the central leadership often has to intervene to bring peace to state units. But I can't think of the last time that the Gandhi family actually built up a rival to a sitting chief minister, encouraged him to snub that chief minister and then gave the rival the top party job even when they knew the humiliated chief minister was bitterly opposed to the appointment.

What makes this episode worrying is that it draws attention away from what the Congress stands for when it promotes a BJP-defector (WhatsApp has been flooded with videos of old speeches where Sidhu attacks Sonia Gandhi and praises Narendra Modi) who continues to cheerfully attack Congress leaders.

Further, it draws attention to the role of the Family. What is Priyanka Gandhi's locus standi? She is general secretary in charge of UP. She has no official role in Punjab.

What is Rahul's position? He resigned as party president two years ago. He has no official position now. The only reason Priyanka and Rahul matter is the family they are born into.

When events like these take place, it is easy for the BJP to portray the Gandhis as latter-day versions of the Borgias or Medicis, who toy with their nobles and promote favourites. This cannot be the image that the Congress is looking for.

Many people desperately want an alternative to the ruling dispensation and its ideology. The BJP knows this. Which is why it is happy to frame the choice before India as one between stern authoritarianism and a capricious dynasty.

By playing into that caricature, the Congress is doing itself -- and all those who worry about what is happening in today's India -- a grave disservice.

Vir Sanghvi is a journalist and TV presenter.

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