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'Sidhu wrecked the Congress in Punjab'

By PRASANNA D ZORE
March 16, 2022 08:25 IST
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'If you put your own party into the witness box, like what Sidhu did, and treat them as wrongdoers, then how will the people of Punjab trust the party?'

IMAGE: Then Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh (retd), second from left, with then Punjab Congress president Navjot Singh Sidhu, second from right, Kuljit Nagra, right, and Pargat Singh, left. Photograph: ANI Photo
 

The Aam Aadmi Party's Bhagwant Mann will be sworn in as Punjab's chief minister today, March 16.

AAP shocked the Congress party when the ballot papers were counted last Thursday, March 10.

The Congress, which won 77 seats in the 2017 assembly election, was downn to 18 seats five years later.

One of the electoral casualties was Balbir Singh Sidhu, Punjab's health minister who lost his S A S Nagar seat to AAP's Kulwant Singh by 34,097 votes.

Appointing Navjot Singh Sidhu, "a rank outsider", as the Punjab Congress Committee president, Balbir Singh Sidhu tells Prasanna D Zore/Rediff.com drove the "last nail in the party's coffin" in Punjab.

From 77 seats in 2017 to a mere 18 in 2022, how and why did the Congress lose the confidence of the people of Punjab?

The atmosphere in the Punjab Congress after the sacking of Captain Amarinder Singh (the then Congress chief minister who was removed and later formed his own party, the Punjab Lok Congress which drew a blank in this election) and the appointment of Navjot Singh Sidhu as the Punjab Congress president demoralised ordinary workers of the party to a great extent.

While selecting Charanjit Singh Channi as chief minister was widely welcomed, for some reason we could not stop the intense and raucous infighting in the state unit every single day since that day (Sidhu's appointment).

From day one after his appointment as president, Sidhu did not utter a single word that would help the party's cause and image in Punjab. He kept nitpicking with the decisions taken by the Channi government which made a long-lasting impression in the minds of our voters.

Then the statement made by Channi about the influx of migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar hurt the party's image tremendously.

Though he did clarify that his statement was misconstrued, the migrant labour population in cities like Ludhiana and Mohali and other business towns in Punjab, where migrant labourers form a sizeable chunk of voters, worked hugely against the party's electoral prospects.

The Aam Aadmi Party milked this issue smartly and succeeded in winning a big chunk of these voters to their fold. AAP is quite active on social media and they milked this issue to their advantage.

While these issues did impact our chances, the infighting among the top state leadership was the biggest factor that downed the Congress in Punjab.

Who should shoulder the blame for the Congress's rout? The Gandhis? Sidhu? Channi?

All of them in their own way misjudged the mood of the people of the state. Each one of those who made those decisions from sacking Amarinder Singh to appointing Sidhu as president and Channi as CM should take the blame for the Congress's terrible performance.

Nobody blames Rahul or Priyanka or Sonia Gandhi for the Congress's poor performance in Punjab.

Of course, the Gandhis, being the party high command, should equally share the blame for the party's dismal performance in Punjab. The high command did make a number of mistakes and the result is for all of us to see.

Entertaining Sidhu's entry into state Congress, who was a rank outsider to the party, should have been avoided.

First, there were talks of making Sidhu sahab the CM; then they also deliberated upon Sunil Jakhar's name, but ended up making Channi the CM. Those days when the high command couldn't balance the pulls and pushes within the state unit proved fatal for us.

Of course, Sidhu's appointment and his subsequent anti-party activities put the last nail into the coffin.

Why did the people of Punjab so decisively reject both the Congress and the Shiromani Akali Dal? What drove Punjab's voters towards the AAP so overwhelmingly?

The Akali Dal was never in the reckoning in 2022 after their rout in 2017.

People had decided in 2017 itself that they would never vote for a party that, at the outset is founded on the basis of religion, but failed miserably to avoid the desecration of Guru Granth Sahib (in 2015).

The firing incident, in the wake of the protests after the desecration, killed two youth and that led to an increased dislike among Punjab's voters towards the Akali Dal.

They also became infamous due to their encouragement of the drugs and sand mafia. Partaking in their ill proceeds also played a part in their rout in 2017 and now again in 2022.

As for the Congress's defeat I am shocked that despite all our achievements since 2017 the people decided to vote AAP to power.

We did win a majority of the seats where our fight was against the Akali Dal, but in the contests against AAP we lost big. The Congress suffered its biggest setback in Malwa.

What did AAP do better than what the Congress did between 2017 and 2022?

The promise of Rs 1,000 every month to all women aged above 18 in Punjab. There are over one crore (10 million) women in Punjab above 18. How are you going to give Rs 1,000 crore (Rs 10 billion) every month when the state's finances are not in good shape?

We (the Congress government between 2017 and March 9, 2022) could not implement many welfare schemes because the state coffers are almost empty.

We only wish AAP fulfills all its promises they made to the people of Punjab and as a responsible Opposition we will keep them on their toes.

How much did the Congress suffer because of the one upmanship between Sidhu and Captain Amarinder? What action of the high command could have lessened the damage?

The Congress high command should have created an atmosphere of strength much before the feud between the two egos clashed. Nobody (neither Sidhu nor Captain Singh) respected the Congress high command. Had there been any fear or respect for the high command, things would have not come to such a pass.

If you put your own party into the witness box, like what Sidhu did, and treat them as wrongdoers, then how will the people of Punjab trust the party?

Why did people reject Channi? Did they not like a Dalit chief minister?

If they had approved of him or liked him as chief minister. then people would have voted for him handsomely.

You have stated that Sunil Jakhar had the support of a majority of MLAs after the high command decided to remove Captain Amarinder and yet he was not made the CM. Why were the Gandhis so afraid about Jakhar?

Pata nahin Dilli walon ko Jakhar sahib se kya problem thi (I don't know what problem the high command in Delhi had with Jakhar sahib). He is one of the most experienced and loyal hands of the party, he was time-tested during his tenure as president of the Punjab Congress. He has an exemplary track record as a Congressman.

But I think someone (Jakhar has blamed Ambika Soni) thought of him as a Hindu and that scuttled his bid for the chief ministership even when he had the support of a majority of Congress MLAs.

Are you blaming the Congress high command of scuttling Jakhar's chances of becoming chief minister because he is a Hindu?

Not the Congress high command, but those who have the ears and eyes of the high command.

If the high command and Congress party had thought that way, then Dr Manmohan Singh would have never become prime minister nor would have Sardar Giani Zail Singh become President or Buta Singh become home minister.

Jakhar sahab was an insider unlike Sidhu who jumped the ship and entered the Congress and wrecked it.

But since his (Jakhar) name was rejected, many in the party got a feeling that the Congress was backtracking on its (secular) credentials.

What is the future of the Congress in Punjab now given its poor performance?

We will perform our duty as a responsible Opposition and ensure that AAP fulfills its promises made to the people. We will take the AAP government to task if it fails in the implementation of its election manifesto.

AAP's honeymoon time with Punjab's voters is over. It's time for delivery now.

I have been the health minister (he was the minister of health and family welfare) in the state and I have seen thousands of people from Delhi come to Punjab for health treatment. But AAP is adept at highlighting itself on social media and impact people's perception as a party of governance.

I wish AAP the best for fulfilling its poll promises, but given their tendency to hoodwink the people I can guarantee that the AAP government will flop in Punjab.

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PRASANNA D ZORE / Rediff.com
 
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