The internal rifts in the ruling Congress party of Punjab have set off a no small internal crisis. Publicly disowned by 50 legislators including ministers, Captain Amarinder Singh had to quit as chief minister. Charanjit Singh Channi, a member of Amarinder's cabinet, has been elevated as his successor with the blessings of PCC President Navjot Singh Sidhu and the Congress High Command. All these dramatic happenings come when only four months are left for the state's election. Significantly, Captain Amarinder left his chair but not before writing to party president Sonia Gandhi protesting that he is quitting humiliated and not making a secret of his unhappiness with the High Command decision. What he is going to decide in the emerging national political scenario is being keenly watched by observers. Some NDA leaders have already invited him to the NDA, but the Captain has not responded to any of them. One thing certain is that this political uncertainty will not be helpful for the Congress.
During the Modi wave and the BJP's Operation Lotus, Congress rule had been uprooted in many states, but the Punjab continued to be a Congress stronghold under Amarinder's leadership. And in the upcoming election, the party stands a good chance of being returned to power too. All the same, dissent and discord have been plaguing the party for many reasons, the major one being the governing style of the Captain that was unacceptable to his colleagues. The High Command has for quite some time been hearing the plaint that the chief minister had become inaccessible for the people and the party workers; he was found spending more of his time in his farm house than in the chief minister's office. It became routine for him to keep away leaving everything to bureaucrats. Further, in a survey the High Command conducted, it emerged that his former popularity had been considerably eroded. In the midst of these, Amarinder's disparagement of the protesting farmers also worked against him. For when the farmers' agitation which had become more than a mere strike against the farm laws and had evolved into a rage against Modi's fascist regime, his remarks would let down not only the farmer population but the larger anti-Modi line-up. In these circumstances, the High Command was constrained to come to an assessment that fighting an electoral battle with Amerinder in the forefront would not be the right thing to do. On the other hand, the party's internal quarrels had also intensified. The differences of opinion with Sidhu, who had joined the party just before the 2017 election with an eye on the post of deputy chief minister, had led to major internal squabbles within the leadership. That crisis was solved by the party last July by making Sidhu the PCC president. Two months thence Sidhu has won the confidence of the High Command and the state party leadership and legislators, as can be concluded in general from Amarinder's resignation and subsequent developments.
With the ascent of Charanjit Singh Channi to power, it is notable that Punjab has got a Dalit chief minister for the first time. Channi, who had earlier been Leader of the Opposition in the house for a brief period, is the Dalit face of the party. And in the current situation, such an appointment bears huge significance too. For the NDA's promise to the people is that if voted to power, it will make a member of the Dalit community its chief minister. Shiromani Akali Dal, which broke away from the BJP's alliance on the farmers' strike, is also in the fray with a promise of a Dalit deputy chief minister. Therefore, it wouldn't be wrong to read into Channi's appointment a deliberately pragmatic response to such overtures. Apart from the Dalit Channi from the Sikh community, Sidhu who leads the party is also a Jat Sikh. This 'social engineering' aimed at ensuring the support of the Sikh section that form 35 per cent of the state may become a logical step. But the new cabinet does not have even the time to formulate programmes to improve its image. In other words, four months from now, people will be entering the polling booths carrying whatever is the current impression about the government. On other hand, no one can rule out the possibility of Amarinder wielding a sword against the Congress some way or the other. It was following a comparable internal tussle that the Congress lost power in Madhya Pradesh. In Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh too, a similar tug of war is ailing the party. What is most disappointing is that when talks are progressing in different quarters for a broad united front against the Modi government, such troubles are brewing in the party that should lead such an alliance.