The crisis within the Congress in Punjab escalated on Saturday as the state’s chief minister, Captain Amarinder Singh, resigned from his post following months-long party infighting that peaked after the appointment of Navjot Singh Sidhu as the party’s state unit chief.
Capt. Amarinder Singh, regarded as one of the tallest Congress leaders, reportedly resigned from his post under pressure from the party high command. His resignation came unwillingly. Having been chief minister for nine and a half years, he gave enough hints that he might retaliate, and maintained that his resignation was a result of the humiliation meted out to him by the party.
“The MLAs have been called by the party leadership three times… this is humiliation for me… I have decided to quit, they can pick anyone for the chief minister’s post now,” said Capt. Singh right after submitting his resignation to the state’s governor, Banwarilal Purohit. Later in the evening, during his interaction with media persons, he said that there were countless options open for the future, and that he was not retiring.
The legislators from party’s Punjab unit that saw immense factionalism, met with the party high command thrice in the past few months, seeking the removal of Capt. Singh. While the former CM claimed that it was his call to quit, insiders suggested that the top party leaders, including Congress president Sonia Gandhi had asked him to resign.
The two time CM who carried the image of a tough, no-nonsense administrator, garnered too many detractors during his second stint that started in 2017 when Congress wiped out the Akali Dal, and AAP emerged as the third force in the state of Punjab.
Since the beginning of his second term, Capt. Amarinder Singh was said to be giving preference to bureaucrats over the elected leaders when it came to decision making – a practice that wasn’t welcomed by a few personalities in the Punjab Congress.
The first tremors were felt inside the party last year, when the former CM sacked senior party leader Navjot Singh Sidhu as a cabinet minister for the local government, tourism and cultural affairs. Capt. Singh had openly called Sidhu an “inept” leader at the time. The party went on to choose Sidhu as the Punjab Congress Committee (PCC) chief this year, ahead of polls. The differences went so deep that a large section of the party’s MLAs – almost 60 out of 80, including four ministers – openly revolted against the former chief minister a month ago. The group sent a letter of discontent to the high command seeking his removal from office.
Some inside sources have reportedly said that the high command was also not happy with Capt. Singh’s stubborn attitude and were not keen to continue with him as the CM face in the upcoming election. The top Congress leaders believe that the party has a fair chance of winning the upcoming assembly poll in the state, and that Capt. Amarinder Singh’s anti-incumbency coupled with his age might be the only hurdle in garnering a victory again.
Why Did The Punjab Congress Legislators Revolt?
The Punjab Congress’ MLAs were not happy with the former CM, especially the way he was administrating the state. The rift within the party, however, began this year in April when the Punjab and Haryana High Court gave a clean chit to former CM Prakash Singh Badal in the 2015 Kotkapura police firing case, which accused him of sacrilege of the Guru Granth Sahib.
The party also believes that Capt. Singh’s popularity among the people of the state has decreased, claiming that he failed to take action against big fishes of the drug mafias. The appointment of former IAS officer Suresh Kumar in 2017, as his chief principal secretary, was also termed a controversial decision. Kumar remained the right hand of Capt. Singh even after his appointment was subsequently quashed by the court.
Cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu also managed to mobilise a large number of party MLAs against Capt. Singh to remove him ahead of the assembly election. On Wednesday, a letter signed by at least 40 MLAs was sent to Sonia Gandhi seeking a Congress Legislative Party meeting, where a majority of the party members agreed to remove the 79-year-old former Indian Army officer.
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Some experts feel that the removal of a popular chief minister just ahead of the election sends a wrong message to voters and hurts the party cadre’s sentiment.
Capt. Amarinder Singh’s removal marks the Congress’ next challenge – to find a suitable face for the chief minister’s chair. Former PCC chiefs Sunil Jakhar and Pratap Singh Bajwa and current PCC president Navjot Singh Sidhu are said to be the front-runners for the post. Senior Congress leader Ambika Soni reportedly declined the offer earlier today. Following this, the CLP meeting scheduled for today to select the new chief minister, has been deferred until further notice.
The selected candidate will have big shoes to fill. The new CM will face the responsibility of leading the party in the election, dealing aptly with the farmers’ sentiments – the state’s prime poll issue at this time, and dealing with the infighting in the Congress.
Nevertheless, it is going to be a bumpy ride for the Congress in the coming months, especially with a looming crisis in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh as well.