Updated: October 1, 2021 1:06:05 am
Fault lines appeared to harden in the Congress Thursday between the high command of the Gandhi family and an increasingly isolated group of senior rebels. Veteran leader Amarinder Singh, freshly ousted as Punjab Chief Minister, announced that he was not joining the BJP but would leave the Congress that was going “downhill”.
Meanwhile, more leaders among the old guard went public with their criticism of how the party was being run. Several came forward to condemn the protests at Kapil Sibal’s house Wednesday by Congress workers, calling him “gaddar (traitor)”, as “orchestrated hooliganism”, with a few questioning the party silence over it.
Among those who spoke up was senior party leader and CWC member P Chidambaram, who in a carefully calibrated tweet said: “I feel helpless when we cannot start meaningful conversations within party forums. I also feel hurt and helpless when I see pictures of Congress workers raising slogans outside the residence of a colleague and MP. The safe harbour to which one can withdraw seems to be silence.” Chidambaram could not be reached for comment.
Earlier, Amarinder, while scotching speculation that he was set to cross over to the BJP after his Wednesday meeting with Union Minister Amit Shah, criticised the protests at Sibal’s house”.
A member of the Group of 23 leaders who have been seeking sweeping changes in the party structure, Sibal faced the protests soon after demanding elections to the Congress president’s post and other bodies, adding: “In our party, at the moment, there is no president, so we don’t know who is taking these decisions. We know and yet we don’t know.”
Amarinder’s clarification Thursday did little to settle the uncertainty within the Punjab Congress, which is still trying to contain the storm stirred by Navjot Singh Sidhu. Could Amarinder take away Congress MLAs with him, seek a floor test, and trigger a collapse of the Punjab government, were the questions on many lips Thursday.
Asked if any MLA would follow him out of the Congress, Amarinder, who returned to Chandigarh after a two-day Delhi trip, retorted: “Do you think I will tell you this?”
Asked whether the majority of the Charanjit Singh Channi government should be tested given Sidhu’s revolt, he was ambiguous. “These matters are for the Speaker to see… It is not my job.”
Speaker Rana Kanwarpal Singh incidentally didn’t find a post in the Cabinet formed by Channi after Amarinder’s removal — this must sting, given that he had rejected a ministerial offer by Amarinder just days earlier.
A Congress MLA calculated, on condition of anonymity: “If Amarinder wants to topple the government, he needs 22 MLAs out of the Congress’s 80. Channi needs 59 MLAs to save his government in a House of 117. One does not know if the BJP may try horse-trading.”
Said another MLA: “Knowing Amarinder, he will not sit quiet… He is certainly up to something.”
Others put up a brave face. “There is no threat, we are comfortable. It is only because of Sidhu’s resignation as party state chief that people are talking about a divide. The issue is sorted now,” said an MLA.
Amarinder also waded into the larger Congress tussle, with a statement released by his office questioning the “attack” on Sibal’s house, “only because he had chosen to express views that were not palatable to the party leadership”.
At least half-a-dozen of Sibal’s G-23 colleagues echoed this. Ghulam Nabi Azad, who separately wrote a letter to Sonia Gandhi Wednesday raising the same questions as Sibal, tweeted, “I strongly condemn the orchestrated hooliganism @KapilSibal’s residence last night. He is a loyal congressman fighting for the party both inside and outside Parliament.”
Deputy Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Anand Sharma urged Gandhi that those behind the protests be “identified and disciplined”. In a series of tweets, Sharma said, “Shocked and disgusted to hear the news of attack and hooliganism at Kapil Sibal’s house.” He said the Congress has a “history of upholding freedom of expression” and called “intolerance and violence” alien to the party’s values and culture.
Manish Tewari said the protesters must realise that Sibal was fighting for the party. A couple of days ago, Tewari had expressed his displeasure at the induction of former JNU student leader Kanhaiya Kumar in a veiled tweet.
Retweeting Tewari Thursday, Shashi Tharoor said the priority should be to join hands against the BJP. “We all know @KapilSibal as a true Congressman who has fought multiple cases in court for @INCIndia. As a democratic party we need to listen to what he has to say, disagree if you must but not in this way.”
Another G-23 member, Vivek Tankha said, also pointed to Sibal’s various legal fights for the Congress, calling him ” a person who has fought and saved so many” Congress governments and persons.
Tweeting in Hindi, Raj Babbar asked if condemning the violence at Sibal’s house was not part of Congress values.
Declaring that he would leave the Congress, Amarinder said he had been utterly humiliated, and that his principles did not allow him to stay on. He added that the Congress was going downhill, with senior leaders ignored. “I will not be treated in this humiliating manner… I will not take such insults,” he said.
Forced to step down as CM by the Congress high command, Amarinder added that he was still thinking through his options “in the interests of Punjab”, and that the state’s security was the main priority for him. Expressing apprehension of “misgovernance” in Punjab, giving Pakistan an opportunity, he said he had met NSA Ajit Doval Thursday morning on the issue.
Singh said that while younger leaders should be “promoted” to implement plans, seniors were best equipped to formulate the same. He called fellow senior Congressmen as “thinkers”, who were critical to the future of the party.
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