The Congress Legislative Party (CLP) in Punjab has left the decision to choose the new chief minister of the state to Congress president Sonia Gandhi. However, the names of four senior Congress leaders — Sunil Jakhar, Navjot Singh Sidhu, Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa and Partap Singh Bajwa — have been doing the rounds as probable candidates for the post.
The effective tenure of the next Punjab CM will, however, be brief given that the assembly elections in the state is scheduled in February 2022 and the fact that the model code of conduct will be imposed in the state by the Election Commission well in advance. Going by the precedent of 2017 polls, the code of conduct should kick in by first week of January 2022 and this will leave the new Chief Minister a little over 12 weeks to make an impact.
Former PCC president Sunil Jakhar’s name as a CM probable has raised considerable interest in political quarters in Punjab. This would be the first time after the reorganisation of Punjab in 1966, when the state got bifurcated into Punjab and Haryana, that there would be a Hindu chief minister. Ram Kishan was the last Hindu CM for a two-year tenure from 1964 to 1966 before President’s Rule was imposed for the smooth creation of Haryana.
Sunil Jakhar carries the twin benefits of being a farmer as well as a person from the Hindu community of Punjab. The Jakhars are well-known landlords and agriculturists from Abohar and Sunil is the son of former Lok Sabha Speaker Balram Jakhar. The 67-year-old Congress politician has been a three-time MLA from Abohar constituency (2002-2017) and has also represented Gurdaspur Lok Sabha constituency when he won the byelection necessitated by the death of the sitting MP Vinod Khanna in 2017. He was the Leader of Opposition in Punjab Assembly during the previous SAD-BJP government and was perceived to have performed that task ably.
Sunil Jakhar’s political career suffered a jolt when he lost the 2017 assembly elections from Abohar to the BJP candidate who had earlier been a member of the local municipal corporation. While he was rehabilitated politically by being appointed the state Congress president in 2017, he suffered another electoral defeat in 2019 when he lost the Gurdaspur Lok Sabha election to actor Sunny Deol of BJP.
Largely seen as a Captain Amarinder loyalist, yet Jakhar has at many times crossed swords with him and not hesitated to speak out his mind. He has also been at daggers drawn with two prominent Congress leaders in the state-Partap Singh Bajwa and Rana Gurmit Sodhi-and has not hesitated to challenge them publicly if needed. The soft spoken Jakhar maintains a residence each in New Delhi, his village in Abohar and in Panchkula, adjoining Chandigarh.
The 62-year-old Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa is the Jails and Cooperation Minister in the outgoing cabinet of Captain Amarinder Singh. Hailing from Gurdaspur district in the Majha region, considered to be the wild west of Punjab, Randhawa is a three-time Congress MLA and has been elected in 2002, 2007 and 2017. He has been the Vice President of the state Congress and a general secretary and comes from a Congress family. His father, Santokh Singh, was twice state Congress president and a very well-known figure in the Majha region.
Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa has been very aggressive against the Badal family in general and Bikram Singh Majithia in particular during the present Congress government and has time and again made public statements that not enough was being done by the Congress government against the SAD leaders for various perceived transgressions. Randhawa had raised the issue of non-prosecution of the accused in the cases of 2015 sacrilege of Guru Granth Sahib in Punjab and the subsequent police firing in which two youths died. However, joining hands with Navjot Singh Sidhu, he has been in open revolt against Captain Amarinder Singh for the failure to fulfil the promises made in the run up to the 2017 polls regarding these incidents.
Also hailing from Gurdaspur district is 64-year-old Partap Singh Bajwa who is among the senior most Congress leaders of the state and is present a Rajya Sabha MP from Punjab. Pratap Singh Bajwa’s father, Satnam Singh Bajwa was also a senior Congress politician and had remained a minister. He was killed during the years of terrorism in Punjab in 1987. Partap’s younger brother, Fateh Jung Singh Bajwa is also a sitting Congress MLA while his wife, Charanjit Kaur Bajwa, has also been a MLA in the previous assembly.
Bajwa has been the president of the state Congress committee and has been a three-time MLA and a minister in different Congress governments of the state between 1994 to 2007. He has also been the Lok Sabha MP from Gurdaspur and has recently been very active from Batala assembly constituency if the same district giving indications that he wished to return to state politics and stake a claim to Chief Ministership.
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For almost the entire tenure of Captain Amarinder Singh as CM, Bajwa has bene taking pot shots at him and has not left any opportunity to hit out at him for the ills of the state. However, when Navjot Singh Sidhu raised the banner of revolt aided by four cabinet ministers, Bajwa was quick to appear at the side of Amarinder and maintained a distance from the rebels. Politically savvy, Bajwa is known to maintain good relations with the senior brass of the BJP too.
Last but not the least is Navjot Singh Sidhu, the present president of Pradesh Congress committee and a former minister in Captain Amarinder Singh’s cabinet who has been the lynchpin of the attack launched on Capt Amarinder Singh. A former international cricketer and host of a television comedy show, he was divested of the portfolio of local bodies department in 2019 and since then he has been at loggerheads with Capt Amarinder. Amidst stiff opposition from Amarinder, Sidhu managed to wrest away the post of state Congress president and has now managed to dislodge him from the post of Chief Minister. All within a span of five months.
A three-time MP from Amritsar Lok Sabha constituency and a nominated MP to Rajya Sabha, as a member of BJP, 58-year-old Sidhu is the youngest of the Chief Ministerial faces under discussion and is for all intents and purposes the CM face of the party for 2022 polls. It remains to be seen whether he is amenable to being the Chief Minister in the run up to the assembly elections or would leave it for someone else while he focuses on winning the polls and bringing Congress back to power.
Sidhu joined the Congress just before the 2017 assembly polls; this was one of the points held against him by his detractors. Like the other three probable candidates, he too comes from a Congress family with his father, Bhagwant Singh, having remained a Member of Legislative Council in the erstwhile Patiala and East Punjab States Union (PEPSU) and a Advocate General of the state. His mother, Nirmal Sidhu, too had fought an assembly election on a Congress ticket. Sidhu’s wife and namesake, Navjot Kaur Sidhu has also been a MLA on a BJP ticket and was the Chief Parliamentary Secretary in the previous SAD-BJP government.