Updated: September 25, 2021 7:56:14 am
The recent events in the Punjab unit of the Congress recall the party high command’s tradition of handling internal wrangling. As a dominant party in the “Nehruvian era”, the Congress, as Rajni Kothari argued, played the dual role of the “ruling party” as well as the “party of opposition”. The party then had powerful regional satraps from dominant land-holding communities, who enjoyed significant autonomy. The central leadership confined itself to a mediating role when a tussle among factional leaders would get out of control. This would change under Indira Gandhi, whose leadership style and norms were in stark contrast to Nehru. Her ascendance resulted in the Congress transitioning into a “centralist” party with the pre-eminence of “high command politics”, the latter becoming a euphemism first for the leader and then the family.
The party chief ministers, nominated more on the basis of their loyalty than leadership skill or support base, would often have to go to Delhi to seek approval for even trivial issues related to the party or the government. The high command would tolerate or openly encourage factional leaders in the state units.
Captain Amarinder Singh is closer to a quintessential regional satrap of the Nehruvian era even though his political career commenced in the Indira-Rajiv era. Old ties with the family brought him to the party in 1980 and also allowed him to return in 1997. However, unlike other loyalists, Singh, a dominant Jat Sikh and a Patiala royal, succeeded in projecting himself as a leader who supported the cause of Sikhs and Punjabi Suba. His resignations first as a Congress MP in 1984 and then as an Akali Dal minister in 1986 over Operation Blue Star and Operation Black Thunder respectively strengthened this image. It was reinforced when he became the chief minister who helped pass the Punjab Termination of Agreements Bill in 2004, resulting in the annulment of the state’s 1981 pact on the sharing of the Ravi and Beas river waters with Haryana and Rajasthan.
The Congress’s wins against the Akali Dal-BJP combine in the 2002, 2017 and 2019 elections came under his leadership. Singh also showed considerable political skill to checkmate rival faction leaders, including former state presidents like Partap Singh Bajwa. Most importantly, in a state where religion, region, caste, kinship, language all play a role in influencing electoral choices, Singh, with his moderate secular nationalist image, was able to gain a state-wide support base, unlike his rivals.
It was this seemingly invincible leadership position that brought in him a fatal sense of complacency, especially after the win over Arun Jaitley in the 2014 elections in Amritsar. Defying the established rules of game, Singh threatened to break the party if not made the chief ministerial candidate in the 2017 elections. He was replaced by Bajwa as the state unit president after the 2012 electoral debacle, and had questioned the leadership ability of Rahul Gandhi.
In the last two years, he hardly visited Delhi, and defied the high command directive to bring back Navjot Sidhu, a protégé of the Gandhi siblings. Despite being called twice to Delhi and made to defend his poor record before the high command-appointed committee, which also passed on instructions to listen to dissident legislators’ grievances, Singh failed to take visible corrective measures.
He also failed to fulfil the party’s tall poll promises like generating employment, waiving farmers’ debts, carrying out reforms in the power sector, bringing back industries, and ending the transport, sand, mining and land mafia raj. The refusal to change his laid-back leadership style, depending heavily only on a few trusted bureaucrats and trusted courtiers finally proved to be his undoing. His inexplicable reluctance to catch and punish the bigwigs responsible for the drug menace, the failure to take swift action against those responsible for sacrilege and the subsequent firing over protesting Sikhs gave rise to the popular perception that he had a tacit understanding with the tainted Akali leadership. The predicament of the rival Akali Dal and the BJP over the three contentious farm laws, which have become the rallying point for the landholding Jat Sikh farmers, hardly assured the legislators facing anti-incumbency.
Amid all this turmoil, Singh apparently stuck to his belief that a much-weakened high command would not dare take punitive action against him, given that it had not acted when faced with dissidence in the state party units like in Rajasthan. His long-term loyalty to the family was another factor. It was evident in the high command’s attempt to foist a reluctant Ambika Soni as a stop-gap chief minister. That quarrelling faction leaders accepted the high command’s decision uncritically reminded one of the Indira-Rajiv era.
With the appointment of Charanjit Singh Channi as the first Dalit chief minister, the party high command has tried to keep the factional fighting under check and also reap an electoral dividend, given the state’s demography. It is, however, obvious that the leadership crisis is far from over, given the rebellious stance of the slighted Singh and leaders waiting in the wings to fight another day. The visible hand of the “high command’ in the whole saga, reminiscent of the Indira era, places greater electoral responsibility on it in the forthcoming elections, a tall order by all means.
This column first appeared in the print edition on September 24, 2021 under the title ‘In Punjab, high command returns’. The writer is professor, department of political science, Panjab University.
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