Updated: January 28, 2022 9:35:11 am
IN A turnaround from the Congress’s repeated assertion of “collective leadership” ahead of the Punjab elections, senior leader Rahul Gandhi Thursday said the party will go with a chief minister face in the polls. A decision would be taken soon after consulting party workers, he said.
Gandhi added that both CM Charanjit Singh Channi and PCC chief Navjot Singh Sidhu had told him that the question paramount in Punjab was ‘who would lead the Congress in the state’. Both are the top contenders for the post.
Gandhi’s comments came moments after Channi and Sidhu both made a case for themselves in speeches ahead of him, at an event in Jalandhar, which was beamed virtually to party workers and people of the state under the banner of ‘Nai Soch, Naya Punjab’.
Gandhi’s remarks also followed hours after rumour mills were set abuzz by the absence of five prominent Congress MPs during his visit to the Golden Temple in Amritsar. With all of them, barring one, seen as unhappy with the current party leadership, the Congress moved fast to scotch speculation over their non-presence. The MPs who stayed away were Manish Tewari, Jasbir Singh Dimpa, Ravneet Bittu, Mohd Sadiq and Preneet Kaur.
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Claiming that the party that has been struggling with infighting for months now was firmly united, Gandhi said in Jalandhar: “Both Sidhu and Channi told me that two people cannot lead, only one can lead, and assured that whoever leads, the other will put all his strength behind him… I am very happy that both are thinking about the party.”
He added: “Normally, the Congress doesn’t do this, but if the party, our workers and Punjab want this, we will take a decision on the CM face and the right person will lead the state… Media people call it the chief ministerial candidate.”
In his speech, Channi said he would not sacrifice the party’s interests for any post. Noting that the Opposition keeps attacking the Congress for being a “divided house”, he pointed to the Congress leaders sitting on the stage and said they are all together. “I have come up from the streets to this position, I don’t need any post. You choose anyone, I will stand by that person. But announce one face, as people want to know the face,” adding “Punjab vaaste ladange, Punjab vaaste marange (Will fight for Punjab, will die for Punjab)”. He also said that he had already got a lot when the party appointed him CM.
Sidhu, who was the first to speak, also said that the face who will “implement Punjab’s agenda” should be made clear. If this was done, Sidhu said, it would guarantee that the Congress wins at least 70 seats in Punjab, of the total 117. He urged Gandhi to “empower” him to take decisions and not reduce him to a “darshani ghodha (showpiece)”.
Incidentally, in his speech, Gandhi mainly talked about the ‘Punjab Model’, a pet Sidhu theme of the past few weeks, where he has been listing 13 points on how to take the state out of ‘mafia Raaj’, ‘debt net’ and enhance incomes.
Earlier, trying to keep all sides happy ahead, the Congress had replaced poll billboards with just Channi’s face on them, with those having pictures of Channi, Sidhu as well as former PCC chief Sunil Kumar Jakhar.
Party leaders confided that they were worried about the fallout of whatever the Congress decides, as neither Channi nor Sidhu would take the disappointment well. Many expected the decision to be left to the last, when the two leaders might be caught up in their own seats, especially Sidhu, who is now facing Akali strongman Bikram Singh Majithia from Amritsar East. Dropping Channi could, moreover, hurt the Congress with Dalit voters.
In the 2017 Punjab Assembly elections too, the Congress had broken from its usual ritual and named a CM candidate. However, that time, there was really just one, uncontested face, Amarinder Singh, and he was seen to have forced the leadership’s hand.
As questions were raised about the absence of Manish Tewari with four other MPs at Gandhi’s Amritsar visit, his aide said he was not in town. Tewari had been vociferously behind Amarinder Singh in the Punjab Congress fight, and has been criticising the Channi government.
Another MP, Dimpa, is seen to be unhappy since the Congress denied him ticket from Khadoor Sahib. Dimpa said he was not invited for Gandhi’s visit.“I thought they wanted to invite only the 117 Assembly candidates. I did not get any invite, from the CM, from the AICC in-charge or the PCC,” he said.
Mohd Sadiq said he was unable to be present as his sister-in-law had passed away and he was attending her last rites.
Preneet Kaur, Amarinder’s wife, has been staying away from party activities ever since he left the Congress.
A unity bid
Coming close on the heels of AAP declaring Bhagwant Mann as its CM face, Rahul Gandhi’s turnaround indicates the party understands the need to present a united front, amid speculation about Channi-Sidhu feud.
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