“All of Congress is my dharra (faction), there is no divide,” former Punjab Congress president Navjot Singh Sidhu said on Friday morning after congratulating His successor Raja Amrinder Singh Warring who officially took the helm of the state unit at an event at the Congress Bhawan in Chandigarh.
Sidhu, who was earlier speculated to have been making a play for the top post, is now making statewide trips that have made him the party’s most visible leader on the ground. The cricketer-turned-politician told the media that the Congress could win back people’s trust if it reinvents itself with a group of 50-60 honest leaders who have the moral authority to question the Bhagwant Mann-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government.
“Congress lost because, during its five years of rule, selfish vested interests overrode the interests of the state, and the mafia ruled. The exchequer’s money was going into private pockets of people who considered politics a profession. At that time too, I was questioning the government, asking about the revenue leaks from liquor, sand, etc,” said Sidhu, who hugged Warring but did not join him on the stage former other senior leaders, among them Minister Chief Charanjit Singh Channi. Before the ceremony, Sidhu left for Mansa to visit the families of farmers who died by suicide.
His statement blaming corruption in the party for its electoral debacle came a day after he called on Governor Banwari Lal Purohit without Warring, bolstering the notion that factionalism in the Congress, which contributed to its loss, was still rife in Punjab Congress.
The faction-ridden state unit has been in flux since its defeat, with senior leader and former Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee (PPCC) chief Sunil Jakhar repeatedly lashing out at Channi. Last week, Jakhar was served a show-cause notice. Factionalism was the focus at the party event on Friday too, with Harish Chaudhry, the central leader in charge of the state unit, saying indiscipline would no longer be tolerated. Asked specifically about Sidhu, he told a news channel that the media would get an answer in the coming days. “Discipline is our top priority,” he added. At a press conference, Warring emphasized three Ds — Discipline, Dedication and Dialogue.
Hibernation cut short
After Channi was announced as the party’s chief ministerial face in the run-up to the elections, Sidhu went into hibernation. But the then PPCC chief, who is known for his mercurial temperament and long silences, surprised everyone by returning to public life 10 days after the poll results were announced on March 10. The Congress managed to bag only 18 of the 117 seats, down from 80 five years earlier. Sidhu stepped down as the state unit president following a directive from Congress president Sonia Gandhi and began to actively reach out to former legislators. This was a departure from his usual practice of going it alone.
The Congress will have to reinvent to come back to power… Honest faces with moral authority and integrity will be the propellers. We are fighting a battle of existence for this great state… It’s either the Mafia or honest people… pic.twitter.com/0yE6WgvOjU
— Navjot Singh Sidhu (@sherryontopp) April 22, 2022
Sidhu has been crisscrossing the state since then, calling on party workers who have allegedly faced reprisals, meeting farmers, visiting markets to check wheat procurement, and going to sand mining sites. After Delhi-based Congress leader Alka Lamba received a notice on Wednesday to appear before the police in Roopnagar over “inflammatory statements” against Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal, Sidhu was the first to tweet that he would accompany her to the police station.
But as he began meeting former MLAs and other disgruntled leaders after the poll loss, many speculated that Sidhu was drumming up support for another shot as PPCC president. Navtej Singh Cheema — who lost from Sultanpur Lodhi to Kapurthala MLA Rana Gurjit’s son — was the first to organize such a meeting last month and it was followed by a series of similar gatherings that a senior Congress MLA labeled “an assembly of the defeated”. Sidhu also made it a point to call on Jakhar on April 15 even as Warring chaired his first party meeting in Amritsar, five days after his announcement as the party chief.
These meetings with leaders unhappy with the Congress also fueled speculation about the formation of a new party. “This is not true,” said Cheema, adding that the meetings and Sidhu’s outreach should be seen in the right spirit. “The results were very demoralising. Many of our party workers would have fled were it not for Sidhu. He is bold and can openly take on the government. Also, he is clean and they cannot go after him.”
Asked about his trips, which many people claim are being done in a campaign mode, Sidhu on Friday said he was enjoying hitting the road daily. “I am fighting for the resurrection of Punjab, I want it to regain its lost glory. It is the only goal of my life.”
Congress, he added, could play the role of a healthy Opposition only if its leaders were incorruptible and fearless. “I am fighting against the mafia, not any party. If CM Mann takes on the mafia, I will support him. He is like my younger brother.”
Sidhu praised Warring, who was once a close aid, saying, “I wish him well and prayed for his success. People come and go, the organization is supreme. My fight is against the mafia, not any organisation.”
Asked about the AAP government, the Congress leader said he had praised Mann when he announced a minimum support price (MSP) for oilseeds. “But if you are simply making promises without a policy change backed by budgetary allocation, you are peddling lies. That is why I am questioning their power subsidy,” Sidhu added.
Some in the Congress believe Sidhu is what the party needs at the moment. “Our numbers are growing. Congress workers take strength from him. We started with half a dozen people, now there are 40 of us,” said Cheema.
But everyone is not as enthused. Expressing reservations about Sidhu’s outreach, a senior Congress leader, who did not wish to be named, told The Indian Express, “He threw away a golden opportunity to galvanise the party as the PPCC chief. He should have toured the state then instead of sulking. Now, he should work within the party lines and not create a situation that would lead to factionalism that cost us heavily in the recent elections.”