Chandigarh: The turmoil in the Punjab Congress, which was perceived to have ended with the ouster of Amarinder Singh, became even deeper after Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee chief Navjot Singh Sidhu left everyone surprised with his sudden resignation from his post. He announced his resignation at 3 pm through his Twitter handle.
In the resignation sent to Congress president Sonia Gandhi, he stated that the “collapse of a man’s character stems from the compromise corner. I can never compromise on Punjab’s future and agenda for the welfare of Punjab. Therefore I hereby resign as Punjab of PPCCC but will continue to serve the Congress.”
People close to Sidhu told The Wire that two factors played a role in Sidhu’s sudden resignation. He was not happy with the central leadership as well as new chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi over the induction of a few names in the newly formed cabinet on Sunday.
Channi replaced Amarinder a week ago, after the latter’s resignation under pressure from the Congress high command.
As The Wire reported on Sunday, after the new council of ministers took oath, Sidhu faced major flak both within the party and outside over the appointment of tainted Congress leader Rana Gurjeet Singh, who his own party leaders alleged is a kingpin of the sand mafia in Punjab.
Sources close to Sidhu told The Wire after his resignation that publicly, Rana’s induction was made to seem like Sidhu’s idea. However, according to them, Sidhu fought tooth and nail against his appointment both with the new chief minister as well as the central leadership. When he was ignored, he then decided to resign
“Sidhu can’t compromise on his corruption stand. He will never tolerate or promote people with tainted backgrounds and rather sacrifice his position for the welfare of Punjab,” one of his aides told The Wire.
People close to Sidhu also alleged that new chief minister decided to support Rana’s appointment. His name, said sources in the Congress, was pushed by the party high command and Channi came on board later.
Seven Congress MLAs’ letter (before Sunday’s induction ceremony) to Sidhu revealed why Rana is controversial. In the letter addressed to Sidhu, seven party MLAs including Sukhpal Khaira stated that the public and Congress cadre alike are unhappy with Rana’s inclusion.
Rana had been dropped from the cabinet of former chief minister Amarinder in January 2018 due to the infamous mining scandal involving him, his family and his companies.
The letter further stated that the Punjab government had forfeited approximately Rs 25 crore deposited by Rana’s ‘front company’, Rajbir Enterprises, during the auction of three mining sites in Punjab.
“Justice Narang Commission that probed the minister, brought out a startling fact that the front company of Rana Gurjeet Singh had received Rs 5 crore gratification/contribution for the said mining auction from Rs 2000 crore irrigation scamster Gurinder Singh Bhapa charged by Vigilance Bureau and now in custody,” the letter added.
Later Khaira, who even met Sidhu in Patiala and requested him to drop Rana before the induction ceremony at the Punjab governor’s house on Sunday evening, said that the party has committed a blunder by inducting him into the cabinet while he is still facing charges of illegal mining and the Enforcement Directorate is still investigating him.
“I don’t know why the party has taken the decision but it is quite an unpopular one. It will have a negative impact as the elections are around the corner,” Khaira told The Wire.
Sidhu-Channi differences over a few other names
Besides the Rana Gurjeet issue, sources close to Sidhu said that he was unhappy over the inclusion of other names in the new cabinet, including Aruna Chaudhary who was inducted because of Channi’s pressure.
Sidhu wanted representation of the Majhabi community, which is one of the largest groups in Punjab’s 33% SC population. But sources said that Channi, who comes from the Dalit Ramdasia community, did not want the inclusion of the Majhabi community.
Sidhu wanted a fresh cabinet. A few names were included on his request, but the party did not change the names that were associated with non-performance and corruption.
Besides this, Sidhu was not happy with the appointment of Advocate General A.P.S. Deol. Deol was an advocate for former DGP Sumedh Singh Saini, who has been on the hit list of rebel party leaders including Sidhu for his alleged wrongdoing on the sacrilege issue in Punjab under SAD-BJP rule.
Deol had succeeded in getting the former DGP blanket relief from arrest in all the four FIRs registered against him by the Punjab Police till the assembly elections in the state, due in February 2022.
Soon after Saini was bailed out, Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa, who is now a deputy chief minister, had in a tweet demanded the sacking of former DGP Dinkar Gupta, former Advocate General Atul Nanda and Punjab vigilance chief B.K. Uppal. Randhawa had alleged that the “officials were not able to block Saini’s bail by not defending the case properly”.
Even Sidhu was on the same page as Randhawa was. Sidhu, sources said, wanted someone else in the AG’s office but his choices weren’t entertained.
Sidhu had already made his displeasure noticed after he was absent from the installation ceremony of ministers a day after the oath ceremony on Monday.
Sources said that it is customary practice in Congress that when new ministers take charge, both the chief minister and the party president are present.
Since Sidhu was upset over the cabinet, he was not present when new ministers took charge.
Channi, said sources, requested Sidhu several times and even sent a chopper to Patiala, but he did not budge.
An aide of Sidhu’s told The Wire that he was unwilling to side with the corruption allegations against the new ministers.
No difference with Sidhu: Channi
Channi on Tuesday, meanwhile, said there is no difference between him and Sidhu.
Addressing a presser, the new chief minister said, “He is party president. He is a big leader. I have my confidence in Sidhu, if needed I shall call him…but there are no differences. How can he be angry with me?”
He further said, “We will settle it if he is upset with me…though he is not upset with me…”
After Sidhu’s resignation, Gulzar Inder Singh Chahl also resigned as PPCC treasurer.
In solidarity with Sidhu, newly inducted cabinet minister and Malerkotla MLA Razia Sultana also resigned from Channi’s cabinet.
Sultana’s husband Mohammad Mustafa is also principal adviser to Sidhu and is also likely to resign. Sources said that more cabinet ministers including Pargat Singh are likely to resign, in major embarrassment for Channi, within hours of being allotted responsibilities.
Sultana wrote in her resignation letter that she is resigning in solidarity with Sidhu and millions of Congress workers. “I will keep working for Congress,” she said.
Khaira urges party high command to flag issues raised by Sidhu
In a statement released here, Congress MLA Sukhpal Singh Khaira made a fervent appeal to Sidhu to reconsider his resignation and also appealed to the party high command to not accept his resignation and instead address issues raised by him in the last few days.
Khaira said since Punjab was heading for elections in the next four or five months, it is highly imperative to find an amicable solution to the crisis emanating from the deadlock between party high command and Sidhu.
Khaira said that even if the party had to take back a few decisions to address the concerns raised by Sidhu, it will only strengthen the Congress in Punjab. The Congress MLA also urged leaders and officers to voluntarily come forward and offer their resignations to defuse the current crisis.
Khaira also said that those at the centre of controversies should also voluntarily step down to strengthen the party and government.
Did the party blunder by not making Sidhu CM?
Some political observers noticed that the party had blundered by ignoring Sidhu for the post of CM when he had led a successful rebellion against Captain Amarinder Singh and de-seated him.
Sidhu, too, was interested in the CM’s post but the party is believed to have been keen to play the Dalit card as the Akali Dal-BSP alliance had potential to take away crucial Dalit votes from Congress.
Sidhu, many believe, was upset over the party’s decision, although in public, he has always maintained that he is not after a higher post but for the welfare of Punjab.
On the other hand, political commentator Khalid Mohammad blamed Sidhu for the party’s turmoil and said that his personal aspirations had created a major rift in the party. The party high command is equally responsible, he said.
It was the Gandhi siblings who had supported Sidhu against Captain Amarinder Singh. But later when Sidhu wanted to have more men of his choice in the new cabinet after he was not made CM, the Gandhis turned him down and that upset Sidhu, said sources.
Meanwhile, political observers are of the view that Congress, which won the 2017 elections with a nearly two-third majority, is in major trouble ahead of fresh elections in 2022. Sidhu’s resignation has just snowballed it.
“The last six months of any government is very crucial but here the Congress has wasted it by fighting among themselves. After Sidhu’s resignation, the crisis has further deepened. The chances of the party making its presence felt looks very slim right now,” said Khalid.
Some poll pundits think that Sidhu’s resignation as a PPCC chief may take his credentials as crusader against corruption and wrongdoings in Punjab higher.
Harjeshwar Pal Singh, a political commentator, said that Sidhu has once again proved that he is not after posts or positions. He believes in clean politics.
“He may have certain weaknesses but his stand on corruption and non-performance makes him different from others. Public perception will improve after his resignation,” he added
Singh said Sidhu will still have a major role to play in the polls.
For Amarinder, another chance to slam Sidhu
Shortly after Sidhu resigned as Punjab Congress chief, former chief minister Amarinder Singh took a jibe at him, saying, “He is not a stable man”.
Sidhu had fought a long battle with Captain, during which he was named the chief of Congress’ Punjab unit. Eventually, the Captain had to resign but vowed to continue his fight against Sidhu.
The Captain had even called him anti-national in a clear outburst against Sidhu after his ouster.