A WAR WITHIN: Congress party at a crucial crossroads

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Congress leader Rahul Gandhi addresses a gathering in, Kozhikode (ANI Photo)

The Congress witnesses a dramatic turn of events after Navjot Singh Sidhu resigned as the Punjab Congress chief. With Amarinder Singh leaving the party and the Old Guard challenging Rahul Gandhi, can Congress steer its ship in the right direction? 

S Gopal Puri
New Delhi/Chandigarh

Amid a growing political crisis in Punjab Congress, senior party leader Kapil Sibal added fuel to the fire on Wednesday as he claimed that they are unaware of who is taking the decisions in the party as there is no president. “In our party, there is no president so we don’t know who is taking these decisions. We know and yet we don’t know,” said the Congress leader in a press conference today again raising questions on the delay in the election of the party president. A delegation of 23 members (G-23) of Congress last year wrote a letter to the party’s interim President Sonia Gandhi demanding a slew of organisational reforms.

“We are not “Jee Huzoor 23″. It is very clear. We will keep talking. We will continue to reiterate our demands,” Sibal said while expressing resentment over the functioning of the party and said it is ironic that those who were considered to be close to the high command have left them and the others are still standing by.

The Congress party on Tuesday witnessed a dramatic turn of events after Navjot Singh Sidhu tendered his resignation from the post of Punjab Congress chief. Soon after, three other leaders and a minister of the state also submitted their resignation to the top leadership.

Following the row sparked by Sibal, Congress General Secretary Randeep Surjewala on Thursday said that a meeting of Congress Working Committee (CWC) will be convened very soon. His remarks came in a backdrop of G-23 senior member Gulam Nabi Azad’s letter to the party president Sonia Gandhi in which he said that the urgent meeting of CWC should be called. Commenting on recent statements of G-23 leaders, the Congress general secretary said: “These should be avoided as in this hour of crisis it harms the image of the party.”

Workers of Delhi Congress protest against senior party leader Kapil Sibal after Sibal reiterated demands for sweeping reforms raised by G-23 leaders; show placards reading ‘Get Well Soon Kapil Sibal’ outside his residence, in New Delhi on Wednesday. (ANI Photo)

Amid the political crisis in Punjab Congress, Azad had written a letter to Sonia Gandhi asking her to convene a meeting of the Congress Working Committee (CWC) on an urgent basis, sources said on Wednesday.

But senior Congress leader and former Law Minister Ashwani Kumar on Thursday slammed Kapil Sibal saying that at a time when the party expects support, he is pointing fingers at it. “Very surprising that some of our so-called senior leaders are saying that do not know who is taking decisions in the party,” Kumar said.

There is no doubt the Congress party is facing a crisis.  But Rahul Gandhi is working on his own ideas.

Even when uncertainty regarding factionalism in Congress is looming in its Punjab unit, and relationships within the party are turning sour, Congress MP Rahul Gandhi, who was on a visit to Kerala, anchored his speeches on “idea of India” and also on maintaining the “relationships” by bridging the gap between love and hate.

Speaking to mediapersons, Rahul Gandhi said that he does not want to speak to the media regarding how the events are unfolding within the party. “I don’t want to speak to media right now regarding the issues. I will react later,” he said a day after Punjab PCC chief Navjot Singh Sidhu resigned and played spoilsport when young trunks like Kanhaiya Kumar shifted from CPI to Congress with support from independent MLA in Gujarat, Jignesh Mevani.

The latest crisis began after Amarinder Singh stepped down from the post of chief minister on September 18 following months of infighting with Navjot Singh Sidhu. A fresh political crisis in Punjab unfolded after Navjot Singh Sidhu resigned as PCC chief. Subsequently, several leaders and a state minister considered close to Sidhu also tendered their resignation to the party’s leadership. Sidhu was made PCC chief by Congress leadership in July to stem infighting in Punjab Congress ahead of next year’s assembly polls but the party is now grappling with a fresh crisis.

Congress leader Capt. Amarinder Singh meets Union Home Minister Amit Shah, in New Delhi on Wednesday. (ANI Photo)

The crisis became huge this week as a day after Captain Amarinder Singh said he will be quitting Congress, party leader Harish Rawat said that the former Punjab Chief Minister appeared to be under “some sort of pressure” and should not help and support “BJP directly or indirectly”.

Addressing a press conference, Rawat, who is AICC incharge of Punjab, said there are no facts in reports that Captain Amarinder Singh was insulted by Congress. He said the former Chief Minister should rethink the course of action he is pursuing.

He said Congress had protected and respected the dignity of Amarinder Singh.

“All that has been done by the Congress party till now is to protect the respect and dignity of Captain Amarinder Singh and increase the party’s chances (in 2022 assembly polls) in Punjab,” Rawat said.

“All the party leaders present in the CLP meeting praised and thanked Captain for his services as chief minister. So, it is wrong to say that he was being insulted,” Rawat said. He said the former chief minister should once again think about his political journey in Punjab.

But taking strong exception to Harish Rawat’s “no-holds barred attack” against him, former Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh on Friday rejected the Congress leader Harish Rawat’s “outrageous claims and allegations,” which he said were clearly prompted by the “pathetic situation” the Congress now found itself in the state after being on a winning spree for four-and-a-half years.

Amarinder Singh said the only pressure he had been under for the past few months was that of his own loyalty to the Congress. He also said that Congress is “clearly on backfoot” now in Punjab, which will face assembly polls early next year. Amarinder Singh said he had offered resignation to Congress president Sonia Gandhi three weeks before stepping down as chief minister but she had asked him to continue.

He said the “humiliating manner” in which he was pushed into resigning just hours before the CLP meeting, “which was clearly convened to oust him, was a matter of public record”.

Ridiculing Rawat’s remarks that he (Captain Amarinder) seemed to be under pressure, the former Chief Minister said the only pressure he had been under for the past few months was that of his own loyalty to the Congress, because of which “he continued to tolerate insult after insult”.

“If the party did not intend to humiliate me then why was Navjot Singh Sidhu allowed to openly criticise and attack me on social media and other public platforms for months? Why did the party give the rebels, led by Sidhu, a free hand in undermining my authority? Why was no cognizance given to the uninterrupted spree of electoral wins I handed over to the party through the four-and-a-half years I was in the saddle?,” he asked.

Amarinder Singh asked why the Congress was allowing Sidhu even now to hold the party to ransom and continue to dictate terms. “What is the pressure he exerts on the party leadership that they are so defenceless against him and are allowing him to have his way even to the cost of the Congress’ future in Punjab?” he asked.

Former Punjab Congress President Navjot Singh Sidhu leaves for Chandigarh from his residence to meet Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi, in Patiala on Thursday. (ANI Photo)

Reacting to Rawat’s comment regarding his secular credentials, Captain Amarinder said even his worst critics and enemies could not doubt his integrity in this regard. “But I am no longer surprised that a senior and seasoned Congress leader like Mr. Rawat is questioning my secular credentials. It is quite evident that I am no longer trusted and respected in the party that I have served loyally all these years,” he added.

Categorically denying Rawat’s allegation that he (Captain Amarinder) had refused to meet Channi after the latter’s swearing-in, the former Chief Minister said Channi had called him up on the day of his swearing-in and was supposed to come over but failed to turn up.

Amarinder Singh said as CM twice and PPCC chief on three occasions, he had worked with stalwarts like Pranab Mukherjee, Moti Lal Vohra, Mohsina Kidwali, Meira Kumar and Shakeel Ahmed as Congress in-charge for Punjab. “I never had a single problem with any of them. I fail to understand Mr Rawat’s behaviour and actions,” he added.

Captain Amarinder dismissed as total nonsense Rawat’s remarks that he was circulating the theory of humiliation after meeting Union Home Minister Amit Shah, and pointed out that he had clearly said on the day of his resignation that he had been humiliated by thrice by the Congress party, which had sidelined him to convene CLP meetings twice in Delhi and the last time in Chandigarh even though he was the CLP leader then.

The open fights between the party’s top leaders are not good news for Congress supporters as the party faces elections in the crucial states of Punjab and Uttar Pradesh in the next few months.

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