Shifting sands: Cong tries to find its feet in Punjab

The meeting between CM Charanjit Singh Channi and PPCC president Navjot Singh Sidhu has brought some thaw in ties between the two after latter had offered to quit as party chief over appointments of DGP and AG in the state. The meeting had been held to negotiate a peace deal to run the government.

‘No inferences please’: Sunil Jakhar asked amidst political circus in Punjab “Is it finally truce now, armistice sealed? Or is it only a temporary ceasefire?,” former Punjab Congress President, Sunil Jakhar said in a cryptic tweet amidst the unending game of musical chairs in Punjab Congress.  The succinct message assumes added significance because while the nation debates the alleged deliberate mowing down of farmers in Uttar Pradesh’s Lakhimpur Kheri on October 3, Punjab Congress has over the months of turmoil failed to set its own house in order though elections are at hand in the state.

Social media as we know allows you to reach, nurture, and engage with your target audience but at the same time it can be a double-edged weapon. This is what happened when Jakhar, the tall political leader in Punjab, sent this message leaving people wonder struck. Sunil Jakhar had recently emerged as a dark horse CM candidate when Capt Amarinder Singh resigned and perhaps would have been Punjab’s first Hindu CM since state reorganization in 1966.  He had earlier been the Leader of Opposition in Punjab and also Punjab Congress President for four years until last July. His illustrious father Balram Jakhar had the distinction of being Speaker of Lok Sabha for two terms from 1980 to 1989.

Sunil Jakhar’s dig came in the aftermath of much hyped meeting between Chief Minister, Charanjit Channi and Punjab Congress President, Navjot Singh Sidhu after later offered resignation as party chief reportedly over appointments of Punjab Police Chief and Advocate General. Sidhu who had joined as PCC President on July 19 this year,  had opposed his own party government for giving additional charge of the Punjab DGP to Sahota claiming that when the 2015 Bargari sacrilege took place, the SIT led by him (Sahota) indicted two Sikh youth for sacrilege and gave a clean chit to the Badals. His comments came hours after Sidhu had tweeted that DGP Iqbal Preet Singh Sahota and Advocate General (AG) Amar Preet Singh Deol must be replaced as their appointments are like “rubbing salt in the wounds of the victims of the sacrilege issue”. Jakhar is considered a suave political leader who does his homework well. Little wonder that even Opposition leaders listen to him with attention.

Sidhu had tweeted that not replacing the DGP and the Advocate General would leave the Congress with “no face”.  “Demand for Justice in Sacrilege cases and for the arrest of main culprits behind the drug trade brought our Government to power in 2017 and due to his failure, people removed the last CM. Now, AG/DG appointments rub salt in wounds of victims, they must be replaced or we will have no face”.  In a letter to Congress Chief Sonia Gandhi and posted on social media, he wrote, “The collapse of a man’s character stems from the compromise corner. I can never compromise on Punjab’s future and the agenda for the welfare of Punjab. Therefore, I hereby resign as the President of Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee. I will continue to serve the Congress”.

Sidhu’s objection to Advocate General APS Deol is that he reportedly defended the former Punjab police chief Sumedh Singh Saini, an accused in the Behbal Kalan police firing case of 2015. Sahota has earned Sidhu’s ire as he had headed a Special Investigation Team on the sacrilege issue that reportedly gave the Badals a “clean chit”.

Sunil Jakhar’s name was among the frontrunners for CM but highly placed sources in Congress said that some senior leaders from Punjab Congress emphasized the need for a Sikh chief throughout. Little doubt that Jakhar’s name altogether disappeared from the race. It was clear now that Sidhu was trying to project himself as future CM of Punjab and when he saw present CM Channi calling shots and building a distinct image, he brazenly resigned as PCC President.

The meeting between CM Charanjit Singh Channi and PCC President Navjot Singh Sidhu, arranged after a number of MLAs called up both leaders to find an amicable solution, has brought some thaw in ties but Sidhu hasn’t announced withdrawal of resignation. The meeting had been held to negotiate a peace deal to run the government. After staying put at his residence in Patiala following his resignation, Sidhu came to meet Channi in the presence of Congress central observer Harish Chaudhary. Pargat Singh, who is a close aide of Sidhu and a Cabinet Minister, was also part of the meeting that was held following an invitation from Channi.

After the meeting, Jakhar raised a question – ‘Is it finally truce now, armistice sealed? Or is it only a temporary ceasefire?’   To give a different twist,  Sunil Jakhar later said that he was referring to the situation at Line of Actual Control (LAC) after the recent “Chinese intrusion into our territory”. “No inferences please,” he said in the tweet posted on his official handle.  As the drama continued, Jakhar tweeted: “Enough is enough. Put an end to attempts to undermine the authority of CM time and again. Aspersions being cast on selection of AG & DGP is actually questioning the integrity/competence of CM and Home Minister to deliver results. It’s time to put the foot down and clear the air.”

Softening his stance, the Punjab CM agreed and a panel of 10 officials was sent to the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) for the appointment of a regular director general of police (DGP). According to information, the 10 names sent include 1986-batch IPS
officer S Chattopadhya, incumbent DGP Dinkar Gupta (1987), MK Tiwari, VK Bhawra, Parbodh Kumar, Rohit Chaudhary, IPS Sahota, Sanjeev Kalra, Parag Jain (on central deputation) and BK Uppal.  There is buzz in corridors of power that Chattopadhaya is a hot-favourite of Sidhu. The UPSC will return a panel of three officials after considering
their service record and the other necessary requirements. Of these three, the state has to select one officer for the top job.

However, the government has made up its mind to replace incumbent DGP Dinkar Gupta, who has proceeded on a month’s leave after which the charge of the office was given to IPS Sahota.  Now, it is awaiting the Centre’s clearance to a panel of three names from which the new DGP would be appointed, a statement from the Chief Minister’s Office (CMO)
said. The name would be finalised after consultation with Sidhu, all the ministers and MLAs, the CMO statement added.  In an attempt to placate him, the Channi government appointed R.S. Bains as Special Public Prosecutor to handle all the sacrilege-related cases.

Significantly, the PCC Chief Navjot Singh Sidhu who had quit taking the “moral high ground” over certain key posts going to “tainted” people is yet to come clear about his status. However, he has in fact added more mist to the hazy political scenario with his message that he would stand by the Gandhis, “post or no post”.