Punjab Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh and Punjab Congress president Navjot Singh Sidhu were in chorus but not in sync on Friday. Even as the party high command managed to bring the two warring leaders together on the same stage, both were so near yet so far away.
Despite being in close company of each other throughout the day, very few words were exchanged and gestures were missing — indicating the still strained relations and absence of bonhomie. And among the words that were spoken, veiled attacks were made against one another.
Displaying no regret or excuse of all the “personal attacks” he made against his own Chief Minister, Sidhu declared that he got “thick skinned”. In fact, in his maiden speech as Punjab Congress chief, Sidhu did not spare his own party’s Government for inaction in several sensitive issues, including sacrilege and drugs, among others. On the podium, he sought the blessings of leaders sitting a couple of seats next to Capt Amarinder, while gliding past him.
On the other hand, Congress stalwart Capt Amarinder also made an attempt to raise a subject, considered close to Sidhu’s heart — “threat” posed by Pakistan in Punjab.
“From Gurdaspur to Fazilka, Punjab shares a long border with Pakistan which keeps trying to create disturbances here. We have to work together against such forces, not just for Punjab but for India,” Capt Amarinder said while asking the new Congress chief to work together.
The invocation of the ‘Pakistan threat’ was a veiled attack on Sidhu. Notably, Sidhu, during his tenure as Cabinet Minister in the current Government, had hit the headlines for visiting Pakistan to attend Imran Khan’s swearing in ceremony where he hugged Pak Army chief — an act strongly condemned by a large section of people, including Capt Amarinder.
Besides, for Sidhu, a major achievement has been how his personal appeal to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan was crucial in the opening up of the Kartarpur Sahib corridor — a long-standing demand of the Sikh community which has won Sidhu a great deal of goodwill.
Earlier, the two leaders come together on the same table during a high-tea by the Chief Minister, hours ahead of Sidhu’s installation ceremony - signalling a thaw in the strained relationship between them.
Even though Sidhu arrived at the venue first, he left for a brief period after Capt Amarinder reached Punjab Bhawan. He later rejoined the gathering and went into the room to greet the Punjab Chief Minister. Both the leaders then sat together for a tea alongside All India Congress Committee (AICC) general secretary in-charge of Punjab affairs Harish Rawat. Senior Congress leaders Manish Tewari, Partap Singh Bajwa, and Lal Singh were also present.
According to a video from the event, Sidhu greeted Capt Amarinder with folded hands and broke the ice by saying: “How are you, Sir? Such a pleasure.”
Sidhu was about to sit across the table from Capt Amarinder, who was already seated, but was asked to sit next to the Chief Minister. The leaders, swarmed with other party leaders, were seen exchanging a few words as Capt Amarinder looked and pointed at his watch while speaking to Sidhu.
Even as the two leaders were sitting next to one another — on both occasions at high-tea at Punjab Bhawan and later on the stage, both were not at ease.
However, the party workers are hoping Sidhu’s elevation and Capt Amarinder’s participation at the event brings back cohesion in the Punjab Congress.
Tension between Capt Amarinder and Sidhu flared up in April after the Punjab and Haryana High Court quashed a probe report on a 2015 police firing incident in Kotkapura and other places following the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib.
SIDHU’S FATHER BROUGHT ME INTO POLITICS
Striking a nostalgic note, Capt Amarinder recalled his Patiala ties with Sidhu family. “I was commissioned in the Army, the year Sidhu was born... When my mother asked me to enter politics, his (Sidhu’s) father helped me. I used to go to his house when he (Sidhu) was about six years old,” he said.
A day after softening his stance towards Sidhu by deciding to attend the PPCC team’s installation ceremony, Capt Amarinder struck a conciliatory note in his address to party workers, saying, “It is your responsibility to support the party president.”
At the same time, the Chief Minister urged the party workers to extend full support to the new State president. “We will move together in politics. We have to think of Punjab’s welfare... We have to bring people together,” he said, addressing Sidhu. Brushing aside the speculation that he was “sulking”, Capt Amarinder said that the moment Congress president Sonia Gandhi told me that Navjot Sidhu will be the State Congress president, “I accepted it”.
The Chief Minister also took the opportunity to highlight the Punjab pride and the Congress government’s achievements. “The state emerged number one in the fight against COVID and was rated first in primary education besides making the biggest contribution to the country’s food bowl,” he said.
Also referring to the sacrilege issue in his speech, Capt Amarinder said that challans have been filed in these cases. “The issue of Bargari, Kotkapura, and Behbal Kalan had been raised. These issues are related to law. Challans have been filed in these cases. It takes time,” he said in an apparent response to the criticism of his Government in the alleged delay in justice in the matter. He said he had promised Punjab not to spare anyone who was involved in these incidents.
DO AWAY WITH RED TAPISM: JAKHAR TO SIDHU
Stating that red-tapism damaged the morale of Congress workers, the outgoing state Congress president Sunil Jakhar told Sidhu that it was his “unfinished” agenda.
“The Congress regime is suffering due to red tape. Captain takes well meaning decisions but it gets lost in the bureaucracy,” he said, adding that everything shouldn’t be left to bureaucrats. He also criticised the Captain regime for not doing enough to punish those behind the Bargari sacrilege and Kotkapura firings. “Our Guru has been insulted and those behind it need to be punished. Remember the road to power in Punjab passes through Bargari and Kotkapura,” he said. Looking at All India Congress Committee general secretary and Punjab affairs in-charge Harish Rawat, Jakhar said: “Rawat ji please tell (Congress interim president) Sonia (Gandhi) ji that revival of the Congress goes through Punjab.”
LION REMAINS A LION...NEVER GROWS OLD: RAWAT
“One thing I know is that a lion remains a lion, he never grows old. At heart, a lion remains a king,” said Punjab party affairs in-charge Harish Rawat, stressing that he and the Congress workers know that the Chief Minister Capt Amarinder will take everyone along and ensure the party’s victory. Pointing towards Capt Amarinder, who was sitting next to Sidhu, Rawat said that he was in awe of his magnanimity. “You are one such person whom we always look up to for inspiration. The way you fought for farmers’ rights and poor sections and the way you have taken steps for the welfare of various sections needs to be lauded,” he said.