CHANDIGARH/NEW DELHI: In a switch hit that left Congress on a sticky wicket in Punjab again, cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu quit as PCC chief on Tuesday, followed by the resignation of new minister Razia Sultana “in solidarity” with him. Gulzar Inder Singh Chahal, who was made PCC treasurer soon after Sidhu took over, also put in his papers along with general secretary Yoginder Dhingra.
“The collapse of 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 president of the Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee. Will continue to serve the Congress,” Sidhu said in his resignation letter to Congress president Sonia Gandhi, shortly after allocation of portfolios to new CM Charanjit Singh Channi’s cabinet.
Minister Razia Sultana, who had been allocated the water supply and sanitation, social security, women and child development portfolios, said in her resignation that she would “continue to work for the party as a worker in the best interest of Punjab”. Her husband Mohammad Mustafa, a retired IPS officer, had been appointed principal strategic adviser by Sidhu soon after taking over as the PCC chief.
“Certain decisions were taken which were not liked by the PPCC president (Sidhu)… I did not know about his decision, but such a situation was emerging,” Mustafa said before meeting Sidhu later in the day.
By evening, there was apprehension that more Sidhu loyalists, including hockey Olympian-turned-minister Pargat Singh and working president Kuljit Singh Nagra would put in their papers. Pargat visited Sidhu at his home in Patiala, but denied he had at any time indicated he would quit.
Sources said Sidhu, who took over as state Congress chief in July, was miffed at not having a say in some key decisions taken over the last few days such as the inclusion of former minister Rana Gurjit Singh in the reconstituted cabinet, the appointment of APS Deol as the new advocate general, the choice of IPS Sahota as the acting DGP, and the allocation of the home portfolio to deputy CM Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa.
CM Channi, who was scheduled to address the media on the farmers’ agitation, said he was unaware of Sidhu’s resignation. “Let me speak to him. I don’t know yet. He is a good leader, our president. He did not speak to me… But we will settle it.”
Sources said the Congress central leadership was keen to put Sidhu in check after resentment within the party over the PCC chief getting the chairman of the Amritsar Improvement Trust replaced immediately after the change of guard in Punjab. The central leadership also wanted to be sure that Sidhu allowed CM Channi to work independently. It was for these reasons that many of Channi’s preferences prevailed, which ultimately seem to have provoked Sidhu, party insiders said.
After Captain Amarinder Singh stepped down as CM on September 18, the party had struggled to pick his successor, then the ministers, and finally their portfolios. With Sidhu precipitating a new crisis ahead of assembly polls in early 2022, there is now a question mark on his role in the party.
He had earlier preferred to lie low after quitting Amarinder’s cabinet in 2019, when his portfolio was changed. Sidhu returned to the centrestage last year with a group of MLAs rallying behind him to demand that the party must fulfil its pending promises on priority. It was their relentless campaign that led to Amarinder’s ouster earlier this month. However, the dissidents’ victory only served to highlight the differences between the leaders, who had rallied together to remove Amarinder.
“Sidhu does not want to compromise on corruption. Who will defend these acts of the government done in the last five days? It is no less than corruption,” one of his confidants said.
Sidhu and his loyalists have made it clear that they are staying with Congress for now, although there are a few possibilities beyond that. First, with Amarinder telling reporters that the leadership should accept Sidhu’s resignation, there were rumours that he could meet Sonia on Wednesday. This could not be confirmed independently.
Congress, on the face of it, is giving the impression that it is letting the state unit resolve the issue at its end. However, AICC general secretary Harish Rawat and some senior leaders are said to be at work to persuade Sidhu. If Sidhu agrees to talk, Congress would be tested about the possible resolution. A compromise by changing the appointments may placate Sidhu but would compromise the position of Channi.
If Sidhu decides to step out of Congress, the party risks losing ministers and MLAs who may go with him, which may shift the focus completely from the new chief minister. Congress had planned to use the change to win over voters. This might mean a prolonged crisis.
Amid the anxiousness in the Channi government over Sidhu’s resignation, the council of ministers will hold a meeting on Wednesday morning. The agenda for the meeting will be circulated on the spot.