Congress leaders didn’t take long to respond actively to the killing of farmers in Lakhimpur Kheri district of Uttar Pradesh. Protesting against her detention in Sitapur, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra displayed no qualms in picking up the broomstick to “clean” the guest-house, video-clipping of which didn’t take long to go viral. Adamance displayed by Rahul and Priyanka in not giving in to attempts made to prevent from reaching Lakhimpur and meeting relatives of those killed received substantial media coverage. Perhaps, stunned by a sudden U-turn in political tidings of two siblings, BJP leaders had to give in to their demand to visit Lakhimpur. Paradoxically, despite Congress base in UP being extremely weak, the party leaders appear to have acted fairly wisely in leaving nothing to chance while responding to the Lakhimpur Kheri-case. As of now, chances of communication strategies put to use here cannot be expected of much help in translating into Congress faring well in the UP Assembly elections. But yes, these have certainly subdued the noise being made over Congress facing a major crisis, a weak leadership and so forth in linkage with Punjab politicking. Congress has a lot at stake in Punjab but almost nothing in UP. And this demands deliberation on yet another side of Congress-politics displayed in UP and in Punjab. Clearly, Congress seems without any strong regional leader in UP. The situation is opposite in Punjab. Besides, chances of BJP being pushed out of power soon in UP seem remote, the same may be said about it assuming power in Punjab. There is nothing puzzling about Congress facing a dilemma in Punjab, when viewed through the “democratic” lens. It is debatable whether Congress high command “erred”, or not, in giving a little too much importance to regional leaders in Punjab, specifically Navjot Singh Sidhu. Democratically speaking, perhaps, Congress leaders couldn’t afford to ignore the manner in which Sidhu was raising his voice and also receiving media coverage.
Yet, it seems, the Gandhi siblings chose not to yield to all of Sidhu’s political tantrums. This was reflected in opting for a least expected person to take over from Captain Amarinder Singh as Chief Minister, Charanjit Singh Channi. It is possible that the negative criticism faced by Congress leaders, due to Sidhu’s style of politicking, has made the Gandhi siblings a little wiser about not yielding too much political space to party politicians fond of making too much noise and also being experts at gaining media coverage. Of course, the situation would have been different if Sidhu was not a celebrity and fairly clever at turning media attention in his direction.
Besides, media attention can never be a guarantee to earning electoral support. Presumably, this reality cautioned the Gandhi-family in choosing not to concede to Sidhu’s desire of succeeding Captain Amarinder Singh as Punjab Chief Minister. That would have angered the Captain, whose wife Preneet Kaur is a Congress MP from Patiala district even further. While expressing concern over her husband being “humiliated” in the party, she specified that she was not leaving the Congress “as of now”. In addition, Congress leaders cannot be oblivious of the strong support enjoyed by the Captain amidst the protesting farmers and in Punjab. Negative campaigning indulged against him by Sidhu and his political camp is not likely to turn voters against the Captain.
The Captain has not refrained from sending alarm signals to the Congress High Command through his meetings with Home Minister Amit Shah and later scheduled with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Prospects of BJP making any gains in Punjab on its own strength are extremely limited. Nevertheless, the party leaders will be delighted if the Congress fails to return to power. In all probability, Captain is least likely to reveal his actual political plans till the very last minute. He will keep his own cards close to chest and meticulously observe Sidhu’s “tactics”, with his priorities likely to be decided by the latter’s success/failure. Compared to Sidhu, Captain is a far more seasoned politician and is apparently more confident about his political strategies without banking primarily on making loud noises as well as media coverage.
Notwithstanding all the criticism faced by Congress leadership about their “handling” of the Punjab-crisis, there is another angle to it. Democratically speaking, would it have been fair on their part to sideline Sidhu? In all probability, the situation may have worsened, perhaps led to a more pronounced split within the Punjab wing of the Congress. The same has apparently been averted with the resignation of the Captain, though this move could have been handled in a better manner. Similarly, the selection of his successor may also be viewed as an astute electoral strategy, from two angles—that of playing on the Dalit-vote bank and secondly of not further alienating Captain Amarinder Singh.
Paradoxically, while the Gandhi family hasn’t been spared criticism for its handling of the Punjab-crisis, little importance has been accorded to the limited options they had and to the democratic cards exercised in the process. Interestingly, their handling of the Lakhimpur Kheri-case has earned them laurels. Their moves, particularly of Priyanka using broomstick, have certainly gone a long way in enhancing their democratic image. True, “democratic” cards exercised by the party high-command seem to have limited relevance when viewed in light of the party leadership being confined to Gandhi-family. This may be analysed from two angles. Their decision to step aside is likely to lead to intra-party bickering at all levels. The party-crisis witnessed in Punjab may be replayed in all the states and of course at the national level. Also, if instead of the Gandhi siblings, other party members had stepped forward in Lakhimpur-Kheri, Congress’ moves would not have probably attracted much attention. Besides, compared to the nature of the “dictates” issued by BJP’s central leadership, adherence to at least some democratic norms by Congress leaders must not be ignored.