Features | Politics | South Asia

Congress Party Chaos in Punjab

Punjab is a microcosm of both the Congress party’s problems and those of the Indian opposition more broadly.

Congress Party Chaos in Punjab

A more hopeful time: In late January 2017, Congress party Vice President Rahul Gandhi, center, joins hands and raises them with then-former chief minister of Punjab state Amarinder Singh, second right, former Indian cricketer Navjot Singh Sidhu, second left, and other party leaders during an election campaign rally in Amritsar, India.

Credit: AP Photo/Prabhjot Gill

The Indian National Congress has not had many bright spots since Narendra Modi’s blowout election victory in 2014 catapulted his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to the top of Indian politics. One of the rare occasions was in 2017, when it won state elections in Punjab. But recent turmoil threatens to undo whatever progress Congress made during the Punjab polls.

The former chief minister of Punjab, Amarinder Singh, and the current president of the Punjab Congress Committee, Navjot Sidhu, spent the summer locking horns with one another. On September 19, Singh retired. Sidhu is threatening to retire. The Punjab Congress Party looks set to join the same tailspin the national party has been in for years. 

Through all the chaos in the Congress Party over the past several years, from the back to back blowouts in 2014 and 2019 general elections to its shellacking in legislative elections across the country, Singh has not just been a fairly able administrator but has also been one of the nation’s most visible and well-respected Congress leaders. Unfortunately, the chaos over the past few weeks has upended regional politics and damaged the Congress’ chance of winning the upcoming election in Punjab, while giving another regional party a probably political foothold in Punjab.

The trouble started with the appointment of Navjot Sidhu as president of the Punjab Congress Party. Sidhu is well known in India: he started as a cricket player, spent some time as a TV personality, and was a BJP member of Parliament until 2016. In 2017, he quit the BJP, joined the Congress party, and is currently a member of the Punjab state legislative assembly. However, Sidhu has had his share of controversies, many of which have been dredged up over the past few months. These include hugging the Pakistani Army Chief at Prime Minister Imran Khan’s inauguration to being photographed with a Khalistani seperatist based in Pakistan.

Although Sidhu briefly served in Singh’s cabinet, the two were never close. Sidhu frequently attacked the government and Singh maintained reservations about Sidhu due to the aforementioned controversies and more. Sidhu and Singh both met with the party President Sonia Gandhi to try to find a solution to their feud, but were unable to chart a mutually beneficial path forward.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Singh resigned as chief minister after what he called a humiliating process and accused Sidhu of being dangerous for the country due to his closeness to Pakistan. Singh further declared that when Sidhu runs in the next election, Singh would find a candidate to run against him. Finally, Singh has said that he is leaving the Congress party and some believe he may start his own political outfit backed by the BJP after being photographed with Home Minister Amit Shah. 

Sidhu also attempted to resign, but unlike Singh he was unsuccessful after the party rejected his resignation. The initial attempt led to mockery from Singh, but the fact it was offered to begin with shows how little it was worth in the end. At the end of a tumultuous few months, the entire drama seems to have been for nothing. 

The only thing it has done is make the Congress’ polling for the 2022 election even worse than it was before. The BJP is effectively frozen out of the race in the agriculture-heavy state due to the unpopular farm laws. Prior to these months of turmoil, polls were fairly split between the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), but now the Congress is expected to lose the election to the AAP, a regional newcomer currently led by Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal.

In a way, the political crisis in Punjab is reflective of broader political changes across India, in particular the Congress party’s inability to consolidate a pan-India opposition and the way in which it is slowly but surely being replaced across the country by alternative parties.

Since 2014, India has not had a leader of the opposition in the Lower House of the Parliament. While the role is ceremonial, it reflects a broader change within the Indian polity: in neither 2014 nor 2019 was the Indian National Congress able to get even 10 percent of the seats in the election. 2019 was supposed to be the election where the Congress made a comeback, but the party has been unable to organize itself around one leader and has been wracked with turmoil as a result. 

Leadership, or a lack thereof, is one significant issue for the Congress party. Former President Rahul Gandhi resigned his presidency of the party in 2019 after that year’s electoral drubbing and his mother, who held the role from 1998-2017, stepped back in as interim president. The party has intended to elect a new president, but that election has continually been pushed back. Some wonder if Rahul Gandhi will slide back into the leadership despite his especially poor favorability and back-to-back rejections by the national electorate. 

Since 2019, Congress should have been laser focused on winning state elections and growing the party nationally. Instead, there has been defection after defection and electoral loss after electoral loss. The party still has no full time president and the next set of state elections next year is rapidly approaching,  many of which are seen as foregone losses for the Congress party. 

This is where the second point comes in: Congress is being replaced as the main opposition party in regions across India. There are numerous breakaway parties from the Congress and some of them are beginning to grow even larger. In West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) is one such example of a breakaway party. Fresh off of beating the BJP in last year’s state election, the TMC has inducted several former Congress Party members into its ranks in Goa and is looking to do the same in Meghalaya. In the upcoming elections, Congress is not expected to be a significant force in either Gujarat or India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, and while the opposition parties may not win, they will in all likelihood do better than the party responsible for Indian independence.

The Congress’ travails also illustrate why it’ll be a tough battle for anti-Modi forces in 2024, when India is next scheduled for a general election. The only way to any kind of victory is strong unity across the entire opposition and that is the one thing that still doesn’t seem to exist. The Congress party can’t keep its own governments functioning in the states where it does rule, and is wedded to a historically unpopular leader and family that is liked less and less across India with each passing day. Congress is the only party other than the BJP with a preexisting pan-national infrastructure, but has spent the last three years destroying it. In terms of a broader opposition, the picture is no better with parties spending more time stealing leaders from each other than working toward a unified opposition strategy.

The recent events in Punjab are a microcosm of the chaos of the Congress party and the broader Indian opposition.