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The Big Story: Refraction

“Whatever the Bharatiya Janata Party can do, we can do… worse?” That does seem to be the message coming out of the Congress right now.

Last week, we discussed the BJP’s sudden replacement of the chief minister in Gujarat, picking first-time Member of the Legislative Assembly Bhupendra Patel to ostensibly address the unpopularity of Vijay Rupani.

Over the last few months, the BJP had made similar moves in three other states as well – all of which are due for elections next year. These changes, driven by the party high command in Delhi, appeared to be a way of addressing the discontent caused by Covid-19 and economic mismanagement, while also attempting to shift the blame onto state leaders and protect the image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

On Saturday, Amarinder Singh – popularly known as “Captain” – stepped down as chief minister of Punjab, minutes before a scheduled meeting of the Congress Legislature Party, where it was widely expected that MLAs would withdraw their support for him.

“I have resigned,” Singh told the media. “I spoke to the Congress president in the morning. I told her I am resigning. Apparently they [the Congress high command] do not have confidence in me and did not think that I could handle my job. I felt humiliated at the manner in which they handled the whole affair.”

On Sunday evening, after much drama and several names did the rounds, the party selected Charanjit Singh Channi to replace Amarinder Singh as chief minister until elections early next year. Channi is Punjab’s first Dalit chief minister, breaking the traditional stranglehold Jat Sikhs have had on the post – in a state with the highest percentage of Dalits, nearly one-third of the population.

In some ways, the developments in Punjab are similar to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s tactics in Gujarat, Uttarakhand and elsewhere. The Congress seems to have realised that the incumbent chief minister was deeply unpopular. Opinion surveys reflected the public mood. Elections are due by February 2022.

As with the BJP efforts, decision-making for Punjab appears to broadly be driven by the high command. Within the Congress, this is short-hand for the Gandhis: interim President Sonia Gandhi, former president Rahul Gandhi, and general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra.

But there is a limit to the comparisons.

First, while dramatic, there was nothing surprising about “Captain” having to step down. Amarinder Singh has seemed to have his back against the wall for months now. The Congress leadership had to step in just two months ago to install former cricketer Navjot Singh Sidhu, who was once a member of the BJP, as head of the party’s state unit. By doing so, the Congress went against Amarinder Singh’s wishes.

As a member of an erstwhile “royal family” and an army man who managed to buckle the Modi trend and lead the Congress to power in Punjab in 2017, Amarinder Singh has a distinguished record – one that endears him to the national media in Delhi, in particular. This explains, to some extent, the pervasive line from many in the national press that Singh has been mistreated by the Congress.

But by all measures, his popularity in the state had plummeted over the last few years. This trend was attributed to his failure to take on the state’s drug mafia, to go after the Badals – the family that leads the Shiromani Akali Dal, the party that had been voted out of power due to its perceived corruption in 2017 – and his inability to deliver on promises about jobs and welfare.

“Captain’s regime has been facing protests from several groups – from government employees, to para-teachers, farmers, ASHA workers, unemployed youth, Dalit groups, to name a few,” wrote the Quint’s Aditya Menon. “Though the protests against the three farm laws are directed mainly at the Centre, they did create a general atmosphere of dissatisfaction against political parties and this also affected the sentiment regarding Captain.”

Second, because all of this is playing out in public, there is nothing smooth about this transition. In Gujarat, the BJP sacked not just the chief minister but also replaced every single minister. There was discontentment over this decision, but it appeared to last a day. In Assam, a chief minister who had successfully won re-election stepped aside to make way for another BJP leader, even though they are broadly of the same generation.

In Punjab, the sniping doesn’t look likely to end anytime soon. Amarinder Singh is holding out the threat of jumping to another party and unlikely to stay quiet in the run-up to elections.

Third, one of the reasons for the previous two points is the complicated role played by the high command. In the BJP, Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah have the final say on all matters. This is not simply because they run a centralised ship, but because nearly ever BJP leader relies on the prime minister’s appeal to paper over what may be state-level cracks. Since popularity flows downstream from Modi, as we discussed last week, this leads to a cycle in which the BJP can choose weaker state leaders and dispose of them with relative ease.

Much in the Congress too relies on the Gandhis’ seal of approval. But popularity doesn’t flow out of the high command. Meaning, state-level leaders cannot rely solely on the appeal of the Gandhis to draw in a huge number of votes or add to their margins. The result is an awkward situation where the Gandhis are seen as the glue holding the party together, but do not always have the authority to enforce their decisions in the manner that Modi and Shah are able to.

Of course, the massive treasure chest advantage held by the BJP, as recently reported on by the Print, undoubtedly makes it easier to enforce the writ of its high command in various ways.

Over the last few months, despite the big question of a permanent president within the Congress being left open (we wrote about this last November), the party has made relatively more decisive moves. This includes giving Sidhu a bigger role in Punjab and now picking a Dalit chief minister for the state.

Yet even this burst of assertion leaves plenty of unresolved resentment. There are the questions raised by the G-23, a group of senior leaders who demanded major changes after the party’s drubbing in 2019, and the awkward situations in the two other states run by the party, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, where factionalism continues to simmer.

Perhaps the most apt comparison to the BJP lies in Karnataka, where Modi and Shah were able to convince BS Yediyurappa – who commands his own base in the state – to step away from the chief ministerial post, but were forced to pick a recent BJP entrant from his camp to replace him. They have been unable to stifle the murmurs coming from other factions hoping to secure a bigger role for themselves since.

What will the Congress decision in Punjab actually achieve?

Similar to the calculations of the BJP in the states where it replaced chief ministers ahead of elections, the Congress will be hoping that doing away with the unpopular Amarinder Singh might stem the flow of support away from the party.

An ABP-CVoter survey released earlier this month projected the Congress losing half of its seats in the upcoming assembly elections. It suggested that the Aam Aadmi Party – which came in a distant second in 2017 – would be the closest to a simple majority in the state. With a young face in the chief minister’s chair and Sidhu as state unit head, can the party claw some of that support back?

Were AAP to win, that would give the party its first victory outside Delhi and its first chance to run a full-fledged state, That would be a huge shot in the arm for other contests. Indeed, the ABP-CVoter survey predicts significant enough numbers for the Aam Aadmi Party not just in Punjab, but also in Goa and Uttarakhand, where it is projected to split anti-incumbency votes away from the Congress.

But the Punjab decision may also turn the spotlight back on Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, where the High Command has had to step in over the last 12 months to broker truces between factions. Will the success of the anti-Amarinder Singh camp empower factions in these states, or will the decisive High Command be better placed to stamp out any hint of rebellion?

As Rasheed Kidwai writes,

“Punjab’s Congress developments are a stern warning to Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot who has done everything possible to belittle the high command. The Gandhis have been at their wit’s end to make Gehlot agree to expand his council of ministers, accommodate some supporters of Sachin Pilot. Gehlot has been delaying and avoiding. Congress insiders say the day is not far when two central observers would visit Jaipur to do the headcount.

Developments in Chandigarh have shown that essentially Congress MLAs are loyal to Gandhis than to any regional satraps. Those occupying seats of power in Jaipur and Raipur should take note of it.

Linking Out

  • Read Arunabh Saikia’s important new series on the narrative that UP Chief Minister Adityanath has turned around the law and order situation in the state, one of the key planks on which the BJP will be campaigning.
  • Shoaib Daniyal on the disturbingly commonplace calls for economic boycott and further ghettoisation of India’s Muslim population.
  • The big global story of the week was the disagreeably named AUKUS partnership between the US, Australia and the UK, that would see Canberra be given nuclear-powered submarine technology to beef up deterrence against China in contested Indo-Pacific waters. The partnership made news not just because of its impact on the Indo-Pacific but also because of who was left out – France, whose arrangement to provide submarines to Australia was ripped up to make space for the other one. We’ll have more on this, and its impact on India’s Indo-Pacific over the coming week, when Prime Minister Modi is set to visit the US for an in-person gathering of leaders of the Quad.

  • Former Indian ambassador to Afghanistan Gautam Mukhopadhaya argues that New Delhi could take a more pro-resistance step by “hosting an Afghan parliament or even a government in exile, as we do for the Tibetans.”
  • Neelanjan Sircar argues, in an important essay, that “the sheer scale of government intrusions and control over the media emboldens it to strategically deploy misleading information – what is often called disinformation – to develop a national narrative supportive of the ruling BJP and Hindu nationalist ideology, as well as to harass government critic and the Muslim community in India”, and that this presents a danger to India’s democracy.

Can’t make this up

Less humour and more wonder in this week’s can’t-make-this-up section, courtesy Krish Ashok:

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