Having learnt a bitter lesson in Assam, the Congress leadership has finally woken up to the need of putting its house in order, at least in one state.

As a first step in this direction, the process of overhauling the faction-ridden party unit in Punjab has picked up pace over the past few days. Displaying a rare sense of urgency, both Congress president Sonia Gandhi and vice-president Rahul Gandhi have met former Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh and the beleaguered Punjab Congress president Pratap Singh Bajwa to discuss the proposed changes in the state unit. A new team is now being finalised and is likely to be announced within the next couple of days.

The names being considered for state president’s job include former Union ministers Ambika Soni and Manish Tewari, MLA Sunil Jakhar, Youth Congress president Amarinder Singh Raja Brar, and Ludhiana MP Ravneet Singh Bittu, grandson of slain Punjab Chief Minister Beant Singh.

Among them, Tewari and Jakhar are known to be close to Amarinder Singh. Soni had also been his ardent supporter but she is learnt to have fallen out with the former chief minister nearly a year ago. Bittu is considered a strong possibility if the party decides to opt for a young face. He will also pose no threat to Amarinder Singh and will be amenable to follow his lead.

The former chief minister is not being considered for the job as the party does not want to give the impression that it has succumbed to pressure. However, it is willing to appoint Amarinder Singh as the chairman of a proposed campaign committee on the understanding that he will be the party’s chief ministerial candidate. He had steadfastly opposed this proposal so far, making it clear that he could not work with Bajwa.

Party in crisis mode

Since Punjab has a Sikh majority, the state Congress president is usually picked from this community. However, the party leadership is toying with the idea of appointing a Hindu as state party chief this time with an eye on the non-Sikh voters in Punjab, who have veered towards the Bharatiya Janata Party. Given the substantial population of Scheduled Castes, the party wants to give representation to its Dalit leaders in the new team.

The Congress has witnessed frenetic activity over the last few days as the main players in Punjab Congress were summoned to Delhi for consultations. It is now becoming evident that Bajwa will be replaced and that a new “please-all” team will be put in place to get the party in shape for the next assembly polls.

The party’s Punjab unit has been in crisis mode ever since Amarinder Singh began a rebellion against Bajwa nearly a year ago. The former chief minister wants the job for himself, failing which he would like his nominee to be appointed Punjab Congress president. He has been pressing the Congress leadership to give MLA Sunil Jakhar the post. With Punjab set to go to polls in 2017, the demand for Bajwa’s removal became more strident in recent months.

However, the leadership issue remained unresolved all these months as Rahul Gandhi showed a marked preference for Bajwa. He was also upset with Amarinder Singh for exerting undue pressure on them by holding parallel programmes in the state to showcase his support among the MLAs and party workers.

Big jolt in Assam

Rahul Gandhi remained unmoved even though there were indications that the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal had extended an open invitation to Amarinder Singh to join their party. Alternatively, it was suggested that Amarinder Singh could form his own party and that the Akalis could lend covert support to it.

Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi woke up to the crisis in Punjab only after Congress rebel and former Assam minister Himanta Biswa Sarma walked out of the party and joined the Bharatiya Janata party less than a year before the assembly polls.

Like Amarinder Singh, Sarma had also been pressing for a leadership change in the state on the plea that the Congress will not be able to come back to power in the next assembly polls under the leadership of three-time Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi. As in the case of Assam, it was Rahul Gandhi who insisted that Gogoi should not be removed. He was also convinced that the rebellion helmed by Sarma would peter out. As it happened, the Congress leadership was taken aback when Sarma left the party.

It was imperative for the Congress to get its act together in Punjab as this is the first state where the party can hope to regain ground after its mauling in the last Lok Sabha polls. The party has little chance of a victory or a respectable result in the coming assembly polls in Bihar and next year’s elections in Assam and Kerala. The Congress believes it can dethrone the two-term Akali-BJP government as the current dispensation has become extremely unpopular while the Aam Admi Party in Punjab is in a shambles. But to do that, the Congress has to first put an end to the infighting in its state unit and project a united face.