Hits and Misses

Navjot Singh Sidhu’s play for power in Punjab

Navjot Singh Sidhu after a meeting with Sonia Gandhi at her residence, 10 Janpath, on 16 July 2021 in Delhi, India. Within three days, the Congress announced Sidhu’s appointment as the head of its Punjab unit. AJAY AGGARWAL/HINDUSTAN TIMES/GETTY IMAGES
Navjot Singh Sidhu after a meeting with Sonia Gandhi at her residence, 10 Janpath, on 16 July 2021 in Delhi, India. Within three days, the Congress announced Sidhu’s appointment as the head of its Punjab unit. AJAY AGGARWAL/HINDUSTAN TIMES/GETTY IMAGES
31 January, 2022

“SUKHI PAAJI, even if I become the CM, you will only run the government. So you only take over as the CM,” Navjot Singh Sidhu told Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa on a chaotic day in the Congress’ Punjab unit, a party member who was present during the conversation recalled. “Let’s announce.”

It was 19 September 2021, a day after Amarinder Singh, the Congress leader and two-time chief minister of Punjab, resigned from his post following messy infighting in the party’s state unit. The rebellion against Amarinder was led by Sidhu, who had been appointed as chief of the state unit in July that year, and Randhawa, an old Congress hand and three-time member of legislative assembly for Gurdaspur. The Congress member who was present told me on condition of anonymity that, in the early hours of 19 September, Sidhu appeared convinced that Randhawa should get the chief minister’s post.

Congress MLAs were running in and out of Chandigarh’s JW Marriot hotel and each other’s homes that day to lobby for their preferred choice of chief minister. Sidhu, Randhawa and some other Congress leaders were at the Marriot, along with three party members that the party’s high command—the Gandhi family—had appointed to monitor the selection process. According to the Congress member present there, one of the observers clarified that they were looking to install a chief minister for just five months, as Sidhu would definitely be the party’s chief ministerial candidate for the assembly elections coming up in 2022.

Sunil Jakhar, a former president of the state unit, told me that to settle the matter, the observers called up all of the party’s MLAs to take a vote. Jakhar said that the last time such a vote took place in the Punjab Congress was in 1977. He recalled the final tally for the 2021 vote: “Forty-two, I got. Sixteen, Sukhjinder Randhawa got. Twelve votes, maharani Preneet Kaur got.” Preneet, a member of parliament from Patiala, is married to Amarinder. Jakhar added that Charanjit Channi, then a state minister and formerly leader of the opposition in the state assembly, got two votes. “And … seems like Sidhu got six.”

By then, Sidhu had had a change of heart. “Neither Sukhi, nor Jakhar. Make me the CM,” he said, according to the Congress member present. Jakhar, a Punjabi Hindu, told me that his fellow party leaders decided against installing a Hindu chief minister in a Sikh-majority state. “Sunil ko bana diya to aag lag jaaegi Punjab mein”—If Sunil is made the chief minister, it will set fire in Punjab—Jakhar recalled them saying. He pointed out that creating a Hindu–Sikh binary in Punjab equalled “othering a whole community.”

Sidhu threw a tantrum. “If the party has many options, I also have many,” the Congress member present recalled Sidhu saying. “I know what to do. I am very clear.” Again, a meeting was held. The observers pointed out to Sidhu that Amarinder had also been ousted after gauging the preferences of the majority of the state unit. “He kicked open the door to his room and said, ‘Let’s pack our bags. Let’s go,’” the Congress member present said. Sidhu was then made to speak to Rahul Gandhi, the member added. “But he was very angry and made no effort to hide the same. The call got dropped because of network issues midway. There was no call back.” Sidhu left the Marriot at about 1.45 pm.

Meanwhile, the Congress prepared to announce Randhawa as the new chief minister. The Congress member present told me that, at about 2.20 pm, “I saw instructions being given to type a letter in the name of Randhawa.” MLAs headed to Randhawa’s home to celebrate his victory. Close to 3.15 pm, the Congress member Pritam Kotbhai even told the media that all MLAs had chosen Randhawa and he would be the next chief minister.

But the Congress pivoted. The Gandhis did not want to lose Sidhu. The high command spoke to Manpreet Singh Badal, the state finance minister, who suggested picking a candidate from a Scheduled Caste community to make a national impression, the Congress member present told me. What’s more, the Scheduled Castes form nearly a third of Punjab’s population. “The idea clicked and options for an SC leader were explored,” the Congress member said. “Consensus was reached over Channi’s name.” The next day, Channi took oath as the first chief minister of Punjab from a Scheduled Caste community.

For about a week, Sidhu appeared to be on board with his appointment. The media even reported that Channi was Sidhu’s choice of chief minister. But on 28 September, he sent a cryptic letter to Sonia Gandhi stating that he was resigning as the president of the Congress’ Punjab unit. Amarinder soon tweeted, “I told you so…he is not a stable man.”

The letter made it clear that Channi had refused to act like a temp. He gave the advocate general’s post to APS Deol, who had represented Sumedh Singh Saini, Punjab’s former director general of police, in a sensational case. The case arose from alleged sacrilege against the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book, in Faridkot’s Bargari village, in 2015, and the death of two men after the police opened fire on people protesting the case in Kotkapura and Behbal Kalan. Sidhu had opposed Deol’s appointment, pointing to the Congress’s promise that it would deliver justice in the case. He had earlier attacked Amarinder multiple times for the slow pace of investigation into the matter. Sidhu also opposed the appointment of Iqbal Preet Singh Sahota as the DGP, calling him “a blue-eyed boy” of Saini.