Friday, Jan 02, 2004
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SOLDIERS UNDER ENEMY fire know how to survive: they bunker down and conserve their ammunition until an opportunity to hit back presents itself. For reasons known only to the Congress rebels in Punjab, they have chosen to charge out of the trenches and attempt to lynch their commanding officer, Chief Minister Amarinder Singh. The mutiny could not have come at a worse time for the party. Battered by the results of the recently concluded Assembly elections, the Congress ought to have been focussing its energies on putting together a credible campaign for the coming Lok Sabha elections. Instead, the party is doing its best to discredit itself completely. Dissident Ministers are not attending their offices, rebels have not turned out for party rallies and functions, and charges of corruption are being freely traded. As a result, the party has undermined the gains of its showpiece anti-corruption campaign, which targeted the Shiromani Akali Dal to considerable effect. Just as dangerously for its political future, the party simply does not have the breadth of vision needed to present itself as a credible agent of development and governance.
Having served in the Army, Mr. Singh is probably aware of the unhappy tradition of fragging, the execution of commanders by insubordinate troops and of its root causes. There is little doubt that Mr. Singh's style of governance bred discontent. He bypassed the party apparatus, relying instead on his Principal Secretary, Sanjit Sinha, and Information Adviser, B.I.S Chahal. Both were controversial figures who presumably believed that their personal relationship with the Chief Minister entitled them to sideline party bosses. The resentment opened a window of opportunity for the rebels' flag-bearer, former Chief Minister Rajinder Kaur Bhattal. Ms. Bhattal, never reconciled to Mr. Singh's occupation of Punjab's top job, also believed he was using state resources to hasten a corruption trial she is currently being subjected to. The palace coterie surrounding Mr. Singh alienated enough people to give Ms. Bhattal what she needed the backing of almost the entire old guard of the Congress in Punjab. While both Mr. Sinha and Mr. Chahal have been removed from their jobs, the rebels have scented blood and are after bigger game.
Given the stoic silence of the Congress leadership in New Delhi on events in Punjab, it is difficult to see how events will play out. Ms. Bhattal commands the support of too many legislators to be subdued by All India Congress Committee fiat. Yet the Congress has history to consider. In the wake of the assassination of Chief Minister Beant Singh, the party underwent two rapid leadership changes going into the Assembly elections. It discovered the people were unwilling to repose their faith in leaders the party itself seemed to distrust. Sadly, no leader may be able to salvage public faith in the Punjab Congress unless it actually puts together a coherent vision for development. Mr. Singh's schemes contract farming of high-value crops, for example have failed to get off the ground and in any case would have benefited only a thin elite. Dalits, traditional Congress supporters, are increasingly infuriated by the party's failure to deliver on its promises. There seems to be no real will to transform a moribund agricultural economy or create industries that generate jobs and livelihoods. The right-wing religious opposition may promise paradise in the afterlife, but the Congress must buckle down to making earthly Punjab a better place to live in if it intends to secure its political future.
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