Barely an hour after Captain Amarinder Singh resigned as the chief minister of Punjab, the Congress Legislature Party met in Chandigarh on Saturday 18 September and authorised party president Sonia Gandhi to take a call on who should be the next CM.
The meeting, which lasted less than 90 minutes, was attended by 78 out of 80 Congress MLAs, which included both Captain Amarinder Singh's loyalists as well as his detractors.
The question now is, what will the Congress president do?
The Congress has one key dilemma - should the CM who will be appointed also be its face for the Assembly elections? Or should it be a 'caretaker CM' kind of arrangement until the polls which are due three months from now?
Since Navjot Sidhu is a key player in this matter, we can use a cricketing analogy - Congress' dilemma is whether it wants to bring a night-watchman or send its main batsman in.
This opens up broadly three possible scenarios.
1. NEW CM ALSO BECOMES CONGRESS' FACE FOR THE POLLS
With Captain gone, not many Congress leaders can claim to have an appeal that cuts across the state. The leader who comes closest to filling that space is Punjab Congress chief Navjot Singh Sidhu.
So if the party wants to make it clear that the new CM will also be its poll face as well, Sidhu would be the most likely candidate.
Sidhu does have his advantages. Having been a perpetual rebel both while in BJP and then in Congress, he has a relatively clean image. His role in the opening up of the Kartarpur Sahib corridor also won him goodwill among Sikhs.
However, his lack of administrative experience could be a problem, especially when it comes to implementing a few key promises for the Congress in the next few months before polls.
Then there's the perception that he isn't a team player.
But if the party has to choose a CM face for the polls right now, it's unlikely that it would be anyone other than Sidhu. Because that would mean Sidhu accepting that leader as the CM face for the polls, which seems far-fetched. At most the party could leave the CM face question for later, which brings us to the second and third scenarios.
2. CONGRESS CHOOSES A 'CARETAKER' CM WHO ISN'T THE PARTY'S CM FACE
The second possibility is that the Congress appoints a senior leader as CM for the next few months until the elections with the understanding that he or she is a caretaker CM and won't be the party's CM face. It is also possible that Sidhu himself isn't keen on becoming the CM just for three months.
In such a scenario, the CM could be any leader acceptable to all the factions. Sunil Kumar Jakhar may be the front runner in such a context.
This arrangement has its advantages - it frees up Sidhu to focus on the election campaign. It also may insulate him to some extent from criticism in case the party is unable to fulfill its key promises in the next three months. It is quite likely that the big ticket measures - like arresting Badals in connection with the sacrilege cases or Bikram Majithia in the drug trafficking probe - may not happen. There are also limits to how many jobs the government can create in such a short period of time.
Therefore, rather than let Sidhu take the blame for this, the party could save him as the face for the polls.
Having said that, it won't be this simple. This arrangement would mean creating the perception that the CM is a lame-duck. This would further restrict the fulfillment of the key promises.
Also with Captain gone, there are limits to which Sidhu can be insulated from the criticism due to the government's performance. Sidhu may face criticism for not being able to get much done despite becoming the Punjab Congress chief and despite getting Captain removed as CM.
3. CONGRESS LEAVES THE CM FACE ISSUE OPEN-ENDED UNTIL THE POLLS
This scenario may happen if the Congress high command wants to keep its options open. It will help the party leadership avoid addressing the CM face question for some more time and decide later based on the response the new CM gets.
But it's also tricky because it could lead to another bout of factional fights closer to the polls in case the CM as well his competitors develop ambitions.
Sidhu is an unlikely choice in the third scenario as making him the CM now would make it more or less certain that he would also be the CM face.
This 'open-ended' scenario also can't have a political lightweight as the party high command may want to keep the CM as a future option as well.
The most likely names in this arrangement would be present jails minister Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa and Rajya Sabha MP Partap Singh Bajwa, both from Gurdaspur district. Sunil Jakhar can be CM even in this scenario, provided the party is open to projecting a Hindu CM face in the next polls.
CHALLENGES FOR THE NEW CM
Whoever the Congress appoints as the new CM, will have his or her task cut out with polls barely three months away. Remember, the elections in Punjab were declared in the first week of 2017 so if the same happens in 2022, it would give the new CM about 100 days approximately.
In these 100 days, the party would need a number of tasks to be fulfilled. We can get an idea of what the main priorities would be from a letter written on 27 July by Punjab Congress chief Navjot Sidhu and working presidents Sangat Singh Gilzian, Kuljit Nagra, Sukhwinder Singh Danny Bandala and Pawan Goyal.
In the letter, they gave the state government five priority areas to focus on within the 18 point agenda that had been submitted earlier:
Punishing the main culprits behind the Bargari Sacrilege and Behbal Kalan firing
Arrest the big fish behind drug trafficking in Punjab
Pass a legislation in the Assembly that the Centre's farm laws won't be implemented in the state
Cancel faulty power purchase agreements
Address the demands of protesting unions of teachers, safai karamcharis, medical professionals etc.
These are not easy tasks. It doesn't seem likely that the government will be able to arrest the big fish behind drug trafficking or the big names accused in the Bargari sacrilege and Mehal Kalan firing. Given the state's difficult financial condition, it also remains to be seen how much of point five the government will be able to implement.
It is well known that the bureaucracy also becomes less responsive with elections approaching so getting these things done may be even more difficult irrespective of who becomes the CM.
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