Closer home, when Jayalalithaa was swept away in the landslide of 1996, to predictions that her political career was over, she came resoundingly back a couple of years later by cobbling together a powerful coalition and besting her opponents in the 1998 Lok Sabha election.
One of the glaring weaknesses of the Congress leadership over the past few years is the lack of this ability to overcome setbacks. A party that has been considerably weakened appears to be set on a course of further undermining itself. The most recent illustration of this is the mess in Punjab, one that is almost entirely of its making. The resignation of Amrinder Singh as Chief Minister, who cited “humiliation” as the reason for his exit, cannot but make one wonder what the Congress game plan was. If the idea was to force him out – a view that gained ground after the appointment of his arch-rival Navjot Singh Sidhu as the head of the Punjab Congress unit – what was the logic for waiting until some five or six months before the next Assembly election?
It is not clear how Amrinder Singh will play his political cards at the moment, having said he still remains in the Congress, but also obliquely signalling that other options may be open to him. The abrupt cancellation of the Punjab Congress Legislature Party meeting on the forenoon of Sunday reflects the difficulty in finding a consensus candidate as his successor. So, it was left to Sonia Gandhi to select a person of her choice. Had it been Sidhu, then the party would have almost definitely splintered as Amrinder Singh has already indicated his inability to accept him.
However, following Singh’s resignation, Charanjit Singh Channi has been appointed as the new Chief Minister of Punjab. Channi, a Dalit leader, who served as the Technical Education Minister in the outgoing CM Singh’s cabinet, is set to take his oath of office on Monday.
There is no doubt that Amrinder Singh’s style of leadership didn’t go down well with a section of his party. There was no justification for him to have fenced himself off from other senior partymen and run the State through a coterie of bureaucrats, a style that alienated a number of MLAs. But the manner in which he was forced to quit makes no political sense. His detractors were allowed to attack him publicly, his bitterest critic Navjot Singh Sidhu was given charge of the State party (seemingly at the behest of Priyanka Gandhi), and his communication lines with the Gandhis were slowly disrupted.
For all his deficiencies, it was Amrinder Singh that delivered Punjab, and emphatically at that, to the Congress in 2017. If he finds himself alienated, it is mainly because of the fact that he was never a favourite of Rahul Gandhi’. But the Congress is in no position to function on the basis of arbitrary likes and dislikes. If it makes a political comeback, it will have to be on the back of regional strongmen. The fact that the Gandhis fail to understand this may well play out in yet another state - Jharkhand. If this trend continues, the party will have only itself to blame if it performs badly in 2024.