Once the memes are made and done, and the gobbledygook of Navjot Singh Sidhu's aphorisms chuckled over, the singular truth to emerge from the freefall in Punjab is this — the authority of the Gandhi family stands eroded like never before. This is true not just for how the family, especially the siblings Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, are perceived by the general voter; it is even truer for what is being murmured about them within their party.
This week, the Congress cauldron boiled over. What used to be said off-the-record in whispers went on record, in stark, voluble assertions. Sidhu — the import from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) who was propped up as the state chief by no less than Priyanka Gandhi, in what was grandly described by pundits as her crafty Ahmed Patel moment — doubled down on his rebellion in a video message.
Captain Amarinder Singh, seething from the humiliation, is clearly positioning himself to mediate an agreement with the Centre on the farm laws and use that as his calling card in the polls, under a newly announced regional party. And Kapil Sibal has used the moment to ramp up the revolt on behalf of the mutinous group of 23.
It takes spectacular incompetence to take decisions in such a clumsy, unthinking way that neither the incumbent nor the interloper is happy with you. And even if the Congress emerges as the single-largest party after all this in the assembly elections, it will not take away from the fact that the Punjab crisis has triggered a churn.
When Congress members use phrases like "high command", unmindful of its antediluvian connotations, they seem to forget that their party still does not have a full-time president.
Congress loyalists argue that the appointment of Charanjit Singh Channi as chief minister (CM) may yet save the day. Sidhu is in a sulk, they say, because Channi did not prostrate himself at the feet of the "super CM" as was expected.
The appointment of a Dalit CM who rose from abject poverty will blunt the ascent of Arvind Kejriwal, they say, because Channi is the real "aam aadmi". And it will be interesting to see how caste politics plays out in a state where close to 32% of the population is Dalit, but Jat Sikhs at 25% have always been influential and wealthy.
But let us not pretend that Channi's appointment was to pay homage to Dalit aspirations. Nor was it an illustration of deft political instincts. The Congress went through three chief ministerial choices that we know of — Ambika Soni, Sunil Jakhar and Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa — before settling on Channi, as a non-threatening choice. The caste calculus is an afterthought and the credit to craftiness that never was is an ex-post facto compliment.
Similarly, there are those who argue that the objections raised by Sidhu are legitimate. The appointment of a law officer who represented Sumedh Singh Saini, a former top cop under investigation for the killing of two Sikh protesters in a case involving the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib, is exactly the sort of hot potato appointment that a party would steer clear of.
Likewise for the induction of a leader like Rana Gurjit who is embroiled in corruption cases. But why blame the new CM alone for these contentious decisions? Not one could have been taken had the Gandhis not signed off on them in Delhi.
The ruthless humiliation of Captain Amarinder Singh — one of two Congressmen who enjoys popularity even among BJP supporters (Shashi Tharoor is the other) — is a manifestation of the denialism and delusion that continues to define the Gandhis. This does not mean that the Captain had not made mistakes or was not diminishing in popularity; but surely there could have been more finesse in how he was treated.
Yes, the BJP, under Narendra Modi and Amit Shah has displayed ruthlessness as well in how it has changed CMs in Uttarakhand, Gujarat and Karnataka. But the absolute authority they command within the cadres means that there is no danger of a public spectacle.
The Congress can call it inner-party democracy, but the fact is that there was also a time when no one dared to question the Gandhi family. Punjab has upended that.
In any case, the protests and name-calling outside the house of Kapil Sibal calls out the bluff of this so-called democratic culture.
And one cannot help notice the alacrity with which the party took to the streets to challenge a colleague's criticism. Where was this enthusiasm and staying power shown with street mobilisations during 16 months of the pandemic?
Sonia Gandhi joined politics to preserve the legacy of her husband and his family. The best thing she can do to keep that legacy alive now is, in fact, for the family to get out of the way.
Barkha Dutt is an award-winning TV journalist and anchor with more than two decades of reporting experience. She is the author of "This Unquiet Land: Stories from India's Fault Lines."
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Hindustan Times, and is published by special syndication arrangement.