WILL PUNJAB SEE the emergence of a new political party, headed by Captain Amarinder Singh, panthic in nature and nationalist in its positioning, by 2019? Will Punjab see mid-term polls next year? The window is now wide open.
With the Akali Dal sinking into a vortex and its panthic turf slipping fast, Punjab’s politics is currently witnessing a vacuum: it has always had a huge component of panthic vote bank that doesn’t want to go with the Brand Badal anymore, but is not ready to overcome its antipathy to the Congress brand.
The new kid of the block, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), is proving to be nothing more than a nuisance creating urchin who hasn’t yet learnt to deal with politics as a serious vocation.
On top of that, Amarinder Singh is not having the most comfortable of the times in Rahul Gandhi’s Congress, and the BJP is not having the best of relations with the Akali Dal.
Punjab’s politics is in a flux and a range of permutations and combinations are being thrashed out in the backroom of all political parties, top sources in the Punjab Congress and among the national leadership of the BJP have indicated.
People want a panthic party, but not in Badal mode. Amarinder Singh is not in a comfort zone in Rahul Gandhi’s Congress, and the BJP is not having the best of relations with the Akali Dal.
In his authorised hagiography, Amarinder Singh admits/claims that just before the 2017 elections to the Punjab Assembly, he tightened the bolts on his party supremo Rahul Gandhi, threatening to quit the Congress if he was not allowed to have his way. He seemed to have won that round, but since then, the Rahul Gandhi brigade has constantly worked to cut short his stature.
Not once did Rahul Gandhi hail his loan waivers, and not once did his twitter handle reminded the people of a Congress CM doing anything worthwhile. Amarinder Singh does not exist for Divya Spandna, a woman who anyone with any serious interest in India’s politics knows is one of the closest to the Gandhi scion.
Since his electoral victory, the window for Amarinder Singh to walk away and form his own party seemed to have closed. The party organisational structure is, understandably, a limiting factor. But with the latest churning in the panthic domain, thanks to the acrimonious Akali-Congress exchanges and the no-holds-barred speeches in the Assembly against the Akali Dal and the Badal family, Amarinder Singh has made the ground beneath Badals’ feet too hot for comfort.
If the Badals are able to recover some of the lost ground, it will not be without a serious loss of reputation and vote bank. Also, they today stand exposed as far less powerful players in Punjab’s politics than what the party was when it forged its "fraternal” and unconditional alliance with the BJP.
The narrative of who stands for the panth or with the panth has changed. Since 1984, Congress was anti-Sikh and Akalis were a panthic people. If the Congress was able to win power in Punjab, it was partially because Amarinder Singh had some quintessential panthic credentials: he quit the Congress in protest against Operation Bluestar, and later he stood rock solid to guard Punjab’s river waters by passing the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act in 2004. He could always hark back to his picture of that August in 1986 when New Delhi wanted to count every head in Kandukhera.
But the discourse of "Congress is the enemy of the Sikhs” remained in currency with the Akalis, and not without reason. The foolish insistence of the central leadership of the Congress on keeping the likes of Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Tytler in the public eye, and the nefarious attempts to get a clean chit via the CBI now and and then, all worked to the detriment of the Congress in Punjab.
If the Badals are able to recover some of the lost ground, it will not be without a serious loss of vote bank. The narrative of who stands for the panth or with the panth has changed.
It was always a joust between the panthic Akali Dal and the Amarinder Singh Congress in Punjab. Rahul Gandhi understood this and suffered Amarinder Singh because there was no other alternative.
Now that a Navjot Singh Sidhu has the charisma, and a Manpreet Singh Badal is available on the backshelf, Rahul Gandhi is working to prop up a second rung of leadership in various states. Amarinder Singh, having once announced that it was his last tenure in a public office, no more talks of retirement, and most in Punjab believe he will love to serve his people for at least one more term.
It might not be as the Congress chief minister.
Post the debate on Justice (retd) Ranjit Singh Commissions’ report in the Punjab Assembly, Amarinder Singh has emerged as far more panthic than the Badals. From Harminder Singh Gill to Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa to Tript Rajinder Singh Bajwa, the Congress has emerged as a pro-Sikh Panth party in Punjab. The Akali Dal leaders are finding it difficult to wade into the crowds, while the Congress leaders were exhorting each other in the Assembly to go for the next kill: contest the SGPC elections. "Aage badho, hum tumhare saath hain,” Navjot Singh Sidhu was telling his colleagues.
Rahul Gandhi has not said a word, hamstrung also by the fact that he had shot himself in the foot just hours earlier with his remarks in London as he claimed that the Congress was innocent as far as the 1984 massacre of Sikhs was concerned. Divya Spandna can be a master of the black arts of social media, but would not understand the nuances of the be-adbi debate in Punjab.
In the opposing camp, a puny little Shwet Malik aside, the BJP is not rushing to defend the Akali Dal. Narendra Modi is not planning a visit to the Golden Temple, Amit Shah is not creating a photo-op occasion to be seen backing the Badals, and the food processing ministry isn’t really very helpful politically.
The BJP is weighing its options, and the memories of how Akalis treated their alliance partner in the past are too fresh in saffron minds.
The BJP is weighing its options, and the memories of how Akalis treated their alliance partner in the past are too fresh in saffron minds. Sukhbir Singh Badal trying to threaten the BJP with rallies in Pipli and another planned in Uttar Pradesh is not something Amit Shah would want to gulp.
An Akali Amarinder is a grand option, if it were on the table. A nationalist Akali Amarinder Singh is a dream option. A nationalist Akali Amarinder Singh with Punjab-Punjabi-Punjabiyat credentials better than the Moga Convention-minted secular Akali Dal is an option that is watering BJP’s mouth.
Punjab’s politics is very fluid right now, and saliva is dripping from many ends.
The Badals, while running roughshod over local BJP leaders, positioned themselves too obsequiously vis-a-vis the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo, a position that carries little respect among Punjab’s electorate. Amarinder Singh appeals more to the constituency that always wants to see Punjab's leadership brave enough to stand up to Delhi.
If political pundits are to be believed, the powers that be in New Delhi have been playing footsie with Amarinder Singh while repeatedly tripping alliance partner Akali Dal. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had famously said that the Congress had little control over Amarinder Singh who had been functioning like a swatantar fauji (an independent soldier).
"Punjab mein...na yeh us ko apna maante hain, na yeh un ko apna maante hain..woh swatanter fauji hai
," Modi had said, referring to the distance between Amarinder Singh and Congress.
The fact is that Amarinder Singh has been shrewdly projecting himself, from time to time, as a nationalist as well as an independent and panthic.
Some of Amarinder Singh’s stances on the most crucial issues are much closer to the BJP-RSS than even the Badals’ position. Bessides, Amarinder Singh has never uttered a single word against pet peeves of the BJP, such as Love Jihad, Ghar Wapsi, Anti-Conversion Bill, Mohd Akhlaq/Pehlu Khan killings, lynchings, harassment of anyone travelling with cows or other cattle, or Kanhaiya, Umer Khalid, Varvara Rao etc.
Amarinder Singh’s aim in 2019 is not to see Rahul Gandhi becoming PM. His aim is to ensure continuing comfort for himself, and if possible, an extended stay in the top office.
Amarinder Singh's public stances are a matter of record. He wrote an article
in the Indian Express to argue that the Army Major who strapped a Kashmiri citizen on the bonnet of his jeep as a human shield should be celebrated and awarded. In another article
in The Tribune, Amarinder Singh argued for a free hand for the army in Kashmir.
Thus, he remained in a lockstep with the RSS dispensation, including on the question of dealing with the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau.
But he made sure his panthic credentials are boosted from time to time. He cleared the compensation payments to the Sikh detenues thirty-four years after 1984 and carefully survived the drugs-related deaths and the Black Week Movement.
Time and again, Amarinder Singh has been walking away with panthic issues, often with the Centre doing little to stop him. Time and again, the Badals have been huffing and puffing to retain their panthic territory.
Amarinder Singh has given the Congress party a panthic tinge in a very calculated fashion, and never got any encouragement from Rahul Gandhi. If the Congress under Rahul Gandhi emerges stronger in the upcoming elections in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, Amarinder Singh will be dealing with a much stronger party president. Given his nature, it may actually precipitate the state of affairs. A possible outcome could be Amarinder Singh building his own political vehicle, an idea he has toyed with in the past.
He would want to drive such a vehicle himself, and the image of a panth-prast leader would come in handy.
On the other hand, the BJP needs a stronger, more politically viable force in Punjab than what Akali Dal has been reduced to. In Amarinder Singh’s possible new party, it may find a more nationalist yet more credible version of the Akali Dal. Besides, the BJP needs to prove a point by 2019: that it is attracting the best of the Congress.
Amarinder Singh’s aim in 2019 is not to see Rahul Gandhi becoming PM. His aim is to ensure continuing comfort for himself, and if possible, an extended stay in the top office. A new party, an understanding with the BJP, and a mid-term poll in Punjab in 2019 alongside the Lok Sabha elections checks out all the boxes.
The Patiala scion has the required charisma, is fluent in English and Hindi, is an army man, a writer, an author, suave, royal, with a mulk-prast family history going back centuries. He can claim the heritage of the Sikh gurus while praising the Indian army in the same breath.
Prakash Singh Badal hobnobbed with the hotheads in Sikh politics for too long. No wonder, he had to attend many yagnas, pay floral tributes to many Hindu gods and goddesses, attend many jagratas, and stand with hands folded before many self-styled holy men to cultivate a secular image and the Hindu vote bank.
The BJP needs a more politically viable force in Punjab than what Akali Dal has been reduced to. In Amarinder Singh’s possible new party, it may find a more nationalist yet more credible version of the Akali Dal.
Amarinder Singh does not have to do any of that. His strong nationalist view point, his diatribes against Pakistan, his consistent praise for the armed forces and his line on Kashmir that the Army be given a free hand will do the trick for him.
He has already weaned away a huge chunk of the panthic vote bank from the Akali Dal and that could prove to be the crucial now.
The Akali Dal looks a lot more tainted, Amarinder Singh a lot less Congressi
. With the palpable vacuum out there in the panthic constituency, political statisticians are thinking in terms of new permutations.
Saving the Brand Badal is a nightmare for any image consultant wizard — not just because the brand has been rubbished beyond repair, but also because the protagonists work hard every day to further erode value. Sukhbir Singh Badal’s best strategy to save the brand has been to speak more, to take the front seat, to deploy a television channel that plays hosannas to Nanhi Chhanv and Harsimrat Kaur Badal’s services to the panth ad nauseum.
They just don’t know how to stay away from a screen or a microphone. Whoever devises the strategy that if people want to see less of you, you serve more of yourself to them smokes something really strong.
In contrast, when it comes to Amarinder Singh, people want more of the panthic Maharaja.
When the 2017 joust was on, many opinion polls reported a strange confusion among wide sections of those wanting a change in Punjab: people wanted Amarinder Singh as their CM but wanted the Aam Aadmi Party to change the status quo. A new party headed by Amarinder Singh can draw upon the best talent in the Congress as well the Aam Aadmi Party. Besides, a lot of Akalis may want to jump the ship. That might resolve people’s dilemma.
So, will Punjab see the emergence of a new political party, headed by Captain Amarinder Singh, panthic in nature and nationalist in its positioning, by 2019? The window is now wide open, and there is no reason why Amarinder Singh will not take that leap.
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