IT IS BJP 0. Opposition 5. Congress 3.
In a clutch of state elections, Narendra Modi’s party could not win any, and Congress walked away with all the big ones. All of a sudden, Amarinder Singh has become the chief minister of one of the least important states for his party president Rahul Gandhi. Till yesterday, he was the only worthwhile chief minister of a Congress ruled state, the other being an apology that goes by the name of Puducherry. (No offence there, my beloved people of that beautiful hamlet. You can keep calling it a state.)
This is the time for Amarinder Singh to ponder over some serious stuff. The good part is that he has the intellectual capacity and political suaveness to engage with the situation at hand. That he is not in the pink of health is something that cannot be denied, but as of date, there isn’t a leader among the entire bunch that passes off as opposition who can match the Patiala royale scion.
Things are bad in the state. Ordinary folk think the administrative grip is too weak, the issues of law and order repeatedly assume scary forms. The state needs a full-fledged police head with a clear mandate, and a politician at the helm with enough guts to reel-in the wayward elements in the force.
And someone needs to start governing, rather than merely running the state in the absence of effective executive authority at the top that is accountable to the people.
Few will disagree that Amarinder Singh has the capacity to step up to the plate. All he needs to do is to show up for his job.
There is not one person with even a passing acquaintance with the art and craft of politics who can claim on authority that Punjab is being run today by any accountable political force. And yet, few will disagree that Amarinder Singh has the capacity to step up to the plate.
All he needs to do is to show up for his job.
For too long, the intricate task of running the state has been left to bureaucrats, and the political statecraft is being messed up by sundry media advisors and power-brokering hanger-ons.
The political reality is that Amarinder Singh will be dealing with a different Rahul Gandhi now. The two men haven’t had a very cordial relationship, and a lot of it did play out in the public domain for anyone who can read between the lines. Those who cannot read between the lines, follow the social media and actually believe an exaggerated version of the differences between the two.
Then there’s that upstart Navjot Singh Sidhu, the master of timing, who has been chomping at the heels of Amarinder Singh. The chief minister’s pushback on the issue of Kartarpur Corridor hasn’t gone down very well, except with a man called Ajit Doval, but then Doval doesn’t have a vote in Punjab.
The mood in the country is changing. You cannot fool people wholesale by beating the bogey of Pakistan and ISI. Besides, Amarinder Singh did not need to surrender a constituency that he had conceived, nurtured and courted assiduously.
It was Amarinder Singh who landed up in the Anarkali Bazaar back in 2004. It was he who opened the floodgates of civilian exchanges between Lahore and Chandigarh. He was the one who widened the India-Pakistan Bond Street, taking the palanquin to Nanakana Sahib and hosting West Punjab’s leadership here.
A rather shamelessly hagiographic account of his life includes a recall of the chief minister's meeting with the dictator-turned-politician, Pervez Musharraf. Amarinder Singh cheekily said that he outranked the General whose commission date was April 1964. "Mine is June 1963, making me nine months your senior,” he told Musharraf.
Any laughter that escaped the Pakistani General’s lips had to be a little sheepish. He had been beaten in public by a Captain. When read alongside his book writing ventures, interest in painting, photography, conversations, travels and a circle of friends, one comes across the picture of a man who has an intellectual bandwidth, an evolved sense of almost British understated humour and a taste of finer things and glorious human senses.
And more important than all of that was his ability to forge a connect with the people — a quality Amarinder Singh displayed in abundance in the past, but one which has been missing of late in his public demeanour.
Amarinder Singh did not need to surrender a constituency that he had conceived, nurtured and courted assiduously. He was the one who opened the civilian exchange corridor between Lahore and Chandigarh.
Why have we not seen Amarinder Singh among the families of Punjab’s most marginalised demographics? The small and marginal farmers, the farm suicide-affected families? When his party president was courting the Dalits, why should Amarinder Singh not be going all out to tell the agitating young leaders of the community that he will safeguard their right to 1/3rd of the common land in each village? These were the Jignesh Miwanis of Punjab, the natural allies of the Congress.
Why is the Amarinder government not guaranteeing that the scholarships for minority children in educational institutions are properly granted? Why is there a nagging feeling among the proud Punjabis that Amarinder Singh government has been playing footsie with the saffron brigade?
A certain accommodation of the Centre is understandable since one has to run the state and coordinate with the ruling dispensation in Delhi but a series of overtures towards the Modi-Amit Shah-Arun Jaitley triumvirate, often breaching his own party line, hasn’t sent positive signals to those who elected him.
A royal family scion & two-time chief minister who was celebrated for vanquishing the House of Badals has been reduced to keeping pace with a Navjot Singh Sidhu.
Amarinder Singh needs to repair his relationship with Rahul Gandhi, and that is something he is certainly capable of. He needs to re-establish his connect with the people of Punjab in these trying and uncertain times, but for that he will have to make an effort.
Media advisors and poorly drafted press releases do not make up for political component of governance. Relying on managing journalists and media houses instead of managing the narrative isn’t leading anywhere.
So far, this approach has done immense damage. One of the tallest leaders, the scion of a royal family, a two-time chief minister, a former Deputy Leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party in the House of Commons and the celebrated vanquisher of the House of Badals has been reduced to someone trying desperately to keep pace with a Navjot Singh Sidhu.
And even that has not been working out very well.
This is what happens when the narrative is entrusted to the inane.
Today, when the Congress is making headline on the national stage, even in global media, Amarinder Singh is conspicuous by his absence. The worst thing in politics is when you simply vanish from the headlines. Irrelevance on the national stage is a measure of your unimportance.
Neither General Bipin Rawat is dying to seek his advice, nor does General Qamar Bajwa care about his labelling of the corridor exercise as an ISI plot. This is not the fight that Amarinder Singh should be fighting.
The man who showed the guts to trash a judgement of the highest court when it came to safeguarding the interests of his people by passing the Termination of Agreements Act, even pushing back against an angry Sonia Gandhi, is today unable to give the right spin to the corridor at Kartarpur which millions are looking forward to. Neither General Bipin Rawat is dying to seek his advice, nor does the other general, Qamar Bajwa, care about his labelling of the corridor exercise as an ISI plot. This is not the fight that Amarinder Singh should be fighting.
He has sometime left and that should be enough to ensure that he leaves behind a legacy.
Every day, thousands of people in Punjab have been out on the road. Teachers, Anganwadi workers, mid-day meal cooks, employees, students. Why are their concerns not heard for days? Why should a government remain silent and aloof if hundreds of girls spend days and nights agitating for their demand that their hostels need to stay open for longer hours?
The teachers asking for full salaries could have been tired out and exhausted by bureaucrats adamant on digging their heels in, but these babus do not pay any political cost. It is for the political executive to differently frame the balance sheet of electorate’s affinity.
Rahul Gandhi needs to sell working models of his Congress governments in the rest of India in the run-up to 2019 and Amarinder Singh will help his own standing, his legacy and his party by providing him with examples from Punjab. Instead of Karza Mukti events featuring 6-feet long IPL cricket-style replicas of loan waiver certificates, he needs to pluck the low hanging fruit by addressing the concerns of the farm labourers.
The opposition is in a total disarray. The Badals are at their nadir. The Akali Dal is not just leaderless but rudderless. The ragtag bunch of noisy characters lands up at Bargari one day and blasts Bargari organisers the other.
None of Amarinder Singh’s ministers is making news for the work any ministry is doing. That should be worrying. It is here that his leadership counts. Tript Rajinder Singh Bajwa and Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa are constantly in the news for reasons that have nothing to do with their portfolios. OP Soni is forever in the headlines for matters that should have never made headlines.
And some erstwhile police officers and incumbent ones make news for reasons that merely underline the need to get a grip on administration.
The big-ticket news cycles like snubbing Canadian premier Justin Trudeau, or skipping corridor event function haven’t done any favours. Amarinder Singh should understand that he is own best media manager. He has the pulpit, and the megaphone. He needs to step up and wield it. Deal with Punjab. That’s the job. New Delhi will deal with Pakistan, that’s its job. You made your point by underlining that Punjab has a stake in the issue. Now, get on with the work. Too much is piling up at the door. It is time to get down to brasstacks.
The opposition is in a total disarray. The Badals are at their nadir. The Akali Dal is not just leaderless but rudderless. The ragtag bunch of noisy characters lands up at Bargari one day and blasts Bargari organisers the other. The wanna-be Aam Aadmi Party is looking for the next Khaas Aadmi to lead them because Bhagwant has lost most of his Mann in Punjab.
The situation is tailor made for Amarinder Singh. Even his party’s fortunes are turning at the national level. This is the time to come back to the job, and prove the simplest point — that he is not into thoko taali game, that he is the CM and the buck stops with him.
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