After three days of closed-door meetings with political leaders in New Delhi, former Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh returned to the state on September 30. Landing at Chandigarh airport, he made it clear to waiting mediapersons that while he was firm on his decision to leave the Congress—and that he would formally announce his exit at a later date—he would not be joining the BJP. There is widespread speculation that the Captain is planning to float a new political party, with many saying he will make an announcement in this regard within the next fortnight, probably around Dussehra.
The Captain’s rebellion complicates Punjab’s already turbulent politics. With the assembly election just months away, he will face many challenges in his bid to carve out an independent political space, from party financing to legacy issues—Amarinder is seen as a reclusive leader and while he no longer holds the chief ministership, he may still have to contend with anti-incumbency sentiment accrued over the four-and-a-half years he led the state. Those close to him believe his brand of nationalism will ensure he retains public support, as will his reputation as a moderate Sikh. “And his age is just a number. In 2012, Parkash Singh Badal was 84 when he was sworn in as chief minister,” says a close associate.
The acrimonious split between the Congress and Amarinder Singh has led to the BJP eyeing Punjab with renewed interest
Sources say the motivation to ready for yet another electoral battle also came from the “insult and humiliation” meted out to him in the past few weeks by the Congress. In this, there are again legacy issues to consider—while Amarinder has good relations with Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, the same cannot be said of his equation with Rahul. Between 2013 and 2017, Rahul made several failed attempts to reshape the party’s Punjab unit, pushing for an alternative power centre with Pratap Singh Bajwa as the PCC (Pradesh Congress Committee) chief. In the run-up to the 2017 assembly election, Amarinder had put his foot down, threatening to quit if he was not given a free hand—and upon Sonia’s intervention, Rahul stepped aside, addressing just two rallies in that campaign. Amarinder then built his campaign on the “Captain di Sarkar (the Captain’s government)” narrative rather than on the strength of the Congress, and in the past four years, has fought to keep Rahul at a distance from both the Punjab government and the party’s state unit. Despite pressure from the Gandhi family, he resisted the appointments of leaders like Navjot Singh Sidhu, Amrinder Singh Raja Warring and many other Gandhi family loyalists.
The acrimonious split between the Congress and Amarinder Singh has led to the BJP eyeing Punjab with renewed interest. The saffron party has been floundering in the state since last September, when its 25-year-old alliance with the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) ended following the controversial rollout of the three new farm laws. The meetings between Union home minister Amit Shah and Amarinder in end-September suggest the saffron party is eager to win him over as it needs a new partner to make up for the loss of old ally SAD.
In Punjab, the BJP’s vote bank is primarily upper caste Hindus, though it has also gained support among urban Dalits. Its former alliance with the SAD gave it some support among upper caste Sikhs in pockets of the state, which it can no longer rely on. Hindus make up about 38.5 per cent of the electorate, and there are some 45 urban seats where Hindus are either in the majority or make up a substantial bloc. The BJP is looking for a partner with support in the state’s rural areas, dominated by Jat Sikhs, who make up 18 per cent of the electorate and are a driving force of the protests over the Centre’s new farm laws. Hindus tend to be swing voters in Punjab, and are, by that token, a decisive factor at the polls. In the past two decades, they have gone with the Congress in larger numbers than the SAD-BJP combine, with Amarinder Singh’s reputation as a moderate playing a big role. However, he cannot take this support for granted—in 2007, the vote swung away from him, leading to the SAD-BJP alliance sweeping the urban centres and forming the government.
Since then, Amarinder Singh has gone out of his way to maintain nationalist optics—this includes his refusal to meet with Canadian defence minister Harjit Singh Sajjan in 2017 and his description of Sajjan as a “Khalistani sympathiser”. In February 2018, it took a lot of pressure from the party high command to get Amarinder to meet with Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau on the latter’s visit to Amritsar. Even then, Amarinder made it clear at the meeting that he was displeased by the prominence Sikh hardliners had in the Trudeau cabinet, even going so far as to hand over a list of nine pro-Khalistani militants active in Canada.
The Captain’s nationalist posture also stands in contrast with Navjot Singh Sidhu’s on-camera friendliness with the Pakistani high command, when he was photographed embracing Pakistan Army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa at Prime Minister Imran Khan’s swearing-in ceremony in 2018. Amarinder has often spoken of the threat Pakistan poses to India, especially in a border state like Punjab, through its efforts to instigate violence and the deliveries of arms, drugs and other contraband to nefarious actors. All these are calculated to garner support from Punjab’s urban centres, where people still recall with dread the days of the Khalistan movement.
In that context, especially, Amarinder Singh’s nationalist image remains his biggest asset. The former chief minister has also played up the drama surrounding his resignation—that he was forced out by the Congress party high command to appease Sidhu—in an attempt to strike a chord with Hindus and moderate Sikhs and coax goodwill to counter the anti-incumbency sentiment that might dog him even when he is out of power.
Captain Amarinder Singh with Union home minister Amit Shah on September 29; (Photo by ANI)
Political observers say if the former chief minister is looking to build bridges with the BJP, he will need to reconsider his position on the Centre’s farm laws and do what he can to tone down the anger of the Jat Sikhs. People close to him say he is working with foe-turned-friend Pratap Singh Bajwa on this, meeting with farmers’ unions in an attempt to find a solution. Sources say his meeting with home minister Shah on September 29 involved discussions on this point. Despite being ousted from the chief minister’s office, Amarinder still holds considerable influence among non-Akali and non-communist backed farmers’ unions—for one, he remains the head of the influential All India Jat Mahasabha, and is the titular Maharaja of the erstwhile Patiala fief. “More than a Congress leader, Amarinder’s political stature in Punjab is as a Sikh leader, a regional satrap,” says Jagtar Sandhu, an author and commentator on Punjab’s politics and history.
Those close to Amarinder believe his brand of nationalism will ensure he retains public support, as will his reputation as a moderate Sikh
Time will tell if the former chief minister is able to leverage his authority to end the farmers’ agitation, which has been simmering for months with frequent flare-ups. The recent violence in Uttar Pradesh’s Lakhimpur Kheri, in which the son of a BJP Union minister allegedly mowed down peaceful farmer protesters, has brought the issue back to the fore. The BJP’s state and national leadership have again been put on the defensive. The local administration couldn’t avoid filing an FIR against Ashish Mishra, the son of the Union minister of state for home affairs Ajay Mishra. While this might take the edge off the public anger, politicians and farmers’ unions have been accusing the BJP of a cover-up. Following his resignation, Amarinder Singh has taken every opportunity to go after Sidhu, and appears determined to ensure that he is defeated in the assembly election. Sources say he is also bitterly disappointed with the Gandhi family.
Amarinder’s exit is bound to hurt the Congress in the upcoming elections in Punjab—one of only three states the party still controls. His stature in Punjab can also be gauged from the fact that he has delivered electoral victories in a Modi wave. In 2014, he defeated the BJP’s key general, Arun Jaitley, at the polls in Amritsar; in the 2017 assembly election, his campaign brought 77 Congress members to the assembly (out of a total of 117), among its highest tallies in the state in the post-militancy era. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, Punjab was one of only two states (the other being Kerala) where the Congress did well. Ashutosh Kumar, professor of political science at Panjab University, says the damage to the Congress is a given; the only question, he says, is how extensive that damage might be.
Amarinder retains considerable goodwill and support in the Congress. Disenchanted senior leaders like Manish Tewari and Kapil Sibal have made noises about the turn of events. And chances are that more leaders will join the chorus in days to come. There have apparently been no attempts by the Congress high command to reach out to him since his exit, with only the G23 leaders (who wrote to Sonia Gandhi in August 2020 demanding party elections and an organisational makeover) remaining in touch with him.
Sources say Amarinder is almost certain to float a new party by Dussehra, and that backroom negotiations are underway to carve out a breakaway faction from the Congress. Some suggest he is looking to bring down the Charanjit Singh Channi government by convincing as many as 22 legislators to walk out, of whom 18 are apparently willing and ready to do his bidding. Parliamentarians, like his wife Preneet Kaur (representing Patiala), Mohammad Sadique (Faridkot), G.S. Aujla (Amritsar), Manish Tewari (Anandpur Sahib) and Santokh Singh Chaudhary (Jalandhar), are also believed to be firmly with him. While Channi has accommodated three Amarinder loyalists in his cabinet—Deputy Chief Minister Om Parkash Soni, Brahm Mohindra and Vijay Inder Singla—it is far from certain they will stay loyal to the new chief minister.