In Punjab, the poll-winning Captain must reckon with in-house opposition, writes Bhavdeep Kang

The battle of attrition has taken its toll, judging from Chief Minister Amarinder Singh’s feeble handling of the farmers’ agitation last year. What’s more, having to constantly look over his shoulder, he has been unable to take bold decisions to fix Punjab’s ailing economy – arguably, his biggest challenge.

Bhavdeep KangUpdated: Thursday, June 03, 2021, 01:21 AM IST
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The political crisis in Punjab is yet another example of the Congress’s remarkable capacity for self-sabotage. In the relentless onslaught against Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, we witness the unmaking of a stalwart leader who has led his party to successive electoral victories in the state.

Dissidence has been brewing for six years now, steadily whittling down the strong-willed ‘Captain’ into an indecisive and pallid version of himself. The battle of attrition has taken its toll, judging from his feeble handling of the farmers’ agitation last year. What’s more, having to constantly look over his shoulder, he has been unable to take bold decisions to fix Punjab’s ailing economy – arguably, his biggest challenge.

Bargari sacrilege

The trigger for the current round of CM-baiting was last month’s Punjab High Court ruling, which quashed the probe into the police firing after the alleged desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib at Bargari in 2015. The Bargari sacrilege is an emotive issue, which had served as a handy club for the Congress to use against the ruling Akali Dal in the 2017 assembly elections.

Ironically, the same club is now being used against its own government, which is accused of having conducted a shoddy investigation. While the Congress dissidents may be genuinely worried that the recently merged breakaway factions of the Akali Dal have taken up the Bargari (desecration) issue, their primary motive is to target the Captain and deny him a chance to lead the party in the 2022 assembly polls.

The revolt against the 79-year-old Amarinder Singh is being viewed through the lens of the nearly decade-long power struggle between the Congress old guard and ambitious, younger leaders backed by Rahul Gandhi. In Punjab, matters came to a head in 2015. The Captain, who had hitherto enjoyed a privileged position by virtue of his proximity to the first family, found himself overlooked in favour of Punjab Congress chief Pratap Singh Bajwa, handpicked by Gandhi.

Doughty soldier

A doughty soldier, he mustered the support of the Punjab MLAs and stood up to the Congress high command. He went so far as to hint at a split if he was denied the post of PCC chief, leaving Gandhi with no choice but to acquiesce. Captain then led the Congress to a decisive victory in the subsequent assembly elections, overcoming a formidable challenge from the AAP and a three-way split in Jat and Dalit votes.

From then onwards, Bajwa has consistently undercut his chief political rival. The entry of BJP turncoat Navjot Singh Sidhu into the Congress strengthened the dissident camp. Denied the post of deputy CM, Sidhu became an implacable critic. His 2018 visit to Pakistan for Imran Khan’s swearing-in brought factionalism out into the open, when Captain Amarinder Singh observed that the former had done the Indian Armed Forces a disservice by hugging Pakistan Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa “at a time when our soldiers are being martyred”.

In 2019, the Captain was the party’s best bet against the BJP juggernaut, given that the Modi wave was fuelled by the Pulwama terrorist attack and the subsequent Balakot air strike. As a decorated war veteran with impeccable nationalist credentials, the Punjab CM did not take the Congress line, standing solidly with the defence forces. Not surprisingly, he was the only Congress CM who managed to beat the BJP, securing the lion’s share of seats for his party.

Despite that, he was not only denied a national role, but subjected to intense provocation from his detractors. After spurious liquor claimed 112 lives in the state last year, two prominent dissidents wrote to the Punjab governor, alleging the existence of “illegal distilleries” in the Captain’s family borough of Patiala and accusing him of having ignored the illicit production of hooch in the state.

Popularity undiminished

The Farm Laws 2020 brought the Punjab CM to the national centrestage. He opposed the legislation and sided with the agitating farmers, but the civil unrest quickly went out of control and he was unable to contain it, with the result that the farmers’ march in Delhi on Republic Day turned violent and the Khalsa flag was unfurled at Red Fort. A year earlier, his moral authority would have sufficed to bring the agitators in line. The Congress backed the agitation to the hilt and Captain willy-nilly followed suit.

In fact, the politically insecure CM has repeatedly yielded to the rich peasant lobby, which forms the core of the Congress support base, whether it is on power subsidies, field-burning or agricultural reforms. Last year, he junked the Montek Singh Ahluwalia committee’s recommendations for reviving Punjab’s economy because they advocated a rationalisation of power subsidies and a larger role for the private sector in agriculture.

That said, the erstwhile maharaja’s popularity remains undiminished. As recently as February this year, the Congress annihilated the Akali Dal and AAP in the municipal elections. But this counts for nought with his detractors. Ahead of the 2022 assembly elections, unity rather than factionalism should have been the order of the day. Sadly, the incumbent CM’s main opposition comes not from ideological rivals, but his own party.

The writer is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author

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