Punjab Assembly polls: How well has Captain Amarinder Singh read the pitch?

#Amarinder Singh, #Captain Amarinder Singh, #Indian Congress, #opinion, #Politics, #Punjab Assembly Elections 2022

Amarinder Singh (File image)

Punjab is gearing up to elect a new government early next year and every political party is preparing to gather its forces in preparation for the battle of the ballot. The State is clearly moving away from bipolar politics and the field is crowded.

Gearing up to challenge traditional opponents Indian National Congress and the regional Shiromani Akali Dal is the Aam Aadmi Party, whose performance in the last Assembly polls failed to match the hype. Adding a new dimension to the 2022 assembly polls is the Punjab Lok Congress, a new outfit floated by former Chief Minister Amarinder Singh.

Buoyed by its tie-up with the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Shiromani Akali Dal, led by Sukbhir Singh Badal, believes this alliance is a strong contender. Meanwhile, the Punjab Lok Congress is working to have an understanding with the Bharatiya Janata Party, which remained a junior partner to the SAD until last year, when they went their separate ways. Captain Amarinder Singh said he would meet the BJP central leadership this week to strike a deal.

All the parties are tilling the ground, a process that was energised after the Congress carried out a major surgery, removing Captain Amarinder Singh as chief minister and replacing him with Charanjit Singh Channi. The latter is the State’s first scheduled caste Chief Minister.

From all accounts Channi is demonstrating considerable maturity in handling a volatile situation within the party, made combustible by State Congress Chief Navjot Singh Sidhu’s frequent barbs.

Early indications from the State suggest a three-way race with the Congress, the SAD-Bahujan Samaj Party combine, and the Aam Aadmi Party. However, by pooling their resources, the Captain’s Punjab Lok Congress and the BJP could upset equations and complicate calculations in a multi-cornered contest.

Captain’s strategy

It is here that Amarinder Singh senses an opportunity to strike and has more than one reason to sharpen the attack. The Captain is training his sights on delivering a knockout punch to Navjot Singh Sidhu first, and accentuating the process by creating conditions in which he can deny the Congress an opportunity to consolidate and reap an electoral harvest.

The Punjab Lok Congress plans to bring together Jat Sikh votes, which tilt towards the Congress, and add the minority Hindu vote, a part of which is with the BJP. The hope is that this combination can swell their numbers in some seats, at least enough to damage Congress prospects.

Politics, as the saying goes, is the art of the possible, and the Captain has decided to experiment on a new political pitch. An electoral understanding with the BJP would give his nascent party a workforce and logistical support along with an army of silent RSS workers, as he gathers a dedicated group of players.

One of Captain Amarinder Singh’s lesser known areas of interest is his association with breeding of horses. At his farm, besides taming horses, the trainers know which ones have what it takes to win a race. The former Chief Minister has claimed credit for the decision of PM Narendra Modi to withdraw the three contentious farm laws, which kept Punjab on the boil for over a year.

Captain Amarinder Singh’s claims notwithstanding, these are early days to gauge the mood of the people in Punjab, especially towards the BJP and the Captain.

Disconnect with the ranks and common people

Congress supporters and the captain’s die-hard followers were disappointed with his government’s four-and-a-half-year tenure amid a feeling that the Chief Minister was soft on the Akalis and leaning towards the BJP.

During his tenure as Chief Minister, the captain lost a lot of goodwill and popularity. People and party leaders alike also found access to the Chief Minister severely restricted. The disinterest in running the affairs of the State appeared palpable.

This certainly was not a new trait for the scion of the erstwhile Patiala royal dynasty. It is just that the age-old practices were not in sync with modern day requirements. In the late 1990s, when the mobile phone was a fanciful gadget, somebody once complained to the Captain, then the Punjab Congress chief, about his inaccessibility even on his personal mobile. The response was baffling to say the least: “I don’ t have to; there are people here to answer it on my behalf”.

Even back then, the traits of royal descent could not be missed. Yet, the Congress party, its leadership and workers, accepted him, aware he was a prospective Chief Minister.

Tapping discontent

To borrow a popular phrase among economists, “other things remaining equal”, it is politics that drives sentiments, and when elections are round the corner, perception matters the most. All the political parties are wary of the atmosphere and are eager to project a favourable ‘Mahaul (atmosphere).

Given the upcoming polls, it is natural for political parties to create a perception as to what forced a change of heart on the farm laws. Was it the relentless pressure by the agitating farmers, sane advice by seasoned politicians, or was it a combination of these factors. Other factors such as sacrilege of the holy book, inaction against those behind police firings, the unacceptable grip of the transport and sand mafia, and perennial drug menace have added to the sullenness of the people.

Recent history shows the people of Punjab vote differently in Lok Sabha elections. The State elected Congress MPs when the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance won in 1999. Again, it gave the BJP one seat in the 2014 polls and two in 2019, which the BJP swept in the Modi wave.

In the Assembly, during the 2007-17 period, people gave the SAD an unprecedented 10-year tenure when the Centre was under Dr Manmohan Singh during UPA-1 and UPA-2 and voted for the Congress in 2017 when the BJP, under PM Modi, was in office.

Can the 2022 elections break this trend?  Let us see what the EVMs have to say.

Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication.

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