Days ahead of polling in Punjab, former Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh, sat in the front porch of his Moti Bagh Palace residence; flanked by a few supporters and several cameramen. He offered a sacrificial buffalo calf (katta) to a Hindu priest who stood chanting prayers for the titular Patiala royal’s well-being.
The former two-term CM seeking divine intervention before the Punjab polls on February 20 is understandable; some may even call it necessary. Dumped as the CM by the Congress following a protracted rebellion led by Navjot Singh Sidhu, fully backed by Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, a slighted Singh had walked out of the party last year.
Singh formed his own outfit, the Punjab Lok Congress (PLC), and vowed to avenge his humiliation in the ongoing polls. The decision was mildly reminiscent of his rebellion against the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), which he had joined in the mid-1980s after quitting the Congress only to then float his breakaway faction, the Shiromani Akali Dal (Panthic), when SAD veteran Parkash Singh Badal benched him before the 1997 Assembly polls.
The snub from SAD in 1997 prompted Singh to put forward his combative best, even if the electoral results were disastrous for him. The SAD had swept the polls, with Badal returning as CM for a third time in 25 years. The SAD-P had won just three seats, while Singh lost the polls from his home turf of Patiala Urban, polling fewer than 900 votes and forfeiting his deposit.
This humiliating defeat forced Singh to merge his SAD-P with the Congress within a year, marking his comeback to the party he had quit in 1984 in protest against Operation Blue Star.
That was 1997 and Singh, 55 years old at the time, wasn’t yet the satrap he emerged as in the subsequent two decades that saw him take sweet revenge on Badal not once but twice – becoming CM in 2002 and then again in 2017. Nearly a quarter century after his SAD-P misadventure, when Singh was forced out of the Congress, he had already suffered overexposure as a politician.
Now 79 years old, he was also burdened with allegations of non-performance in his four-and-half year tenure as CM that ultimately ended in an ugly rebellion against him, not just by his bête noire Sidhu but also many Congress leaders who until recently were his close aides.
To say that Singh had lost much of his aura as a leader by the time he floated the PLC would be an understatement. The political steps he took subsequently also left many of his staunch admirers surprised, while strengthening the criticism levelled by Congress members of Singh, in his second CM stint, working against the interests of the Congress party.
In a move that many believe reeked of desperation to stay politically relevant after a five-decade-long career chequered in equal measure with electoral highs and setbacks, Singh allied with the BJP, a party that had lost favour across much of Punjab in wake of the farmer protests.
For the BJP, which had already lost its traditional ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal, in Punjab over the controversial farm laws (now scrapped), the alliance with PLC seemingly brought it back in the reckoning and gave the saffron party a chance to field candidates across 65 of the state’s 117 seats, a tally it had never touched during its pact with the SAD. Singh’s PLC is contesting 37 seats, while the third alliance partner, the Shiromani Akali Dal (Sanyukt) got 15 seats.
Singh chose to contest from his family turf of Patiala Urban, a seat from where he had won four consecutive times since 2002 – he had won the seat by a margin of 52,000 votes in 2017.
Most political commentators believe that in Patiala Urban, Singh’s political rivals, including the Congress, have fielded lightweights against him.
Singh faces off against Vishnu Sharma of the Congress, Ajit Pal Singh Kohli of the Aam Aadmi Party and Harpal Juneja of the SAD. Sharma and Kohli are former mayors of Patiala and have both switched their political parties in recent years. Sharma went from the Congress to the Akali Dal and then returned to the Congress. Kohli hopped from the Akali Dal to the AAP. Juneja is a former municipal councillor. While Sharma, Kohli and Juneja all have pockets of influence in the constituency, none of them match the political stature or resources that Singh can boast of.
But for Singh, this electoral battle is not for Patiala Urban. It is for the legacy he presumably wants to leave behind. And this is where Singh’s real battle lies – one which even his close aides admit he is losing.
“The Congress treated him unfairly but he could have still gone out with his dignity intact. By allying with the BJP, when lakhs of Punjabi farmers have suffered at the hands of the Narendra Modi government and by making statements he did about not being able to act against corrupt ministers in his government, he has diminished himself. He may win from Patiala but at what personal cost?” a confidante of the Patiala royal told The Federal.
Others who have known Singh for longer than the aide quoted above claim that the Patiala royal always had a penchant for rebellion that had served him well in his younger days but gave diminishing returns as the years passed by.
A Congress veteran, who was once a confidant of Singh and served as a senior minister in his cabinet before joining his detractors, told The Federal, “In Punjab, because of our history, anyone who can challenge the centre of power is adored by the public but the reasons for the rebellion and the course it takes must be justified. Amarinder had a knack for calling a spade a spade. This gave him his appeal, along with his overt display of piousness as a devout Sikh and his ability to also reach out to the state’s Hindus…”
He added, “Look at him now; he says he formed the PLC to serve the best interests of Punjab because the border-state was in danger. If the state was in danger after you were CM for nearly five years, whose fault is it? Then he went and allied with the BJP despite knowing how despised the party is today across most of Punjab.”
Congress working president Sangat Singh Gilzian, a bitter critic of Singh, said that the former CM is his own worst enemy.
“Everyone in public life needs to know that power is transient. Singh doesn’t seem to realize this. As CM he was more interested in keeping the Opposition parties happy, which is why he did not act on the sacrilege cases or against the sand mining, drugs and liquor mafia despite repeated directives from the party’s central leadership to do so. When he lost support of the MLAs, he should have left office gracefully but his arrogance got the better of him and now that arrogance will be the reason of his downfall,” Gilzian said.
Another Congress leader who did not wish to be named and insisted that he still enjoys a “warm personal rapport” with Singh said that the perception of the Patiala royal being among Punjab’s tallest political leaders is “highly exaggerated”.
The leader told The Federal, “He served as CM for nine and a half years and for a long time as Leader of Opposition and PCC chief; he has been a multiple term MLA and MP and leads the foremost royal house of Punjab… despite these credentials, he had to play second fiddle to the BJP and settle for just 37 seats…”
“The fact that a majority of the PLC’s candidates are contesting the polls on the BJP symbol also shows that even people chosen by Singh to represent his party in the election don’t believe that they will win on his name,” he pointed out.
A PLC candidate The Federal spoke to conceded that the BJP-PLC-SAD (S) alliance had “no chance” of emerging victorious in the current election and that the only real beneficiary in this alliance would be the BJP, which these candidates claimed, would “perform better than expectation in terms of vote share even if the candidates don’t win”.
The candidate said that Singh might merge his party with the BJP after the polls and bargain for some position for himself or his family members (Congress MP Preneet Kaur and their son Raninder Singh) but “the Amarinder Singh era in Punjab politics will end with this election”.
The result of the 2017 Punjab polls was announced on March 11. It was Singh’s 75th birthday and the people of Punjab had gifted him his second chief ministerial stint. The result for the current election will be declared on March 10, a day before Singh turns 80.
Having staked his credibility as a leader and his legacy as a satrap on what seemed like a far-fetched electoral gambit to begin with, will the Maharaja of Patiala receive an early birthday present of political longevity – or be snubbed by his fellow Punjabis into forced retirement?