The keenly anticipated press conference by former Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh, held in Chandigarh on Wednesday (October 27), was a drab affair.
The Congress rebel’s scheduled interaction had, for the past few days, been touted as ‘the’ political event to look forward to in Punjab – a state bound for the Assembly polls in four months. It was meant to end the suspense on a litany of questions politicians and observers of different ideological persuasions have had ever since Amarinder Singh made it known that he would break away from the Congress and launch his own political outfit.
Yet, on Wednesday, as the Patiala royal addressed the press at a five-star hotel in Chandigarh, he had nothing new to disclose – not even the name or symbol of his new party, as they haven’t been approved by the Election Commission yet – nor the identity of the “many Congressmen” he claims were queuing up to join ranks with him. What Singh offered, instead, was a mere reiteration of everything he has been saying ever since the Congress dumped him as chief minister last month after a long-drawn rebellion against him by the likes of Punjab Congress chief Navjot Singh Sidhu and a majority of the party’s 80 MLAs in the state.
“I am forming a party. My lawyers are working on it, but I can’t tell you the name. I will tell you when the Election Commission approves it. We have made a request for a symbol also,” Singh told reporters. That he plans to form his own political party or explore a seat-sharing alliance with the BJP and break-away factions of the Akali Dal such as those led by SS Dhindsa and RS Brahmpura for the upcoming Punjab polls has been Singh’s repeated refrain over the past few weeks.
Other comments made by Singh at the briefing – both suo moto and in response to questions – were also largely a reassertion of what he has been saying for weeks. There was his expected avowal of fighting for the security of Punjab, a border state, against the nefarious designs of Pakistan and his dismissal of the Congress’s claims that the Centre’s recent move to expand the Border Security Force’s (BSF) remit in the state was an assault on federalism and an infringement of the powers of the Punjab government.
For those who had expected Singh to give out more details – how he plans to build the new party with just four months to go before the polls, who among his Congress colleagues would join him, will he personally contest the polls against Sidhu – there were no clear answers. Singh also refused to shed any light on what resolution he has in mind for the ongoing face-off between the state’s farmers and the BJP-led central government over the three contention farm laws. The issue is of particular relevance to Punjab’s voters since Singh wants to explore an electoral alliance with the BJP, which is presently seen as a pariah in the state.
Asked what suggestions he plans to give the Centre to end the stalemate with the agitating peasantry, Singh said he was scheduled to lead a delegation of 25-30 people, also comprising agriculture experts, to meet Union home minister Amit Shah in Delhi, on Thursday. Of course, the former chief minister gave no explanation on why he plans to meet Shah, the home minister, and not Union agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar, whose ministry is actually supposed to oversee implementation of the laws.
Similarly, Singh dodged questions on whether his wife and Congress MP from Patiala, Preneet Kaur, would join his party. Interestingly, Kaur has maintained that she has no plans of quitting the Congress even though she believes that her husband has been treated very shabbily by the party they have served for decades. Sources close to Singh maintain that Kaur, and the couple’s son Raninder Singh, who has so far failed to win any election – will switch to his party once it is formally launched. However, the silence of Kaur and Raninder on Punjab deputy chief minister Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa’s spirited attacks on Amarinder Singh and his close friend, Pakistan-based journalist Aroosa Alam, has set the political grapevine in Punjab aflutter.
Sources close to Singh insist that over two dozen Congress leaders in the state, including some sitting MPs and MLAs, as well as members of other parties like the Akali Dal and Aam Aadmi Party are willing to join the Patiala royal’s party once it is launched. A key aide of the former CM said that several Congress MLAs fear that they may be denied a ticket by the party in the upcoming polls because of their proximity to Captain Amarinder Singh or since they are not aligned with ‘camps’ led by Sidhu or other senior Punjab Congress leaders. It is these leaders who, sources say, are presently in touch with Singh. “Do you think I am alone? There are many who are in touch with me,” the former CM said, adding that he will make the identity of these leaders public “at an opportune time”.
As a former Army Captain and military historian, Amarinder Singh sure knows the merits of keeping his rivals guessing. However, amid the many uncertainties – the ifs and buts – over the likely blueprint of his new party, it remains to be seen whether the 79-year-old Singh still commands the political heft to break new electoral ground in Punjab, come election season. For now, though, Singh seems content with drawing as much media attention to himself as possible without divulging anything of consequence.