Within a month of being unceremoniously dumped by the Congress, former Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh is on an exploratory expedition to find friends, old and new, in his quest to stay politically relevant. The 79-year-old titular Maharaja of Patiala will launch his political outfit soon and seek a seat-sharing alliance with the BJP, which he now calls a ‘like-minded party.’ On the cards are also parleys for a pre-poll pact with breakaway factions of the Shiromani Akali Dal, the Congress’ principal rival in the state and an outfit that Singh had been a part of for seven years, between 1985 and 1992.
Through his long political career, Singh has been with both dominant parties of Punjab — the Akali Dal and the Congress. He debuted as a Lok Sabha MP of the Congress in 1980 — on the request of his childhood friend, the late Rajiv Gandhi — but quit the party in 1984 to protest against Operation Blue Star and joined the Akalis. He served as a minister in the Akali government led by Surjit Singh Barnala, but broke away from the party in 1992 following differences with Parkash Singh Badal. He was thrice the Punjab Congress chief and twice chief minister of the state in Congress governments. No doubt the political bio-data of the former Army Captain is remarkable, befitting the title of a satrap that he has often been hailed as by his admirers.
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Yet, as Singh gets down to draw the blueprint of his new political outfit amid predictions by both his former parties of an imminent ignominious defeat, it isn’t his past electoral triumphs that ride the poll narrative. Instead, any discussion on the Patiala royal’s next political steps evokes two key ponderable – one current and the other, nostalgic – and neither paints a rosy future.
Let’s examine the current one first. Singh has indicated that he is “hopeful of a seat arrangement with BJP in 2022 Punjab Assembly polls if farmers’ protest is resolved in farmers’ interest” and that he is “also looking at an alliance with like-minded parties such as breakaway Akali groups” led by local stalwarts Ranjit Singh Brahmpura and Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa. That Singh had begun swerving towards the BJP even before he was dumped by the Congress was a common refrain among his rivals in the Grand Old Party for some time. Singh lost no time in adding heft to these speculations when, soon after quitting as chief minister, he met Union home minister Amit Shah in Delhi. Singh’s tirade against Navjot Sidhu — the Punjab Congress chief credited with leading the rebellion that ultimately led to the Captain’s ouster as chief minister — for his ties with Pakistan’s Imran Khan too smelled of a trick straight out of the BJP’s election handbook where all rivals as ‘anti-national, Pakistan sympathisers.’
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However, the reason why some naively scoffed at the eventuality of Singh doing a saffron waltz was that the BJP, stung hard by the ongoing peasant protests against three controversial central farm laws, had become a pariah in Punjab politics. Besides, the saffron party had never been a dominant political player in Punjab. It had been piggybacking the Akali Dal for over two decades, and its vote share in the state had been consistently dropping over the past few elections. The socio-political churn that began in Punjab a year ago — after the Centre rammed through the three farm laws in Parliament, forcing lakhs of Punjabi farmers to take to the streets in protest, and at times even violent demonstrations against local BJP leaders of the state — has made BJP’s electoral comeback in the northern state a highly unlikely possibility. It was, in fact, this calculation that led the Akalis to sever ties with the BJP despite being part of the ruling central coalition when the farm laws were first brought in as ordinances.
So why then would Singh, a crafty politician who supposedly knows the pulse of Punjab politics better than any other leader, want to ally with the BJP? For now, Singh has said that a pact with the BJP would be incumbent on the Centre, offering an amicable resolution to the farmers on the agricultural laws. Those close to Singh claim that he had suggested a few measures to Amit Shah last month that could help break the stalemate. These include a resumption of negotiations between the government and farmer unions along with an assurance that the Centre is willing to reconsider tricky issues like the inclusion of an MSP clause in the law and promise of continuation of APMCs, among others.
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If the BJP indeed heeds Singh’s advice: the former chief minister believes he can position himself before the Punjabi voters as the man who forced the mighty Narendra Modi to reconsider the Centre’s stance on the farm laws. While Singh’s aides believe this to be possible, as the BJP doesn’t believe in giving electoral walkovers to its rivals, it would be fascinating to see whether Modi or Shah would allow Singh to take credit for effectively showing them as leaders who bent before him. Besides, to anyone who has recently travelled in Punjab or met the state’s farmers still protesting at Delhi’s borders, it is evident the anger among the peasantry is no longer limited to the BJP’s stubbornness over the farm laws. The smear campaign against Punjabi farmers — they have been branded as Khalistani, anti-national, andolanjeevi, et al — by a section of the BJP and incidents like the recent mowing down of farmers by the cavalcade of Ashish Mishra, son of Union minister Ajay Mishra, in Uttar Pradesh’s Lakhimpur Kheri, as well as the BJP’s past record of making election-expedient promises, have ensured a widening trust deficit against the party in Punjab.
It would thus be uncharacteristically naïve of Singh to believe that the BJP would allow him to dictate terms on how to handle the crisis over the farm laws, walk away with all credit and that Punjab’s farmers will not just easily forgive the BJP’s misadventures but also his own poor performance as the state’s chief minister for the past four and half years.
Now for the nostalgic ponderable. Those who see in Singh the state’s tallest and most formidable leader — Singh himself, his ‘courtiers’ and possibly political leaders who are likely to be denied tickets in the upcoming elections by other outfits such as the Congress, SAD or the AAP — forget the outcome of the Patiala royal’s last experiment with floating his own party. As mentioned earlier, Singh had quit the Akali Dal — a party he joined after leaving the Congress in 1984 — following growing differences with Parkash Singh Badal in 1992. Those close to the former chief minister say by 1997, Singh had wanted to return to the Akali fold. However, a meeting he hosted at his royal residence, Patiala’s Moti Bagh Palace, in January 1997 with Badal and senior Akali leader Gurcharan Singh Tohra ended in an anti-climax.
Singh reportedly wanted to contest the 1997 assembly polls on an Akali ticket from Talwandi Sabo, an assembly segment in Badal’s stronghold of Bathinda, which he had won as an Akali candidate in 1985. However, Badal turned down his appeal. Singh then went on to announce that his new political outfit, the Shiromani Akali Dal, Panthic (SAD-P), would contest the 1997 assembly polls, and he would be its candidate from his family fief of Patiala.
The Congress was then in power in Punjab, but the party’s fortunes were already on a decline nationally. Nationally, the Congress had begun to unravel in the aftermath of the BJP’s growing Hindutva politics, the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the growing challenges then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao was facing from among his cabinet and party colleagues which eventually split the party in 1996, a large chunk of senior leaders led by ND Tiwari and Arjun Singh formed the breakaway Congress (Tiwari). In Punjab, the Congress was beset by its own troubles and, between 1992 and 1997, the state had seen three chief ministers — Beant Singh, HS Brar and Rajinder Kaur Bhattal.
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Singh believed that the instability within and growing anti-incumbency against the Congress, coupled with turmoil within the Akali ranks owing to desertion by leaders like himself, had created the perfect opportunity for the rise of a new regional political outfit. Thus, in the 1997 assembly polls, Singh projected his SAD-P as the party that would usher in a new Punjab. When the results came in, the SAD had romped back to power, the Congress was decimated, and the SAD-P proved to be a non-starter, its candidates including Singh, failed to win a single seat. Singh, the Maharaja of Patiala and self-proclaimed satrap, forfeited his deposit, polling fewer than 1,000 votes!
When Singh led his SAD-P in the 1997 elections, he was 55 years old. Though he had been a Lok Sabha MP and a minister in the state, he was still a relatively fresh face and a leader who had shown an appetite for combative politics. His resignation from the Congress following Operation Blue Star despite his close friendship with Rajiv Gandhi, his professional profile as an ex-Armyman who had fought for his country in the 1965 war and his personal credentials as not just a member of the illustrious Patiala royal family but also a deeply religious man who constantly referred to the teachings of the Sikh Gurus, had collectively given him the air of a leader who could write a new chapter in Punjab’s politics. Yet, his SAD-P vanished without a trace at the hustings and by 1998, with Sonia Gandhi at the helm of the Congress, he returned to the Grand Old Party.
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By 2002, despite disaffection against him from many Punjab Congress leaders, Singh succeeded in ousting Badal and the Akalis from power. It cannot be denied that for the next two decades, it was Singh and Badal who reigned supreme in Punjab politics, both winning two terms each for their parties in the elections. However, with his long triumphant innings in Punjab politics has also come a sense of fatigue among the Punjab voters against Singh. His second, four and half year stint in power that ended abruptly last month has also brought him brickbats for being ‘inaccessible’, ‘autocratic’ and ‘arrogant.’ The Congress, though guilty in equal measure for giving poor governance to Punjab since 2017, now wants to return to power by conveniently putting all blame of non-performance and anti-incumbency, at the doorstep of Singh’s Moti Bagh Palace or his Siswan farmhouse.
When Singh turned 75, on March 11, 2017, he couldn’t have hoped for a better birthday present. It was the day the election commission announced results for the Punjab polls that brought him back to power with an unprecedented victory for the Congress. The Captain would turn 80 by the time the next assembly poll results are announced, perhaps his electoral swansong. Will it be an occasion to celebrate with a Patiala peg, or will it be déjà vu of his 1997 humiliation?