The grand celebrations at the New Moti Bagh Palace on Saturday after Punjab Congress chief Captain Amarinder Singh won the seat and the state on his 75th birthday were for the people of Patiala. The Congress is preparing for a grand Holi at Chandigarh on Monday before Amarinder is formally sworn in as chief minister for the second time on March 16.
The party is hosted every year by Amarinder’s confidant and Punjab’s richest MLA, sugar baron Rana Gurjit Singh, at Chandigarh. Though Rana had drawn flak for holding grand celebrations even when the Congress had lost in the 2012 polls, this time there is every reason for the party to celebrate. Its dry run in Punjab polls has finally ended and that too with a thumping victory, which has left even Congress leaders wondering at the hows and whats.
But before the celebrations, the party put into motion the process for forming the next government in the state. After reaching Chandigarh from Patiala on Sunday afternoon, Amarinder was unanimously elected as the leader of the Congress Legislature Party (CLP) at the Congress Bhavan here in presence of party’s emissaries — former Rajasthan CM and head of Congress screening committee for Punjab elections Ashok Gehlot, AICC general secretary in-charge of Punjab, Asha Kumari and AICC secretary Harish Chaudhary.
Later, Amarinder, accompanied by Gehlot, Kumari and Chaudhary, went to Raj Bhavan to meet Punjab governor VP Singh Badnore and formally staked his claim to form the next government. The swearing-in ceremony will take place here on Thursday, March 16, at 10am.
Though as CM this time, Amarinder won’t have to look over his shoulder as the party high command has been further weakened by poll drubbing in UP and Uttarakhand and the Gandhis need him more than ever before, Amarinder, after meeting the Punjab governor, said the size and ministers of cabinet would be decided after his meeting with Rahul on Tuesday.
Going by internal party dynamics, Amarinder is far more well placed in 2017 than he was in 2002, the first time he became the CM. For one, he had ensured a majority of the tickets went to his loyalists. So the CLP is packed with his loyalists and even the party’s three senior-most leaders are now out of the way.
He had debarred his prickly rival and former CM Rajinder Kaur Bhattal from changing her seat, Lehra, where she was facing four-term anti-incumbency by bringing in the “no swap” rule for sitting MLAs on general seats.
Former leader of opposition Sunil Jakhar who was sulking after Amarinder did not bat for his Rajya Sabha nomination, too has lost his bastion, Abohar. Amarinder’s other rule of ‘one family, one ticket’ kept another potential power centre, Lal Singh, out of the poll race. Lal’s son, Rajinder Singh, has won the Samana seat.
Though Fatehjang Bajwa, the younger brother of his other bitter critic, Rajya Sabha MP Partap Bajwa, has won, he poses no threat of dissidence to Amarinder.
“Now there only loyalists in the new CLP. The only question would be of who is more loyal. But in his last term as CM, Amarinder is not likely to play the favourites’ card. He will go by merit and seniority while trying a balance between factors of caste, religion, gender and region as he has won on the promise of good governance,” a senior party leader said.
Though Amarinder said the decision to appoint a deputy CM rests with the party high command, the party circles were abuzz with speculation that Navjot Singh Sidhu would be sworn in as Amarinder’s deputy. The other prominent portfolio of finance is likely to go to former finance minister Manpreet Badal.
Some senior ministers in the race for cabinet berths on basis of region, caste and religion arithmetic are Tripat Singh Bajwa (Jat Sikh, Majha), Aruna Chaudhary (Hindu, woman, Majha), Brahm Mohindra (Hindu, Malwa), Charanjit Singh Channi (Dalit, Malwa), Pargat Singh (Jat Sikh, Doaba), Sukhbinder Sarkaria (Jat Sikh, Majha), Razia Sultana (Muslim, woman, Malwa), Amarinder and Kuljit Nagra (Rahul’s confidant, Jat Sikh, Malwa).