Amritsar may witness a clash of political heavyweights — former Punjab CM Capt Amarinder Singh of the Congress and Arun Jaitley of the BJP — as a reluctant Amarinder on Thursday gave indications of a climbdown from his Wednesday’s stand of “unwilling and unable” to contest the elections.
Called to Delhi on Wednesday by Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary Ahmed Patel, Amarinder had conveyed his inability to contest the polls. Among the many reasons he cited was that his presence was needed in Patiala, where his union minister wife Preneet Kaur was “facing strong antiincumbency” as a three-time MP, a hostile state government and a three-cornered contest from the Aam Aadmi Party. He also argued that he was interested in the state and not in central politics.
The Amritsar candidature being seen by the Amarinder camp as an attempt by Punjab Congress chief Partap Singh Bajwa to corner him into a contest after he himself could not escape a contest from Gurdaspur, a defiant Amarinder, in a statement on Thursday, made his reluctance public: “I would not be able to do justice to the people of Amritsar. Congress president Sonia Gandhi had offered me to contest from Bathinda or Amritsar. I had clarified at that time only that I would not be in a position to contest since Preneet is contesting from Patiala. Moreover, my presence is required across the state and contesting from Amritsar would confine me to a single constituency. If elected, I would not be able to do justice to the people there as compared to a local candidate.”
After the posturing, Amarinder later did a climbdown following a snub from Sonia. According to Congress sources, Sonia refused to see Amarinder who had sought time to meet her on Thursday. In Delhi for a meeting of the Jat Mahasabha of which he is president, he told a news channel that he had conveyed his views to the party but if the Congress president wanted him to contest, he would. Bajwa was quick to welcome the change of heart on part of his arch rival. “Capt Amarinder will be an ideal candidate to take on BJP’s Arun Jaitley and stop the march of fundamentalist forces in the border state,” Bajwa told a new channel in Delhi on Thursday. Bajwa said people of Amritsar were upset with the BJP for denying ticket to Navjot Sidhu from the Mecca of Sikhs. “Amarinder is a soldier and wouldn’t run away from the battlefield, he said, adding, “It will be an epic battle in Amritsar and the Congress will win it 110%.”
The Cong ress strate g y behind fielding the captain from Amritsar is also to contain the BJP and Akalis on two seats -- Amritsar and Bathinda. For Bathinda, the party has tied up with Badal family rebel, Manpreet Badal, who is clashing with his cousin deputy chief minister Sukhbir Badal’s wife Harsimrat Badal. The party also aims to cash in on the Sikh sentiments in Amritsar -- its 64% voters are Sikhs -- where a divided BJP had closed ranks with Akalis to oust cricketerturned-politician Navjot Sidhu.