It was in January last year that the multi-crore drug racket hijacked all political discourse in Punjab following sensational claims made by arrested druglord Jagdish Bhola.
By naming Punjab’s revenue minister Bikram Singh Majithia, the brother-in-law of deputy chief minister Sukhbir Badal, as the “kingpin”, Bhola, whose assertions are yet to be proved, gave the opposition Congress lethal ammunition to take the ruling combine head on.
Amid the raging controversy, the Enforcement Directorate (ED), which is investigating the money laundering angle in the drug case, interrogated the son of then jails minister Sarwan Singh Phillaur, chief parliamentary secretary (CPS) Avinash Chander and then Majithia.
But the party has since scored only self-goals amid an intensifying factional war. No sooner did Punjab Congress chief Partap Singh Bajwa demand a CBI probe into the drug case in January last year, former Punjab chief minister Capt Amarinder Singh issued a statement giving Punjab Police a thumbs up.
A year on, the saga continues. The symbolism of Amarinder’s Lalkar rally is not lost on his political adversaries both within and outside the party.
Since the historic victory in Amritsar against BJP stalwart Arun Jaitley, Amarinder has been flexing his muscle to seek reinstatement as Punjab Congress chief and all that the erstwhile Patiala royal has chosen or not chosen to do thus far has been aimed towards the same cause.
Coming as an afterthought, more to dislodge Bajwa than the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party (SAD-BJP) regime, the Captain’s Lalkar sounds unconvincing, especially when he refused to throw them a challenge where it mattered most — the Lok Sabha where he represents Congress as its deputy leader — or when it mattered — issue of summons to Majithia by the Enforcement Directorate or transfer of the investigating officer.
While his loyalists may credit the reports about his floating own party or joining hands with others as “plants” by Bajwa, these seemed to have helped Amarinder send signals to the party high command.
Be it the luncheon meeting at Patiala on January 11 or the resignation of his blue-eyed MLA Arvind Khanna, the message from Amarinder is clear — it has to be now or never. And the Congress has precedents of regional satraps doing so in TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar.
Old order, new baron
While the Akali Dal has been breathing easy with Amarinder attacking the BJP and Bajwa more, the saffron party has been quick to point out the irony -- the Captain is doing a rally on drugs with help from none other than a liquor baron like Rana Gurjit. Lavish and loyal to Amarinder like Khanna, Rana has now taken over the reins of the coterie after the latter’s exit.
Amid the posturing by both Amarinder and Bajwa, the only news that seems to change in Congress is the headcount of MLAs. After the Lalkar rally, the Bajwa camp was quick to announce the fall in numbers and claimed the crowd to be not more than 25,000. The beleagured chief, who is once again gloating after a fresh lease of life from Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi who has agreed to hold a farmers’ rally in Punjab in March, will try to outdo the Captain in numbers — in terms of both the crowds and the MLAs. With the Congress big guns busy throwing ‘lalkar’ to each other, the SAD-BJP can share the spoils of the war.
While Bajwa seems to be fighting a lost battle with each show of strength by the Captain, the challenge before Amarinder would be perhaps bigger if the high command decides not to give into his demands lest it sparks similar fires in other states.