By launching his own parallel state tour, Amritsar MP Capt Amarinder Singh has once again thrown the gauntlet at Punjab Congress chief Partap Singh Bajwa. It seems to be the tipping point in the long-drawn battle of one-upmanship between the two leaders. HT looks at the reasons as to why Amarinder, who two years back was blamed for near-rout of the Congress in Punjab, is once again on a roll.
Tallest leader of Punjab Congress
He does not street-fight the ruling SAD-BJP regime. He chooses to give most part of the union budget session a miss even as deputy leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha. But none of that matters when Amritsar MP Capt Amarinder Singh embarks on a state tour of Punjab to make a pretentious show of strength. Many in Congress rank and file are rallying behind him, hailing him as the party's best bet in Punjab. Both his friends and detractors alike attribute Amarinder's popularity to his being the tallest leader of the party in the state -- also a legacy of his stint as the state's chief minister. "Amarinder took some bold decisions as a politician. He quit the Congress after Operation Bluestar.
As Punjab CM, he terminated the river waters agreement by defying his own party high command. He was also seen as a good administrator as farmers reckon his tenure saw hassle-free procurement of foodgrains and the bureaucracy had a free hand to work. The CM's post also gave him an opportunity to earn personal loyalty of party leaders by bestowing ministerial berths and posts of chairmen of various boards and corporations on them. In his years in opposition too, despite the party losing two successive state polls under his captaincy, he has been able to keep the aura of a powerful politician intact," says an MLA counted among his detractors.
No general can command the respect of his army if he cannot win a battle. Amarinder has silenced his critics by giving his party the only face-saver in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls by defeating BJP stalwart Arun Jaitley in Amritsar. The huge victory margin made him a cut above the rest nationally and he was rewarded by the party with the post of deputy leader in the Lok Sabha. He kept the winning spree on by ensuring the victory of his wife Preneet Kaur from Patiala, the only bypoll won by the opposition Congress in the state in the last eight-year rule of the SAD-BJP. In fact, most party MLAs privately admit that they are backing Amarinder for their own political survival. "People tell us only Amarinder can bring Congress back to power in Punjab. He is the most likely face for chairman of the campaign committee and our own political future depends on him," a two-time MLA said.
Among the factors that have revived Amarinder's flagging political innings after the party lost two back-to-back state polls under him, most credit his successor Pratap Singh Bajwa. "Failure of one leader makes the success of another look bigger. In fact, Bajwa has wiped out factionalism in Punjab Congress. Most are united against him. Despite having a strong backing of the party high command, he has failed to take the party along. In fact, Amarinder has no one but Bajwa to thank for giving him a fresh shot at the CM's post in Punjab. By ruffling the feathers of almost all leaders in the state, Bajwa has made Amarinder the rallying point for the party leaders gunning for the former," is how a senior party leader puts it.
Among the many failings of Amarinder is not being an accessible and all-weather politician. The former Patiala royal's style of working through a coterie has been much criticised. But Congress leaders argue it does not dent Amarinder's mass appeal. Still addressed as the maharaja by most state MLAs, senior leaders and party workers, the "royals are born to rule" psyche also works to Amarinder's advantage and adds to his mass appeal as a politician. Even his staunchest critics agree that he has his own charisma and aura as a politician. "Most Punjab Congress leaders pale in comparison to Amarinder when it comes to popularity. He may live a lavish lifestyle or not be seen and heard of for long intervals but he still manages to strike a chord with people with his dabaang image of taking on political opponents head on. The Congress has not been able to find an alternative to him as a mass leader," says another MLA.
Not all in Punjab Congress attribute the "no-alternative to Amarinder" syndrome to the latter's mass appeal. They see it as a calculated strategy by Amarinder not to let any politician thrive in Punjab Congress and reach his stature. "Who has Amarinder allowed to work as party president? He has always considered Punjab Congress his fiefdom. His team of loyal MLAs and non-political aides work overtime to ensure the head count at his luncheon meetings and rallies is high. In fact, no Punjab Congress leader has been able to match the skills of the Captain in playing the game of perception. Even this time, before launching his state tour, he has fuelled dissent against Bajwa through misinformation on what transpired in his meeting with party president Sonia Gandhi and vice-president Rahul Gandhi in New Delhi. He loves to throw a challenge and win it -- a feat that comes naturally to the royals," a senior party leader said.