For this erstwhile maharaja, it was as gruelling as it could get. It has been five weeks of nerve-wracking poll campaign in a constituency that grabbed national media attention as he took on the collective might of Punjab’s ruling SAD-BJP regime and exchanged virulent potshots with his poll rival.
Capt Amarinder Singh, the man Congress president Sonia Gandhi chose to take on BJP’s Arun Jaitley, on Thursday returned to Chandigarh a war-weary general.
Though his political opponents scoff at his love for easy life, Amarinder does not mind saying he needs to put up his feet after long days of hard work. Does he see victory at the hustings?
The former chief minister claims his strategy to counter both Jaitley and his key aide, firebrand revenue minister Bikram Singh Majithia, whose writ runs in the Majha belt, “worked well”.
While Jaitley had accused him of making a national election look like a municipal one, Amarinder reveals it was part of the strategy. “Jaitley was trying to sell his national image.
He does come off well at times on national TV channels during interviews. But I demolished that strategy. I made him a non-entity by saying my fight is with the ruling regime.
I spoke of Amritsar’s poor sanitation, property tax and no development in seven years of the SAD-BJP rule. And it succeeded as there was strong anti-incumbency in Amritsar against the SAD-BJP,” Amarinder said.
“Jaitley always wanted to debate on national issues but I said we will start with Amritsar, then Punjab and follow it up with national issues,” Amarinder added.
His poll adversary, though, had expressed doubts about Amarinder’s understanding of national issues. Later, Jaitley too had gone local in his campaigning and blamed Amarinder for property tax and promised to boost tourism in Amritsar.
The other strategy, he added, was to demolish the “fear” of Majithia in Amritsar. “I attacked him in every speech, accusing him of lording over Punjab’s many mafias — from drugs to liquor and sand.
And I have succeeded in both — Amritsar saw it as a battle between me and Badals and now there is no fear of Majithia there,” Amarinder said.
The Captain also claims to have gained from cross-voting. “Many disgruntled BJP workers and leaders close to MP Navjot Sidhu voted for me, so did many Akalis who did not want to vote for an RSS man.
Those they tried to lure with free rations, money, liquor, washing machines and TVs too voted for us,” he said.
Not denying that the debutant Aam Party Party would play a spoilsport for the Congress, he said that in Amritsar people did not want to waste their vote on AAP as they knew that the candidate (Dr Daljit Singh) was not winning.
“Even some AAP workers voted for us. But AAP will affect the Congress more in Patiala, my wife Preneet Kaur’s constituency, than the Akalis.
In Ludhiana and Sangrur, it will hit the Akalis more and in Gurdaspur, it will equally hit the Congress and BJP,” he added.
Claiming that the BJP roped in the RSS to target Hindu votes for Jaitley, he said, “Amritsar is a secular city and there were no takers for the RSS propaganda of Hindus for Hindus. I took all communities along.”
Accusing Majithia and BJP minister Anil Joshi of arm twisting even hotels and clubs of Amritsar, he said they refused permission for holding press conferences and meetings as they were threatened that their water and power connections would be cut.
“I had to shift the venue of my meeting from Mohan International to Holiday Inn. It was a similar situation when we wanted to hold a meeting at a club. Finally, we organised all such events at a hotel owned by a Congress leader,” Amarinder said.
'I wasn't overconfident'
He was the candidate-cum star campaigner by choice. Now facing the charge of being “overconfident” from his central party leaders, Capt Amarinder Singh defended his decision of not calling PM Manmohan Singh to his native city for campaigning, citing the latter’s health issues.
“He would have come had I asked him to but the PM has had three bypass surgeries. In the scorching heat of over 43°C, asking him to come for campaigning didn’t seem a good thing.”
He said party general secretary Shakeel Ahmed had asked him if Amritsar could be added to party vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s schedule, but he had reasoned that they would have to arrange a rally in the city, not in rural areas, as farmers might not turn up owing to the wheat harvesting season.
“I was not overconfident. Union commerce minister Anand Sharma came to meet businessmen and senior leader Mohsina Kidwai met Muslim voters. I did not need actors, comedians and cricketers.
Jaitley needed them as noboby knew him in Amritsar and people were not coming to see or hear him,” Amarinder added.