Captain Amarinder Singh, former Punjab chief minister and deputy leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha, seems to be waging a battle of wits with the party high command. Openly opposing the change of guard in the party from the old to the new, Amarinder had sought the continuance of Sonia Gandhi as the Congress president, saying that at a time when the party’s tally in the Lok Sabha had fallen to its lowest-ever of 44 seats, her son and Congress vice-president Rahul needed more experience to take charge.
Back from his much-publicised sabbatical, Rahul is leading the Congress attack on the Narendra Modi government from the front. The Gandhi scion’s loyalists claim his ‘aggression’ in and out of the Lok Sabha on issues ranging from the land acquisition bill to Net neutrality is also aimed at silencing his detractors within the party. Though the Amritsar MP is all praise for Rahul, he has been missing from the budget session of Parliament that resumed on Monday. His absence is being noticed not just owing to his views on Rahul but also because the party had asked all its 44 MPs to be present during Rahul’s speech on the land bill on Monday. Not to forget, Amarinder is also the party’s deputy leader in the Lok Sabha.
When contacted, Amarinder said, “Rahul spoke very well at the kisan rally in Delhi and during the debate on the land bill in the Lok Sabha. I have not been in the budget session for the past two-three days. I would participate in the debate on subjects such as defence and agriculture budgets.”
Though he pitched in Rahul’s support, insiders in the Punjab Congress feel the Captain is fighting a battle of wits with the party high command to prompt them to resolve the state leadership issue at the earliest.
Speculation has been rife in the past few months that Amarinder may even break away from the party if things come to that, a rumour that suits both the Captain and his bete noire, state Congress chief Partap Singh Bajwa. While it helps Amarinder to flex his muscles before the high command and extract his pound of flesh, it gives Bajwa the much-needed oxygen to survive on the theory that Amarinder’s outbursts violate party discipline and he is preparing the ground for the final plunge - quitting the party to float his own or join another.
A news channel on Wednesday again carried news of Amarinder quitting the party though it later took it off air. Denying the news, Amarinder openly blamed “people like Bajwa” for it. “They are trying to plant news stories on my quitting the party. Have you ever heard me even mention about such a possibility? A change of guard in Punjab is now imminent and they want to influence the decision,” he said.
But his strategy managers have worked out all possibilities. According to their arithmetic, the tally of his hardcore loyalists - sitting and former MLAs - may fall if Amarinder decides to go for the kill, but still there may be enough to jolt the Congress not just in Punjab but also nationally. Some of his staunch loyalists are hardcore Congressmen and may not go with him.
The indications are already there in the falling number of MLAs openly pledging their support to Amarinder. His show of strength at the Patiala lunch and the Amritsar rally, both held in January, saw the attendance of 35 MLAs. It dropped to 33 when Amarinder spoke on Rahul. According to his team’s calculations, even if the tally falls to 25, if he finally decides to quit, it would be enough to rock the Congress boat in Punjab.
‘More posturing than intent’
But that may not happen anytime soon or not happen at all. “Amarinder is just flexing his muscles. He would never quit the Congress. Bajwa was appointed by Rahul to replace Amarinder and he is still backing the Punjab Congress chief. Amarinder desperately wants Bajwa to go. There is more posturing than intent at this moment. He is impulsive and those who know that just want to provoke him to do something drastic,” a MLA close to Amarinder said, requesting anonymity.
The Captain’s stance on Rahul was lapped up by Bajwa to show his loyalty. But the party old guard in Punjab, too, is not averse to the generational change. Former CM Rajinder Kaur Bhattal says Rahul’s recent performance has boosted the morale of the party rank and file. “Rahul is showing the leadership quality of the Gandhis. He has infused new vigour in the party,” she said.