When Congress president Sonia Gandhi first asked Capt Amarinder Singh to contest from Amritsar against BJP's chief strategist Arun Jaitley, the erstwhile Patiala royal scion was quick to express his unwillingness. "Ma'm, I don't even know the streets and villages of Amritsar," was how he responded in a fob-it-off tone. Amarinder, however, lost the argument and gave in soon as Gandhi read the riot act, pitch-forking him against Jaitley as part of the Congress gambit to field the big guns in Punjab.
The reluctant entrant on Friday notched up the most-prized win for the Congress, which delivered a below-par performance in the 13-seat Punjab and suffered a humiliating pan-India rout. By knocking Jaitley out in the high-stakes contest, the Capt has inflicted a severe humiliation on the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal, which had, in the first place, persuaded the BJP stalwart to contest from Amritsar, promising to deliver him the victory certificate in Delhi.
Most crucially, the Amritsar triumph has dramatically resurrected Amarinder's political fortunes that had hit the nadir after the Congress, under his leadership, had suffered a stunning successive defeat in the 2012 Assembly polls. The wheel of fortune couldn't have turned more swiftly for the erstwhile scion of Patiala royalty who has made to the Lok Sabha three decades after he resigned as the Congress MP in protest against Operation Bluestar.
So, how did Amarinder trump Jaitley whose well-oiled campaign was clearly better-resourced and organised than Congress? Three factors worked to the Captain's advantage. First, the Sikh card as Jaitley was pitched against the electoral history of Amritsar which, with 63% Sikh population, has mostly swung in favour of the Sikh face.
And, a charismatic Amarinder exploited this subliminal sentiment to the hilt, playing on his protest resignation against the army operation - an issue that apparently struck a chord with the Sikh population and also turned the tables on the SAD-BJP which harped on its stock-in-trade charge against the Congress for its role in Operation Bluestar and the anti-Sikh carnage in 1984.
The second factor for Jaitley's nemesis was a groundswell of anti-incumbency ire against the seven-year ruling Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP. Amritsar, in fact, became the focal point of public anger as two of the most unpopular ministers - SAD's Bikram Singh Majithia and BJP's Anil Joshi - are from the constituency.
While Majithia, an influential brother-in-law of deputy chief minister Sukhbir Badal, has been in the thick of allegations for riding roughshod against political rivals and patronising the drug mafia, Joshi was facing the corruption charges. With an aggressive, no-holds-barred campaign on the Akali-BJP misrule and high-handedness, Capt kept his rivals off balance, taking the wind out of Jaitley's strenuous efforts to play up the UPA's report card of corruption, inflation and misrule.
Worse, Majithia scored the worst self-goal in the last leg of the campaign by distorting a hymn of Guru Granth Sahib while projecting Jaitley's victory as a foregone conclusion. His blasphemous act instantly offended the Sikh voters who interpreted it as an evidence of the ruling combine's arrogance. The controversy only worked to the Captain's advantage as Amritsar voted with their feet against the SAD-BJP alliance. In Amritsar, while Jaitley lost his debut election, the Shiromani Akali Dal, particularly the Badals, have lost face. Amarinder's victory is sure to change the political script of Punjab.