Amritsar is all set for the ultimate electoral thriller the likes of which Punjab has never seen before. Pitted in the high-stake slugfest are the two unlikeliest of contestants: BJP’s Arun Jaitley, 61, and Congress’s Capt Amarinder Singh, 72. While it’s the debut election for the saffron party’s suave strategist and long-time Rajya Sabha MP, the scion of the erstwhile royalty has unexpectedly landed himself in a make-or-break fight of his political career. Excerpts from their interviews:
Q: Did you expect the contest to shape up the way it has?
JAITLEY: I don’t think anything on the ground has changed. By putting up a senior person, the Congress has succeeded in conveying a semblance of fight. Otherwise, the Congress was all at sea. They may put up a tough exterior, but deep within they know where the problem lies.
AMARINDER: There is a positive feeling in Amritsar. That’s because of my past association with the city and what I as chief minister did for its development. This contest has boosted the morale of the Congress workers all over Punjab.
And, as a soldier, I will put up my best fight to outshine my rival.
The fight is increasingly turning bitter and personal.
JAITLEY: That’s because even if one candidate has the propensity to use avoidable language, it will look the race is becoming personalised. Feudalism has not gone out of the mindset of the ‘Maharaja’. He is always angry, talks down to people and thinks abuse is part of free speech.
AMARINDER: My opponent started it. He is now challenging my attendance in the Punjab assembly. If I stay away from the Vidhan Sabha, it’s because SAD-BJP government doesn’t allow debate on public issues. I am not interested in seeing Badal’s face in the House. What about Jaitley’s dismal record of disruptions in Parliament that cost the public exchequer around Rs 600 crore.
Isn’t a shrill poll pitch downing the real issues out?
JAITLEY: I am concentrating on the real issues -- economy, inflation, corruption and national security. I am speaking about my vision on Amritsar and how it can grow, problems like drugs and how the Amritsar business needs to revive. I am not distracted by these semantics.
AMARINDER: They are trying to sidetrack the real issue. For instance, we are in the city of Operation Bluestar and it’s the common man’s right to know Parkash Singh Badal’s role in it. Badal hasn’t come clean on the issue. LK Advani has admitted that they pushed then prime minister Indira Gandhi into ordering the army action at Harmandar Sahib. So, Akalis and the BJP can’t walk out of it.
Do you expect to have a healthy debate with your rival?
JAITLEY: Not in the least. The Captain is obsessed with himself and is impulsive. That’s the impression I get from the media. He thinks he has the right to insult people and doesn’t respect his opponents. So how do you have a civilised debate?
AMARINDER: I am ready for a debate but Jaitley is running away from it. Rather he is trying to run me down. Let him name any issue of national development that he has been architect of. He keeps saying he is leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha. Well, I have been the chief minister. So what? What matters is your vision for the future.
Why is winning this election important to you?
JAITLEY: For two reasons. One, it appears that we are on the verge of forming a government and therefore winning every seat is important. Second, I can use my influence with the central government to deliver for the constituency.
AMARINDER: Because I want to put the Congress on a victory pedestal. I don’t bother who I am up against. He may have been a Supreme Court lawyer but that doesn’t make him a master of everything happening in the country. He is a pseudo-Punjabi. Were he such a lover of Punjab, why did he go to Gujarat for the Rajya Sabha nomination for four terms, and never spoke up when the Punjabi farmers were harassed out of Gujarat.
Should the Operation Bluestar be an issue in Amritsar elections?
JAITLEY: I don’t think it is relevant. And it has been raised by the Captain as a diversionary tactic. Obviously, he can’t blame his own government for inflation and corruption. So he has invented the issue.
AMARINDER: It is very much an issue to tell people as to who is responsible. Every day, Akalis say the Congress is responsible. What about their own role? Why did Badal tell the Centre to go ahead with the army action? Why did Advani push the prime minister into doing it? The final decision was that of the prime minister but she was pressed by politicians.
What would work to your advantage?
JAITLEY: One, my party and the alliance partner have a strong base. Two, I have survived in politics for long and survived well. And my biggest asset is credibility. People think I would be a better voice of Amritsar. Also, there is larger national desire to have a non-Congress NDA government with Modi as prime minister.
AMARINDER: Number one is my stand on Operation Bluestar -- my resignation from Parliament and the Congress. The second is the termination of the inter-states river water sharing agreement. Every farmer knows how I saved Punjab’s waters. People of Amritsar are aware of what I did for the city as chief minister. I drew up the vision-2025 development plan for Amritsar in 2006 which Akalis never bothered to take out of the musty closets in Chandigarh.
Is Navjot Singh Sidhu’s absence an issue?
JAITLEY: I would love Sidhu to come. His wife is campaigning for me. He has been making the right noises for me. I will request him and continue doing that. He has been an asset to the party. We have plans for him. Talking about Sidhu is none of the Congress business. I would rather like to see Bajwa and the Captain campaign for each other.
AMARINDER: Sidhu is an issue in the sense that he was liked. He was humiliated and hounded for demanding money to develop Amritsar. This frustration took him away. There is certainly a sympathy wave for him.
Which anti-incumbency ire will be more potent – the one against the UPA government or the one against the SAD-BJP rule?
JAITLEY: What the UPA government is facing is not just anti-incumbency but a huge revulsion. The Congress will not be able to counter that.
AMARINDER: There is no Modi factor here. People are interested in their daily lives. And, the anger against the SADBJP government’s failures and high-handedness is all too pervasive. The national antiincumbency has no impact here.
Do you fear violence in the run-up to April 30 polls?
JAITLEY: Not from our side. What our opponents do out of desperation, I can’t say.
AMARINDER: Of course, you must anticipate violence. There are two people known to be out and out ‘goondas’ – one is Bikram Singh Majithia and the other some minister Anil Joshi. Both are a negative factor. Akalis will use money, muscle and police for booth-capturing. We will stand up to this and my boys will retaliate. The Election Commission must declare Amritrsar super-sensitive and deploy the CRPF for a fair poll.