Old warhorse, new strategist: Capt Amarinder’s last hurrah

  • Sukhdeep Kaur, Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
  • Updated: Aug 14, 2016 10:29 IST
Amarinder, now 74, is covering four constituencies per week to complete all 117 till the first week of October before he embarks on yet another campaign designed by poll strategist Prashant Kishor. (HT File)

The last mile is the hardest. Even an old warhorse like state Congress chief Captain Amarinder Singh is getting to learn it now — an election he has announced to be his last. The Congress campaign in the 2012 state elections was a “9 to 5 affair”, as helicopter sorties ended with fading daylight of January evenings.

Four-and-half years later, Amarinder, now 74, is covering four constituencies per week to complete all 117 till the first week of October before he embarks on yet another campaign designed by poll strategist Prashant Kishor. And it is only August now and elections are more than five months away.

Youth, farmers and ex-servicemen have had ‘Coffee with Captain’ and for people of every assembly segment, there is “Halke Vich Captain” where Amarinder sits on a stage hearing grievances of people. (HT file )

So far the campaigning is happening as per Kishor’s script. The Congress is fast unlearning the “rally way” to get votes — for Kishor believes crowds at rallies can be managed and do not translate into votes. So youth, farmers and ex-servicemen have had “Coffee with Captain” and for people of every assembly segment, there is “Halke Vich Captain” — a grand show, where Amarinder sits on a stage hearing grievances of people, picks 20 to 25 chits from a bowl and hands out prompt help or promise, as the case may be. If the complaint is of police high-handedness, he even storms the police station. Whether or not each of all those who fill the complaints form get lucky, they go home with a mobile sticker and keychain of a smiling Amarinder and his promise.

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Both the events are managed by Kishor’s “team of young professionals” hailing from the IPAC. According to Congress sources, the events are looked after by an event management company “handpicked” by Kishor and the bills of his team, event management and the collaterals (key chains, mobile stickers et al) are reimbursed directly by the All India Congress Committee (AICC).

Just 5,000 attendees in Cong bastion

In the 19 “Halke Vich Captain” events held so far, the highest attendance has been 6,500 at Shahkot and lowest 3,200 at Dasuya. Of the 2014 villages the party reached out, people from just 1,406 villages came.

Friday’s event is at SBS Nagar (Nawanshahr) — a Congress bastion which had elected Parkash Singh in 2007 and his wife Guriqbal Kaur in 2012. The gathering at AS Resorts, a marriage hall on the Chandigarh-Nawanshahr road, is a mixed crowd of the young and old, Hindus and Jat Sikhs, but nearly all are Congress voters. Avtar Singh, a district Congress functionary, says the hall has 1,500 chairs and altogether 4,000 people are present at the venue.

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“We sent messages to Congress supporters and many came,” he says. The IPAC puts the figure to 5,000 people but claims 30% on an average at every such meeting are new or non-Congress voters. But in either case, the numbers should worry the party. What should worry it even more is that even those who came needed some counselling and not all go back convinced.

Balwinder Singh of Langroya village says he had filled the “complaint form” but his “chit” was not selected. “We are here to complain against our village sarpanch, who too belongs to the Congress. We did not let an Akali win from our village but who do we have to blame now,” he says. Anish Rana (23) from Jadla village wanted to know Amarinder’s solution to why postgraduates in Punjab have to apply for jobs of peons. “But my chit was not selected,” he says. A man angry at not being given the mike said, “Us Balu nu mike de dita, te 100 vota saade nal ne (They gave the mike to Balu. But we have 100 votes).” Standing nearby, Paramjit Singh of Khurd village mocks, “Aithe vi sifarish ta nai chaldi (does one need high contacts to get the chit picked?)”.

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For even those who got lucky, Amarinder may not have quick-fix solutions such as Harvel Singh of Bhalta Khurd village who accused the Akali panchayat of supplying water to areas with Congress families from a contaminated chappar or Mandeep Singh, a disabled man, looking for a government job. But Mandeep was all praises for Amarinder. “He has asked me to apply for a job in a government department and let him know,” he said.

Not many youth volunteers

Some 30-odd young voters such as Ravinder Ghuman get enrolled as volunteers for the party campaign and win a selfie with Captain. So far the “Jago Punjab” campaign of the party to take on the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP’s) army of volunteers has made little progress. Though the campaign being handled by party’s youth leaders such as Birender Dhillon and Gobind Khatra claims to have got over 1.5 lakh missed calls, it has enrolled just 2,193 for door to door campaigning — approximately 26 per constituency. It has another 1,173 active and 4,000 passive social media volunteers. “Over 500 professionals — lawyers, doctors, social workers and teachers too are working as volunteers,” Dhillon says. Jago Punjab’s creative team is also making mash-ups, memes, cartoons and videos to match AAP and SAD’s social media war.

‘Accessibility, visibility, unity’

Sitting at a “dhaba” for lunch, Amarinder agrees that events at marriage halls are an expensive proposition and the numbers not “too high”. “Some 65% are from Congress, others are new. But once rains are over, we will hold the programmes in the open and many more people will come. After the 117 constituencies are done, it will only be rallies till elections. The party campaign is happening at three levels. It is not just Coffee with Captain and “Halke Vich Captain”. Punjab Congress in-charge Asha Kumari is holding her own programmes and so is the Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee, which has covered all 117 seats to mobilise party workers,” he says. The IPAC, on its part, claims the aim of the “Halke Vich Captain” is addressing the issues of Amarinder’s accessibility and visibility.

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The party’s unity woes too seem to have subsided for now. Senior leaders such as Rajinder Kaur Bhattal and Partap Bajwa have been made to head the seven “high-level” committees to suggest policies and promises for the poll manifesto. Though other than manifesto committee headed by Bhattal (Manpreet Badal is convener), not much progress has been made by the others. Party’s frontal organisations such as Mahila Congress, Sewa Dal and Youth Congress are helping the IPAC and the PPCC in their programmes and are feeling more relevant than ever before.

The AAP effect

Thriving on controversies courted by the AAP, the Congress is now regaling at the first list of AAP candidates. Amarinder asks MLAs and prospective candidates having lunch with him at the “dhaba” about AAP candidates in their seats and all dismiss them as “no threat”. He adds that the list of disgruntled AAP leaders and volunteers will only grow with the number of lists.

For the Congress, he predicts no rebel trouble like the AAP. “After applications are received, we will hold constituency-wise surveys to zero in on the right candidate,” he says. Sitting across the table are both contenders from SBS Nagar —Guriqbal Kaur’s son Angad and the district chief of the Congress, Satvir Singh and Amarinder inadvertently mentions both as contenders.

Campaign sans advertisements

The party’s campaign is so far going by Kishor’s idea of no “paid publicity”. So unlike the ruling SAD-BJP and AAP, the Congress has not yet launched its ad campaign on newspapers, TV, radio or cinema halls. “As of now, the idea is to focus on reaching out to workers and voters through personal contact. The Congress will unleash its main campaign only two months before the elections after selecting the candidates and fight the elections with unity. The ad campaign, if needed, will be unleashed then,” party insiders said.

But many senior Congress leaders disagree with the campaign. “It was earlier decided that there will be a common war room and Kishor would be anchoring the campaign by taking part in meetings but his energies seem to be concentrated on Uttar Pradesh as of now. There is no focus on social media. We cannot win elections by meeting few thousand people at marriage palaces. Amarinder was drawing more crowds when he was holding anti-Partap Bajwa rallies. We have to raise issues and give an agenda. It is going to be an issue-based election,” says an MLA.

Amarinder leaves the venue for the workers’ meeting scheduled after the “dhaba” lunch and it’s time for the selfie counters and cut-out posters to be dismantled for the next event. The Congress seems to be learning many new things but is it also unlearning enough?

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