The Captain Who Sailed Against Modi Tide
Four years ago, Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh was appointed president of the Congress party’s state unit but only after he fought hard to get this position which put him in line for the CM’s post.
It was only after he threatened to revolt that the Congress leadership reluctantly relented and brought him back as party chief though the high command was not happy at being browbeaten into taking a decision.
Singh could afford to exert pressure on the party as he had more than proved himself when he defeated Bharatiya Janata Party’s senior leader Arun Jaitley in the 2014 Lok Sabha election to win the prestigious Amritsar seat in spite of a Modi wave.
Amarinder Singh stood vindicated yet again when he went on to oust the ten-year-led Shiromani Akali Dal government in 2017 to form a Congress government in Punjab.
And today, Singh is truly the king as he has successfully fended off the Modi upsurge once again by winning eight of the 13 Lok Sabha seats in Punjab, a gain of five seats from the last general election. This is despite the fact that Singh has been in power for nearly two years after which one would expect a sitting chief minister to face some anti-incumbency.
In fact, Singh is the only chief minister who has delivered for the party while Kamal Nath, Bhupesh Baghel and Ashok Gehlot, his counterparts in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan, failed miserably in keeping the BJP at bay.
The Congress performance has strengthened Amarinder Singh’s hold over the party in Punjab while the Congress is looking at him with renewed respect with some even suggesting that he deserved to be made party president.
As in the case of 2014, Punjab bucked the national trend once again in this election and chose to vote differently from the rest of the country. The state remained impervious to Modi’s charms even though in neighboring Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, it was Modi, Modi all the way.
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While the Congress bettered its score this time, the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Admi Party, which had stunned everyone by bagging four seats in the last Lok Sabha election has been reduced to one this time and the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party combine won four seats between them. For the Akalis, it was a second shock after its humiliating defeat in the 2017 assembly poll as it could only ensure the victory of its party president Sukhbir Singh Badal and his wife Harsimrat Singh Badal while the remaining ten party candidates fell by the wayside.
For his part, Amarinder Singh did not allow the poll campaign to become Modi-centric. He successfully used the BJP’s high-pitch campaign on nationalism post-Pulwama to his advantage by lending unequivocal support to the government’s action in Balakot. He made a thundering speech in the assembly, sent out a chilling warning to Pakistan, and urged Modi to see that the killing of Indian soldiers and citizens was avenged. Singh’s move to present himself as a true nationalist carried credibility as he has served in the Indian Army. Besides, warmongering does not go down well in Punjab as the people point out that as a border state, they are the first to be hit in case of military action.
Singh pushed the Akalis on the defensive by successfully playing the Panthic card in the election. He constantly attacked the Badals by periodically referring to the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib in 2015 and subsequent police firing at protesters as well as the pardon granted to Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram in a blasphemy case. Singh set up a commission to inquire into the sacrilege issue which held that the Badal administration was complicit in shielding those responsible for committing the unholy act. Finding themselves on the backfoot, the Badal family offered an apology at the Golden Temple. Though the Badals won their seats, the issue continues to haunt the party.
Amarinder Singh was also helped in his campaign by the fact that his opponents were unable to put up an effective fight as both the Shromani Akali Dal and the Aam Admi Party have been wracked by internal divisions. The Badals found themselves in the dock after the party’s rout in the 2017 assembly polls when several old timers walked out to set up shop on their own. The Lok Sabha result shows that the party has yet to recover from its last defeat.
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The virtual unraveling of the Aam Admi Party also made Singh’s job easier. The newbie party had caught the imagination of the people of Punjab in 2014 when it won four Lok Sabha seats. Though the party did not fare as well as it was expected to do in the last assembly election, it did manage to beat the Akalis to emerge as the principal opposition party. But since then, the party has witnessed several departures with its state chief Sukhpal Singh Khaira setting up his own party and two of its MLAs joining the Congress.
Consequently, the party which was seen as a rising star in Punjab, has lost all credibility. It managed to bag only one Lok Sabha seat with Gurudas Mann retaining Sangrur. The Congress snatched the remaining three seats from the Aam Admi Party.