The end of Captain’s era

Now that the Captain Amarinder Singh era is coming to an end after a quarter century of dominance in Punjab politics, Harjeshwar Pal Singh takes stock of his career.


By Harjeshwar Pal Singh | OPINION |

Now that the Captain Amarinder Singh era is coming to an end after a quarter century of dominance in Punjab politics, it is time to take stock of his career.

His career since he became the Punjab Congress president in 1998 can be divided into three phases.

The time from 1998 till 2004 can be seen as the period of struggle for ascendency. During this phase the royal from Patiala had to face considerable hostility from the old guard of the Congress. The likes of Jagmeet Brar and Rajinder Kaur Bhathal were consistent thorns and it was only the determined support of Sonia Gandhi at the centre which propped up Amarinder Singh as the chief minister (CM) in 2002. Luck also played a part as the division between the Parkash Singh Badal and Gurcharan Singh Tohra factions helped Congress to win both the 1999 Parliamentary elections and 2002 assembly elections. During this time Amarinder was surrounded by a core which included Rana Sodhi, Rana Gurjit, Kewal Dhillon, BIS Chahl and Bharat Inder Singh Chahal (BIS).

The period 2004-2014 was the zenith of Amarinder’s in Punjab Politics. His decision to scrap the river water sharing agreement in 2004 made him the first mass leader of Punjab Congress, a bold and fearless leader who was willing to sacrifice his CM ship for the interests of Punjab. At the same time Amarinder broadened the social base of Punjab congress adding the Jatt Sikh peasantry to the traditional Hindu and Dalit base of congress. One of Amarinder’s abiding legacies remains his replanting of Congress into Punjabs soil despite hostility towards the Gandhis. He led Congress twice to victory and Congress never won less than 44 seats under his command. This achievement gave him an edge over the Congress high command and made his name as a bold and charismatic regional leader not afraid to speak his mind.

In this Amarinder-Badal era of politics, ideology and workers were sidelined in favour of moneybags and winning ability, leading to blurring of the distinctions between political parties. Big ticket corruption made its entry and oiled the political machines. Ideological dexterity helped Amarinder to firmly secure a centrist space in politics and to appeal to multiple constituencies simultaneously. If he appeared as a champion of Sikh and farmers interest in his first tenure, appeal to national security and Hindu anxiety characterised his second stint in power.

Amarinder was feted during his first tenure as a bold and decisive administrator by his ensuring timely and hassle free procurement and ending corruption in public services. His decision to imprison the Badals and other Akali ministers on corruption charges also added to his popularity. Despite defeats in the 2007 and 2012 assembly elections and his replacement by Partap Singh Bajwa as PPCC chief, Captain remained the tallest congress leader. His crowning achievement came in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections when he defeated the formidable Arun Jaitley from Amritsar at the height of Modi wave. The Patiala royal was ruthless against his political rivals — Bibi Bhathal, Jagmeet Bear and Partap Singh Bajwa virtually ending their careers, this nipped in the bud many potential revolts against him. Over the years, Amarinder established a reputation of a national statesman — suave, secular and sophisticated, a darling of the liberal media but at the same time a hawk on national security and foreign policy which helped him to carve a niche in national politics many times at a variance with his party.

The last phase of Amarinder Singhs career 2014-2021 saw him declining steadily. A number of corruption cases led him to compromise with his former foes Badals and a slew of new leaders like Bhagwant Mann and Navjot Sidhu emerged in Punjab who eclipsed him in popularity. The spectacular self immolation of AAP and aided by Parshant Kishore’s adroit marketing led to Captain again tasting power in 2017. However his current tenure has been a disaster. Incompetence, inaccessibility, pusillanimity, collusion and outsourcing of administration marked his current regime. Failure to fulfil promises like justice for beadabi, jobs, drug eradication etc dented his credibility. His notorious inaccessibility and tendency to be surrounded by a coterie cut him off from popular and worker sentiment. The perception that he played second fiddle to Modi and colluded with the Badals chipped at his carefully created image of a bold Punjab politician. His abominable brand of politics playing the “Hindu, national security and Khalistan“ card marked him as a cynical power hungary politician. Images of “parties”, ”sitaphals” and “female friends” in lavish farmhouses strengthened the image of a licentious feudal unconcerned with state affairs. The vice like grip of bureaucracy in decision-making and administration made the government unaccountable while MLA’s running mafia rackets made it appear rapacious.

The arrogant and complacent CM failed to gauge the public and worker mood until it was too late for him as the Congress MLA’s under an ambitious and popular former celebrity in alliance with a new Congress high command pulled the rug from under his feet.

Harjeshwar Pal Singh is an assistant professor at Sri Guru Gobind Singh College, Chandigarh, where he teaches history. He is an avid political commentator.


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