The key question is: Will the Captain, so far averse to national politics, step up now?
For the Congress, inflicted with its second successive worst defeat in the history of the Lok Sabha elections, the only consolation emerged in Punjab where the party audaciously fended off the Modi mojo that swept the country.
Of all the states where the Grand Old Party is in power (Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh) or in coalition rule (Karnataka), it could hold its ground only in the border state. Elsewhere, it suffered crushing defeats despite having wrested power in the Hindi heartland states barely six months ago.
The man who led the Congress charge in defending the Punjab fort is chief minister Capt Amarinder Singh, who has emerged as one of the party’s few regional satraps standing tall amid the ruins.
Truth be told, the Congress fell short of Amarinder’s much-touted Mission 13, a euphemism for winning all 13 Punjab seats, having romped home on eight.
Yet, the creditable performance in the face of the saffron onslaught is nothing short of a big shot in the arm for the scion of Patiala royalty whose wife Preneet Kaur was among the winners. It has, for once, catapulted him to the front line of a handful of senior Congress faces who still command grassroots support and emerged unscathed by electoral defeat.
As a long-time friend of the Gandhi family, Amarinder is now sure to be the one Congress president Rahul Gandhi will have to look up to while picking the lost pieces to rebuild the battered party.
“It has added to Amarinder’s stature and he has emerged as a powerful regional satrap in the Congress,” says Ashutosh Kumar, a professor of political science at Panjab University, Chandigarh.
So, how did Amarinder stand in the way of the Modi juggernaut that turned out to be unstoppable in neighbouring Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Delhi and Rajasthan? The answer lies as much in his sharp political instincts and personal charisma as in his deftness in crafting a counter poll narrative.
After Pulwama and Balakote, the Captain was the first senior Congress leader to articulate a tough anti-Pakistan line while questioning the exact outcome of the air strikes and denouncing Modi’s “attempt to politicise the armed forces”.
With this self-spun double-barrel narrative, he managed to blunt, to a large extent, the BJP’s shrill Pakistan punch. As a perceptive military historian with an intuitive sense of popular mood, Amarinder knew it too well that Modi’s national security pitch, almost akin to war rhetoric, would not resonate, particularly among the war-weary border state that was the main theatre of wars before.
“Modi’s nationalism card will not work in Punjab,” he had told Hindustan Times in an interview in March. The poll results have largely endorsed him, considering that the Modi factor cut a limited swathe and that too only in the Hindu majority belts of Punjab.
At another level, Amarinder bucked the anti-incumbency ire by a clever amalgam of his achievements, chiefly farm loan waiver, and an emotive sacrilege issue that threw his main rival, the Akalis, off balance.
By harping on the desecration of Guru Granth Sahib and incidents of firing during the previous Akali regime to the hilt and swearing to hold the Badals to account, he struck a chord with the Sikh electorate. “Amarinder successfully repackaged the Sikh identity issues as a counter to Modi’s Hindutva agenda couched in nationalism,” says political analyst Pramod Kumar.
A stellar performance in Punjab may mark Amarinder’s ascendance to pole position in the Congress. While the high command is on a weak wicket, he has emerged stronger in the party which is bad news for his chief dissenter and cabinet minister Navjot Singh Sidhu, who had last week thrown the gauntlet at Amarinder.
But, the key question is: Will the Captain, so far averse to national politics, step up now?
( First published in Hindustan Times , Chandigarh , May 24, 2019 )
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