For 79-year-old Captain Amarinder Singh who resigned last week as Punjab’s chief minister, life is at a crossroads once again.
This is not the first political crisis that the scion of the Patiala royal family is facing. This is his third resignation – he has changed parties, shifted gears and even faced a major rebellion as CM from which he emerged victorious. And yet, things are not the same.
“I feel humiliated,” the two-time chief minister told media persons outside the governor’s house following his resignation Sunday. Since then, he has viciously attacked his bête noire, cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu, whom he holds responsible for his ouster. He has also recently attacked Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi, calling them inexperienced and misguided by their advisors.
In a series of interviews following his resignation, the former chief minister, however, stopped short of assailing the Congress party’s working president Sonia Gandhi, who he says has a rather straightforward way of dealing with her chief ministers —perform or perish.
Reacting strongly to Amarinder lashing out at the Gandhis Thursday, Congress spokesperson Supriya Shrinate virtually told Amarinder that he was free to leave the party.
Though Amarinder says that all “options are open”, Haryana BJP minister Anil Vij complimented the Captain by tweeting that he indeed was a nationalist. But will he join the BJP? To join the BJP without a solution to the farmers’ agitation will be disastrous for Amarinder, say his aides. The farmers squarely blame the BJP for bringing in the three farm laws they are agitating against.
But a politician who is his own master and holds his ground, Amarinder Singh seems to have been clearly underestimated by his party in the current crisis. The battle-hardened politician has made it clear that he is not going into the sunset a fallen hero. “I was ready to leave after a victory, but never after a loss,” he said in an interview. And that is why Amarinder Singh is ThePrint’s Newsmaker of the Week.
A royal politician
So, who is Captain Amarinder Singh and what is his politics?
He is the elder son of Maharaja Yadavinder Singh and Maharani Mohinder Kaur, the last of the Patiala royals of the Phulkian dynasty. Born with the proverbial silver spoon, he went to the best of schools including the Doon School,Dehradun. Like his father who was an avid cricketer, Amarinder tried his hands at cricket too. He joined the National Defence Academy and was commissioned into the 2nd battalion of the Sikh Regiment in 1963. He served in the India-Pakistan war of 1965. The next year, Amarinder left the Army to take care of household affairs in the absence of his father whose diplomatic career was keeping him out of the country.
His short but remarkable stint in the Army converted him into an avid writer and a celebrated military historian.
Amarinder inherited his interest in politics from his mother who remained a Congress MP from Patiala in Lok Sabha as also Rajya Sabha. She shifted loyalties to the Janata Party after the Emergency, and was their Rajya Sabha MP from 1978 to 1984.
Rajiv Gandhi, an old friend from school, is said to have asked Amarinder to join the Congress. He contested his first elections in 1977 from Patiala but lost to Akali stalwart Gurcharan Singh Tohra. He contested again in 1980 and won. Amarinder, however, resigned in 1984 in the wake of Operation Blue Star. He joined the Shiromani Akali Dal (Longowal) in 1985, and was part of the government under Akali chief minister Surjit Singh Barnala. But Amarinder resigned in May 1986 after Barnala sent police and paramilitary forces into the Golden Temple. He was later elected as leader of the legislative party of SAD till the dissolution of the assembly in 1988, when President’s rule was imposed.
Amarinder launched his own party the SAD (Panthic) and joined hands with SAD (Longowal) for the 1992 Lok Sabha and assembly elections. Mainstream Akali parties boycotted the elections, and Amarinder won unopposed from the Samana assembly segment.
But, the Congress came to power in 1992 and Beant Singh took over as Punjab chief minister. After his assassination in 1995, Harcharan Singh Brar became CM. Interestingly, Brar was replaced by Rajinder Kaur Bhattal a few months ahead of the 1997 polls. A déjà vu moment is now being relived in Punjab politics with Charanjit Singh Channi replacing Amarinder ahead of the 2022 polls.
As the story goes, Amarinder asked for a ticket in the 1997 assembly polls from the Akalis, but was refused. On that day, those close to him say, he swore that he will rule Punjab one day.
But he had to wait another five years. He re-launched SAD (Panthic) and merged it into the Congress in 1998, rejoining the party under Sonia Gandhi’s leadership. He contested the 1998 Lok Sabha elections but lost to SAD (Badal). He replaced Bhattal as party chief in Punjab in 1999 and led Congress to a grand victory in the 2002 assembly election, becoming chief minister for the first time.
Amarinder’s vociferous support of the Sikh cause and leading Congress more as a regional party and not as an extension of the high command led him to revive the Congress in Punjab, which was considered annihilated after Operation Blue Star.
His wife Maharani Preneet Kaur followed him into politics and was an MP from Patiala in 1999, 2004 and 2009. She lost in 2014, but won the Patiala assembly by-poll the same year. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, she again won from her family’s bastion seat of Patiala.
A chief minister and his bureaucrats
Barely a few months into power, Amarinder Singh’s first government nosedived into a crisis when former CM Rajinder Kaur Bhattal gathered 25 MLAs, including a dozen ministers, and camped in Delhi against Amarinder. Supported by Sonia Gandhi, Amarinder reigned supreme and Bhattal was assuaged with the post of deputy chief minister.
Amarinder’s first stint as CM was far from satisfactory. Given to a laid-back attitude, he faced allegations of inaccessibility. He was surrounded by a coterie that became extremely unpopular among his colleagues. Not a hands-on CM, he depended entirely on bureaucrats doling out clean chits to officers facing serious allegations of corruption. Despite widespread criticism, he stuck to his friends and that became his undoing.
In 2007, the Congress lost to the Akalis under his watch, and the next year, Amarinder Singh was expelled from the assembly by a house committee over allegations of irregularities in a land transfer case. He was made the Congress chief again ahead of the 2012 assembly polls, but the party lost to the Akalis.
Finding his feet back after a break of almost ten years, ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Amarinder was chosen to contest from Amritsar against BJP’s Arun Jaitley and the Captain dished out a resounding defeat to him. In the 2017 assembly elections, he led the Congress to victory, winning 77 (now 80) seats in the 117-seat assembly, despite the emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party in Punjab politics.
Amarinder’s second stint as CM was a big improvement on his first. The old coteries had been relegated to the sidelines, but his over-dependence on bureaucrats continued and allegations of inaccessibility remained. His own MLAs resented this and expressed their “lack of faith” in fulfilling promises made ahead of the 2017 elections.
Amarinder may be out but this is certainly not his final swan song. He has made his intentions of creating difficulties for Sidhu in the forthcoming elections amply clear. And there is no doubt that he is capable of and will do much more in the days to come.
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