The Haryana and Maharashtra assembly election results show that Rahul Gandhi must not stand in the way of strong and popular regional leaders in the Congress party. One such leader is Captain Amarinder Singh, the chief minister of Punjab.
It’s no surprise that Rahul Gandhi’s charisma was bludgeoned to oblivion by the Modi magic that has gripped India since 2014. However, among the leaders of the Congress and the opposition, the only one who could never be trolled, dismissed, disrespected or ignored is the heir of the erstwhile Maharaja of Patiala, Captain Amarinder Singh.
The Congress has had a history of not allowing regional leaders to play a national role. The Gandhi family’s hold over the party has acted as a glass ceiling for many charismatic local leaders. This is also why so many regional variants emerged over time – many led by disillusioned leaders from the party. But times are changing. The family doesn’t have the political cache that it once had. So, the family can play two roles – one, as a glue of the party; and two, as the talent-spotter of the party.
Haryana’s impressive results for the Congress party is largely due to Bhupinder Singh Hooda’s command over the voters. This holds an important lesson for the party. Not all is lost. Having been defeated in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, it can start making amends now.
The leader Congress didn’t give a chance
Captain Amarinder Singh is one such leader that the Congress party missed out on giving a national role. He was the nationalist leader who the Congress could’ve pitched as a trump card to give competition to the Bhartiyata sentiment that propelled Narendra Modi, who has stirred the idea of a “New” India bordering on jingoism, to the corridors of power. Captain Amarinder Singh speaks nationalism but his style and demeanour are poles apart from Narendra Modi.
Amarinder Singh has always spoken for the idea of the nation first, which is why he never warmed up to yesteryear cricketer and BJP turncoat Navjot Singh Sidhu who became a little too friendly with Pakistan Army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa during his visit where he raised the Kartarpur corridor case. Captain Amarinder Singh took no time to reprimand Sidhu, then cabinet minister, by saying that as someone who has served in the Indian Army once, he or any Indian “will not tolerate anyone hugging the Pakistan army chief.”
The role of the armed forces during the Balakot airstrikes and the resulting tsunami of adulation that PM Narendra Modi received proved Amarinder Singh’s point. This explains why on the day of the 2019 Lok Sabha election results, the Punjab CM categorically stated that the Congress has to pay for Navjot Singh Sidhu’s show in Pakistan.
And it is here that Captain Amarinder Singh scores more points than Narendra Modi. Besides being a seasoned politician, he has served in the Army. When he talks for the Army and its pride, it’s not mere lip-service to score brownie points during election season.
Just like Narendra Modi, he also fits the bill of an iron-fisted leader, who feels right to the people of India since they are constantly reminded of being unfairly occupied by Muslims from Central Asia and then the British. But here too, Captain Amarinder Singh looks more compassionate than Narendra Modi.
After the dilution of Article 370 on 5 August, it was a leader like Amarinder Singh who walked a tightrope by aligning with the party line of speaking against the Modi government’s move in Jammu and Kashmir. But he had the wisdom to emphasise on the unconstitutionality of the bifurcation of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir instead of the removal of the special status. His government went on to ban any protests or celebrations in Punjab over this decision. He also hosted Kashmiri students living in Punjab on Eid and established himself as a leader who is sensitive and capable of taking tough decisions.
The lesson for Congress
Narendra Modi has often been criticised for his acerbic comments on his opponents, for example calling Sonia Gandhi a “jersey cow”, Mamata Banerjee “speed breaker didi” or calling his dissenters “urban Naxals”.
His critics say such remarks don’t behove a Prime Minister. You’ll hardly ever catch Singh using an ill-willed word against his peers, no matter how bitter the political atmosphere becomes.
During the release of the movie Avengers: End Game, the Akalis decided to throw shade at Amarinder Singh by trending the hashtag “RajeDa Endgame”. In a Facebook post, Shiromani Akali Dal claimed that the CM was the “Thanos” of Punjab and that his “endgame” was imminent.
Later, Food Processing Industries Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal even blamed him for disrespecting the Jathedar of the Akal Takht, the highest temporal seat of the Sikhs, by making a parallel stage to mark the 550th ‘Parkash Purb’. Amarinder Singh walked away from such insinuations with a simple statement like: “She (Badal) has no scruples, none of the Akalis have.”
The Congress should realise that maintaining strong leadership in the party is central to its success and that a repeat of Sonia Gandhi nominating anyone from the party, like Manmohan Singh, as the PM candidate is a cheque that can be cashed only once.
India is now only voting for a leader that commands his or her party, whichever it may be. We are no longer voting for the BJP, we are voting for “Modi ji”.
India has a parliamentary election system, but people are voting presidential-style. That’s the reality the Congress must accept.
Captain Amarinder Singh could be a saving grace at fraught times like these for the Congress party – a popular regional leader with strong nationalist credentials.
The author is a political observer and writer. Views are personal.