For all practical purposes, the state unit has been more or less converted into a regional party with a strong satrap in Capt Amarinder Singh
Amid the ruins and crumbling edifice all over the country, Punjab and Kerala are the only two oases for Congress in 2019, giving the grand old party something to cheer about—a consolation prize in times of utter political despair and gloom.
In Punjab, the Congress won an impressive eight seats and 40 per cent of the votes, which is much more than four seats and 33 per cent in the 2014 polls, indicating that the graph of the party is going up despite Prime Minister Modi and BJP building up a narrative of muscular nationalism post the Balakot air strike inside Pakistan. As Punjab is a border state and has faced the brunt of all the wars which the country has fought with Pakistan — 1948, 1965 and then 1971 — and also faced one of the worst phases in its existence in the form of Pak-sponsored terrorism for over 10 years in the 1980s and early years of 1990s, the narrative which Modi built of national security had the potential of getting more traction in this state. But this simply failed to get dividends here because of the counter narrative built by the Capt Amarinder-led Punjab Congress which has to be differentiated from the Rahul Gandhi -led Congress.
Two seats which BJP won in Punjab were Gurdaspur, which was largely due to the star power of Sunny Deol, and Hoshiarpur reserved seat, where the local factors went against the Congress as well as the improved performance of Bahujan Samaj Party, ensuring the victory of BJP candidate Som Prakash. Long-time NDA alliance partner, Shiromani Akali Dal, managed to win from Bathinda and Ferozepur with the husband-wife duo of Harsimrat Kaur and Sukhbir Badal getting the voters’ approval due to the concentration of the entire Akali machinery here.
For all practical purposes, in Punjab, the Congress has been more or less converted into a regional party for a while now, with a strong regional satrap in Capt Amarinder Singh. And this unit has little to do with the high command culture prevalent in the national party where decisions are made at the central level and communicated to the states. In fact, to be fair to the party president Rahul Gandhi, he has left it to Capt Amarinder to decide what is good.
Just before the Lok Sabha elections when former Congress Working Committee member Jagmeet Singh Brar approached the party high command for re-entry into the Congress, possibly to contest the Lok Sabha elections, the high command simply directed him to Capt Amarinder rather than taking a decision on its own and then imposing him on the Chief Minister. The set-up is perfect in Punjab for the former Army Captain. PCC president Sunil Jakhar is a hardcore Amarinder loyalist and even the AICC in-charge of the state, Asha Kumari, is hardly a political heavyweight. That’s the kind of respect Capt Amarinder enjoys right now with the top leadership of the party. Of course, the leaked messages of Brar to Capt Amarinder speaks volumes about the level of sycophancy which the former Congressman indulged in to get back but the Chief Minister refused to have any truck with him given his limited appeal and party- hopping tendencies.
Moreover, almost all candidates were practically hand-picked by Capt Amarinder. Manish Tewari, a former Lok Sabha MP from Ludhiana, who wanted a ticket from Chandigarh, was given nomination from Anandpur Sahib Constituency, an entirely new seat for him from where he had no political linkage or any claim. Capt Amarinder ensured that Tewari emerged victorious and no doubt along with Shashi Tharoor, the MP from Kerala, he would be the face of the party in the Lok Sabha after the defeat of seasoned Congress parliamentarians like Mallikarjun Kharge from Karnataka and Jyotiraditya Scindia from Madhya Pradesh.
Despite his success at the regional level, it would be ridiculous to portray Capt Amarinder as a national leader and a possible replacement for Rahul Gandhi. It is too far-fetched a political theory and even Capt Amarinder would not agree to this as he knows his limitations. First, he never had a national ambition nor has it now despite an impressive show. Second, at 80, he is not getting any younger. Third, his inability or rather unwillingness to communicate in Hindi, the language of the cow belt, would further reduce his appeal. It is similar to Manmohan Singh, the two-term Prime Minister, who was a poor communicator in all languages and could not even highlight the achievements of his government properly. In fact, he hardly campaigned for his party anywhere else in the country even in the 2019 polls.
Coming from an ex-serviceman who takes pride in using “Captain” before his name, a person who had seen the 1965 action from close quarters as an officer in uniform and is a proud military historian, Modi’s narrative fizzled out in the border state. Even when Capt Amarinder asked for evidence for the Balakot strike, he was convincing as he himself gave numerous examples from the 1965 war where the victorious Indian Army officers had brought trophies of war from amongst the Pakistani Army as proof of victory. The simple fact of the matter is that Capt Amarinder matched Modi step by step in the aggressive narrative post Pulwama-Balakot episodes and did not follow the Congress party line of being suspect and unsure how to react to these developments.
Besides, the BJP has been riding piggy-back on the Akalis for several decades, unsure of an independent identity. RSS, too, has been trying to expand its influence amongst the Sikhs through the Rashtriya Sikh Sangat for years now with limited appeal and little scope of penetrating the rural Sikh peasantry. Family rule has been firmly established in the Akalis and is being resented.
In fact, Capt Amarinder also tried to play identity politics and to some extent appropriated the religious issues which the Akalis had been using for decades. This was like hurting the opponent where it hurts the most. When police firing took place at a place called Baragari on protestors after several incidents of sacrilege of religious scriptures came to notice, the Akalis were on the defensive. Like a good heavyweight wrestler, Capt Amarinder simply raised the pitch on Baragari police firing, making one announcement or the other to keep the Akalis on the mat. He got the police officers responsible for the firing arrested, promising to reach to the top of Akali leadership which was the then Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and his son Sukhbir Badal. Akalis, in turn, had little or nothing to offer to the aggression of Capt Amarinder and his team, who was clearly enjoying the new rules of the game which he had just introduced.
So in reality, Congress did become an umbrella organisation of all groups in Punjab — the rural Sikhs for whom religious issues are important, the urban-centric voters for whom Akali Dal has little to offer and also the large section of the Dalits in the Doaba region where Congress always had more traction. No wonder, the party emerged as an oasis amid despair in north India and also gave appropriate lessons to the central leadership how to successfully counter the narrative of “muscular nationalism” with a similar one, albeit with a regional variation.
(The writer is Senior Resident Editor, The Pioneer, Chandigarh)