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Opinion

With Captain Out, Here’s Why Congress Is Again The Frontrunner In Punjab

In Punjab, Capt Amarinder left without much support among the elected legislators, decided to go out kicking and shouting, issuing thinly-veiled threats to the party high command.

File photograph of Amarinder Singh (Courtesy: Twitter handle of Amarinder Singh)

MUCH has been and will continue to be written about whether the decision of the Congress high command to give in to the demands of a vast majority of the MLAs and ministers to change Capt Amarinder Singh as Chief Minister is a masterstroke or an ill-thought-of move, one that is bound to backfire. After all, unless it is to acknowledge that your Chief Minister and his government was a complete failure and winning again with him at the helm could be extremely difficult if not impossible, you don’t change the Chief Minister less than six months before elections.

The BJP did that, with much more ease and without much controversy earlier this year in Uttarakhand when it changed two chief ministers in Uttarakhand within a gap of six months – Trivendra Singh Rawat resigned in March, his successor Tirath Singh Rawat remained in office for less than four months, eventually making way for Pushkar Singh Dhami.

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In Punjab, Capt Amarinder left without much support among the elected legislators, decided to go out kicking and shouting, issuing thinly-veiled threats to the party high command.

And if one weighs in into the fact that everyone – Capt Amarinder himself, opposition parties like the Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal), the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the BJP – attacked only Navjot Singh Sidhu after Capt Amarinder’s resignation as Chief Minister yesterday, it suggests that the best course of action for the Congress high command, now that it has taken the extreme step of shunting out a tried-and-tested leader like Capt Amarinder, would be to take the next big gamble: Appoint Sidhu as Chief Minister. 

By all accounts and assessment of reports from the ground, with Capt Amarinder at the helm, the chances of Congress retaining power ranged from zero to nil!

His aura severely faded, his support bases shrinking, courtesy his aloofness and governing-through-a-coterie style of functioning, his inability to move around with much agility and the constant bickering among his closest aides – most of them busy leaking information against each other than doing anything to help the Maharaja govern effectively, the only way left for Capt Amarinder, many feels, was out.

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But, now that he is history, at least till the next year’s Assembly elections, does Congress stand a chance to retain power?

Yes. Here’s why

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If Congress is divided, the opposition is not exactly creating a buzz: Anyone who toured Punjab six months ahead of the 2017 Assembly elections would remember the strong buzz that the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) was created in the state with its unique, volunteer-led campaign in the state, especially rural Punjab. While, eventual results showed that AAP, and many from among my fraternity, who was quick to award the election to the (then) newest entrant to the Assembly election scene in the border state even before a single vote had been cast, were way off their mark in their assessment of the real support for AAP among voters, there was little doubt that the party had managed to create a buzz. 

The same can’t be said about the party now. Despite the hard work being put on the ground by the likes of Delhi MLA Jarnail Singh, in-charge of the state, and another Delhi MLA Raghav Chadha, co-in-charge of the state, it is a pale shadow of its not-so-old self and will need a miracle to be treated as a formidable opponent to the ruling Congress and the opposition Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal).

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As for the Sukhbir Singh Badal-led Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal), it is yet to regain its credibility and win back the trust of its core vote bank – the panthic voters. That the voters are still upset with the party is very clear. Despite the pre-poll seat-sharing agreement with Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the Akali Dal, which has already started its campaign, has, so far, been unable to re-establish a strong connect with its base, much required if it has any hope of leapfrogging from last time’s third-place finish to first place at next year’s elections.

Unless it manages to polarise the voters on Hindi-Sikh lines, something that may help it do better but will forever create a deep wedge between the two communities in the state, the chances of BJP winning the next elections are even less than, to put it in clear perspective for you, the reader, the Congress winning the next year’s Uttar Pradesh elections.

Any strong leader as CM will be better than Capt Amarinder: With the opposition in complete disarray, all that Congress needs to win at the hustings next year is a strong leader, one who will be accessible and who will be seen as doing something. To begin with, the next Chief Minister could order much-publicised action against the drug mafia in the state as well as swifter action on the two issues that are very dear to the ordinary Sikh voters – bringing to book the accused in the October 2015 Bargari sacrilege case and the deaths of protestors in police firing in Kotkapura the same month.

And then there is the issue of non-governance or misgovernance. The next Chief Minister will have to be based in Chandigarh, move around in the villages and take quick decisions, not one sitting in a farmhouse on the periphery of Chandigarh, leading a semi-retired life in the company of his friends. Be visible among the people, listen to them, stop the continuing loot of the state’s exchequer by the sand-bajri (mining) mafia and half your job is done. 

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Farmers and aarthiyas (commission agents) are for the Congress: While the farmers are upset with almost all parties, their anger with the Congress is within manageable limits. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s strong demand that the three farm laws be annulled and the support that the Congress leadership, including Capt Amarinder’s own government, provided to the ongoing anti-far laws agitation has earned the party brownie points with the farmers. Ditto for aarthiyas, once the core vote-bank of the BJP but who, ever since the Centre brought the three farm laws, have been looking at other options. 

The next Chief Minister, if he manages a connect with the agitating farmers, will reap rich dividends in the shape of votes. And, as ironic as it sounds, the ground for this has already been laid by the outgoing Chief Minister.

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Bring Capt Amarinder around: Despite his outbursts, especially against his pet peeve Navjot Singh Sidhu, Capt Amarinder isn’t going anywhere in a hurry. He is a smart, calculating politician who knows the importance of timing. The next CM, even if it is Sidhu, would do well to reach out to Capt Amarinder and ensure that he is in his corner. It is easier said than done – Maharajas don’t forget and forgive so easily. But it isn’t going to be an impossible task. If Congress wants to win the next Assembly election, it will have to do that, and quickly.

Maneesh Chhibber is a Consulting Editor with India Ahead News. The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author. 

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