When it comes to fighting battles, the former Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh is a throwback to the bygone era. A former Army man and veteran in the political arena, Amarinder Singh is perhaps the embodiment of classical warfare strategist because he knows when to fight and when not to. For far too long, speculation was rife about the future course of action that Captain Amarinder Singh would chart, given the shaky relations with the Congress high command. The Maharaja of Patiala, Amarinder Singh, was indeed the last of the stalwarts left in the grand old party of Indian politics that has been losing touch with the grassroots and reality.
The implosion of the Amarinder Singh-led Congress government in Punjab had been in the making for months and a writing on the wall. The central leadership (read the Nehru-Gandhi family) is not known for nurturing local leaders, but its decision to anoint newbie Navjot Singh Sidhu as the state party chief despite the icy relationship with the Captain left little to the imagination. The next few months are significant for Captain Amarinder’s and the poll-bound state’s political future. More significantly, they would also be key to the state of the opposition in Indian polity.
In many ways, Captain Amarinder has had the making of the ideal face of the opposition for long. Besides enjoying popularity and acceptance, he seems to cut across party lines with different segments of the electorate, especially when it comes to issues of national importance. This is why despite specific segments of voters having some problem with his one-time party, Congress, would still vote for him. The Captain’s brand is charismatic enough to win elections on his name, and if rumours are to be believed, this is what happened in the previous Punjab Assembly polls where he supposedly asked Rahul Gandhi not to campaign.
The Congress’ repeated efforts to harm its fortunes by continually sidelining anyone with any talent, pedigree or connection with the voter at the grass-root level has resulted in the exit of potential gen-next leaders. Before Amarinder Singh, the last few years have witnessed many young leaders, such as Himanta Biswa Sarma, Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy and Jyotiraditya Scindia walk away.
While on the face of it, Congress insists on its secular credentials; however, it invariably promotes identity-based politics when it comes to walking the talk. In the case of Punjab, the elevation of Charanjit Singh Channi, which both the Congress party and sections of the media hailed as the “First Dalit Sikh CM” is the latest such instance. As a religion, Sikhism does not have any caste divisions and beginning with its founder Guru Nanak ji, the teachings of all ten Gurus preach equality. There is enough discourse to suggest that this might not have permeated into society as it stands today, but highlighting this aspect while choosing a CM runs a higher chance of it becoming a norm than being questioned or shunned.
Although identity-based politics is still prevalent, do they still hold as much sway as television news anchors and political commentators would like you to believe? The Lok Sabha elections of 2014 and 2019 testify how the Indian electorate is in the midst of a visible transformation that continues to elude most media. The young electorate across the country is now beginning to see governance and opportunities for everyone as factors while casting its vote. The opposition’s desire to exploit caste, identity and other fault lines for political gain is ready picking for enemies of India such as Pakistan’s ISI or Chinese CCP-backed outfits that use social media and other technology to promote disruption.
This is in sync with tactical recommendations in a 2016 Pakistan Senate committee report that asked the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to exploit India’s fault-lines on caste and religion, encourage Modi baiters to check India’s growing stature in a diplomatic battle with Pakistan. The 22-point policy suggested, “India’s own fault-lines in their alienated Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and Dalits as well as the growing Maoist insurgency (should) be highlighted.”
A strong opposition is essential for democracy to survive. At the same time, the opposition also has to rise above petty politics regarding issues that concern the entire country. The Congress’ nonperformance and the failure of what the likes of an Aam Aadmi Party promised in the name of opposition have also made people vary of political ideology that seems to thrive on opportunism. In this light, Captain Amarinder Singh’s decision to leave the Congress could well be the point in Indian politics where the road bifurcates as far as the opposition goes. A veteran leader, Singh might be an astute politician, but he doesn’t indulge in political correctness or compulsions, not beyond a point, at least. He vehemently opposes the ISI-backed Khalistan movement and repeatedly reiterates the importance of a border state such as Punjab.
The numbers game – how many MLA chose to side with Amarinder Singh if he were to float his party, what happens to more popular leaders that got overlooked, etc. – will unravel itself in the days to come. This development would also suggest what would become of the opposition in India, which is primarily limited to Congress.
The India National Congress has been the face of the country’s principal opposition even though it’s well short of numbers in Lok Sabha to claim the title officially. It is strange that while on the one hand, it seems to lack any saleable idea to attract the voter, but yet, on the other hand, it chooses to let go of someone like Amarinder Singh while inducting someone like Kanhaiya Kumar and Jignesh Mevani.
A former student leader, Kumar fought the Lok Sabha election on the Communist ticket, targeted Congress leadership, and Mevani has based his entire public life on caste politics. Looking at the idiocy that has played out in Punjab, one wonders if the alleged 2008 MOU signed between the Communist Party of China (CCP) and Rahul Gandhi have anything to do with Congress letting go of Amarinder Singh (Army veteran) coupled with its pick for Punjab chief – Navjot Sidhu, who publicly hugs Pakistan Army Chief General Bajwa, heaps praises on ‘yaar dildaar’ Imran Khan? This analogy may be seen as a stretch of one’s imagination, or inversely, can be looked at as ‘connecting the dots, given the apparent coincidences here.
Be that as it may, the Congress shaping its ultimate demise (seems like a forgone conclusion, at this point) will eventually make way for a vibrant democracy that breaks out of the vice-like grip of the Nehru-Gandhi family. The voters in Punjab and across the country, be it state or Lok Sabha elections, would play an important role as their decision could shape India’s future at a pretty critical juncture since independence.
(Amrita Bhinder is a columnist and political commentator)
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