Captain loses command of the ship

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Amarinder Singh during an interview with Mail Today in Amritsar.
Losing ground Is former Punjab CM out of favour with the central party leaders?

A month is a very long time in politics. Four weeks ago, there was a feeling that the Congress was finally finding its groove in Punjab politics. Its state unit head Capt. Amarinder Singh was on a roll guided by political strategist Prashant Kishor. The party held a successful political conference on the occasion of Baisakhi at Talwandi Sabo. It planned to get NRIs in its fold.

Then Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi decided to drop in — and the cookie seems to have crumbled. Things started spiralling out of control for Amarinder, and there seems to be no end to his troubles. The pcc chief went on a North America tour that reduced him to a tourist. Far from influencing non-resident Indians (NRIs), he spent his time stranded in Chicago shooting missives to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to overturn a decision not to let him address public meetings. Finally, on 24 April, he cancelled the Canadian leg of his tour.

Sikhs for Justice, a radical Sikh organisation that had earlier tried to serve a notice on Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal when he visited Chicago a few years back, successfully blocked Amarinder from addressing any public meetings in Canada by citing a law which prohibits electioneering and politicking by any foreign national. The radical organisation has gone even one step further by trying to get action taken against Amarinder for alleged human right abuses during his stint as chief minister. This effectively forced Amarinder to call off his tour.

The Punjab Congress was hoping big on getting NRIs on its side, especially as the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has attracted a huge response from them. It has not helped that senior AAP leaders have held a successful public tour of Canada and faced no such problems. This indicates an alignment between AAP and radical Sikh elements and puts paid to all efforts by Amarinder to project a Panthic face to win over the radicals. His publicity posters abroad even depict him with a deep blue pugree, a colour he has never worn in Punjab.

With Amarinder’s foreign tour becoming a non-starter, he faces the challenge of coming home to reorganise a demoralised party whose workers are crossing over in droves to AAP. How successful he is in arresting this erosion of ranks will make or break his party in the coming days.

Meanwhile even as the Congress projected a business-as-usual approach one month back, the problems were there for all to see. The Coffee with Captain programmes did not quite take off because when Amarinder met students they asked him inconvenient questions which threw the exercise off balance. When he met party workers, they said they felt ignored as his coterie had made him unapproachable.

On the heels of this was the Congress Vice President’s decision not to project Amarinder as the party’s chief ministerial candidate. The issue was not only of Rahul refusing to do this but the lack of vibes between the two. Apparently, when editors and senior journalists interacting with Rahul said Amarinder’s stature had gone down due to some decisions of the Congress high command, Rahul was non-committal. But Amarinder virtually admitted as much by saying the selection of candidates for the two Rajya Sabha seats was the prerogative of the Congress president.

The Congress president had overruled Amarinder’s recommendations, including that of Sufi singer Hansraj Hans. Amarinder also admitted that the organisational list of the pcc was lying for approval with the party high command since two months. It is this tendency of Amarinder to call a spade a spade and refusal to kowtow to Rahul which, insiders say, is coming in the way of his getting complete control of the Punjab State unit of the party.

It has not helped Amarinder’s cause that the high command is keen to bolster Dalit leaders, due to which clp leader Charanjit Channi got prominence during Rahul’s visit. The Congress knows that it needs the support of the Dalit community or it can say goodbye to any chance of even being in the reckoning in the 2017 elections. Dalits constitute nearly 28 percent of the State population. They are most concentrated in the Doaba region of the State. In the 2012 assembly poll, the Congress was virtually wiped out in this region despite doing well in the Jat heartland of Malwa, which constitutes the major share of seats. Consequently, it had to sit in the opposition.

This time around, due to the advent of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), there has been a churn in Punjab politics. AAP is getting tremendous support from the Dalits and has become a force to reckon with in the Doaba region. This has predictably rung alarm bells in the Congress. The party wants to do everything possible to wean the Dalits to its side. It already has competition from the bjp, which has appointed a Dalit — Union minister Vijay Sampla — as the bjp state president. With so much at stake, it is understandable that the Congress is taking a cautious approach.

Even as Rahul prevaricates, the Congress is likely to face the heat on this issue once AAP announces its cm candidate in July. this year. There is intense speculation that it could be HS Phoolka, a human rights lawyer who commands tremendous respect in the Sikh community. Or even Kanwar Sandhu, a former journalist who is heading the party’s Punjab Dialogue.

Congress party workers and leaders, however, feel there is no other leader of the stature of Amarinder and he will lead the party into the polls. Be that as it may, there is little doubt that Amarinder is looking a pale shadow of his former self, with barely one year to go for the next assembly polls. The gains of few successful rallies and his bid to reach out to youngsters have been all but negated by a suspicious high command which still does not want to give him full command in the state.

If this impression gathers steam, Amarinder will lose more ground in the months ahead as then ticket-seekers will also flock to the party high command and not him!

letters@tehelka.com