She loves me, she loves me not game seems to be playing out in Punjab politics. People have been left guessing whether the Badal family led by Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and Punjab Congress president Capt Amarinder Singh are in cohorts with each other or not. A bunch of events including the lack of eagerness on the part of both natural adversaries to attack each other has given credence to this speculation which is being spurred further by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) — which stands to gain the most if this allegation gains ground.
This speculation started more than two years back. And it happened soon after the Lok Sabha elections in April 2014 when Capt Amarinder Singh trounced BJP heavy weight Arun Jaitely. The election also witnessed a proxy contest between Amarinder and Bikram Majithia, an Akali minister and brother in law of Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal. Amarinder seemed to get the better of Majithia who was managing the Akali campaign for Jaitely even though the Akali leader retained his lead in his assembly constituency of Majithia. Be what it may, there was a perception that both Amarinder and Majithia were daggers drawn with the former targeting him relentlessly.
As fate would have it, things got worse for Majithia after the polls with demands for his resignation due to allegations leveled against him by a former drug lord Jagdish Bhola. Though there was no evidence against Majithia, the fact that another Akali minister — Sarwan Singh Phillaur had been forced to resign on a drugs related issue made Majithia’s position in the cabinet shaky. It was in such a situation that Amarinder stepped in. He not only gave a clean chit to Majithia but also said there was no need to transfer the case to the CBI. Majithia got a new lease of life after this “clean chit”.
There has been a softening in the animosity between the Badals and Amarinder in the past. Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal has gone on record to say that he does not believe in the policy of vendetta and has even withdrawn the defamation case filed against the Congress leader. Amarinder, who had earlier registered cases against Badal and his son Sukhbir Badal during his stint as Chief Minister, has also softened considerably against the Akali first family. He seems to be happy threatening the officers now as was reminiscent by his visit to a police station in Gurdaspur on October 12 to stop “persecution” of Congress workers.
The latest development in which the State Vigilance department has filed a cancellation report before a court and sought the discharge of all 18 accused persons, including Capt Amarinder in the alleged land scam case involving the Amritsar Improvement Trust has fuelled speculation that the State is going out of its way to let the Congress leader off the hook. While filing the cancellation report the Vigilance department has said that no incriminating evidence has come to the fore to prove the charges and no malafide or offence has been committed by the accused.
This report has been filed after a fresh SIT was constituted to reinvestigate the case following the orders of the Punjab and Haryana high court. Earlier the same department, following an investigation, had filed a challan in the same court in 2009 holding 18 persons including the Congress leader guilty of various malpractices in allotting the land to a private party. Now the same department has even submitted a report in favour of the builder — Veer stating that it could not have paid bribes to anyone as it achieved a profit of Rs one crore only.
This fresh development has undone a ten year exercise of the State assembly which found Amarinder guilty and asked the Vigilance department to book him and 17 others in the case. The issue had been first highlighted by former Congressman Birdevinder Singh who claimed exemptions had been given to a builder to acquire 32 acres of land in Amritsar. An FIR was registered in the case following a report tabled by a house committee headed by SAD legislator Harish Rai Dhanda.
This development seems to be music for AAP ears. Its President and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal had announced at the Maghi fair last year that the two first families of Punjab were in league with each other. This had some resonance and Amarinder had to devote some time trying to dispel this speculation. This time Amarinder has chosen to say that there is a secret nexus between AAP and SAD to malign him as they perceived him as a common enemy.
There are however few takers for this view as the SAD and AAP are going hammer and tongs against each other. Similar is the case between Congress and AAP. Amarinder has also done away with slogans like putting Badals and Majithia behind bars even as AAP has picked up this gauntlet. AAP claims that both the SAD and AAP see it as a common enemy and are unnerved by its surging popularity.
Though the AAP surge is on the wane presently, analysts say what it is reflected in the media does not necessarily represent the ground reality. They claim AAP still commands a sizable amount of the anti-incumbency vote — a large portion of which the Congress needs if it hopes to return to power. This they say will eventually turn out to the advantage of the SAD-BJP combine in the 2017 assembly elections.
Amarinder on his part seems to be taking a leaf out of the Akali political book and is leading a positive campaign coupled with an undertone of aggression. However the clean chit given to him by the State Vigilance department puts his anti-Badal campaign under a cloud. It has already become an issue amongst Congress workers who are smarting against “false” cases registered against them. It will be difficult for Amarinder to get these workers to take on the Akalis aggressively when he seems to being favoured by the State government.
This is likely to become a major issue in the coming days whether the court accepts the Vigilance department’s new contention or not. The Punjab government is yet to react officially to the issue. But the bets are off that the department could not have filed the cancellation report against Amarinder without a nod from the powers that be. AAP leaders claim this is a blatant attempt to prop up Amarinder. AAP has all the more reasons to cry foul as it has been at the receiving end during the last two months following a split in the party with the parting of ways of senior leader Suchha Singh Chhottepur who has made his own outfit.
But even as Amarinder has gained ground during the last two months at the expense of AAP, he will find it difficult to become a counter point to the Badals if he seems to be compromised at the hands of the ruling dispensation.
Congress leader may get new lease of life
The cancellation report filed by the State Vigilance department against Amarinder and 17 other accused in the alleged land scam case may give a lease of life to the Congress leader but it has dismayed Congress workers who say they continue to suffer because of “false cases” registered against them by the Akalis.
Strategists for Amarinder claim he is leading a more positive campaign in the run up to the 2017 elections as compared to the vitriolic one last time, but his admirers say his aggressiveness was his USP and that it is being taken away from him by AAP.