Updated: September 19, 2021 1:11:50 pm
Across Amritsar, especially along the wider avenues outside the walled city, Captain Amarinder Singh looks down from tall billboards, wearing a slight, close-mouthed smile. As in the Modi poster — which is conspicuously absent in this city — Singh is framed alone, against a stark single-colour backdrop, and next to his photo, is a government achievement or claim.
“Sarkari schoolan ‘ch muft sikhia (free education in government schools)”. Or “Sarkari schoolan ‘ch pre primary classan shuru (pre-primary classes started in government schools)”, among others.
But talk to students and the young, and their parents, across sections and classes in the city, and it is clear that a much more compelling message is to be found in the ubiquitous advertisements of coaching centres that promise to prepare students for “IELTS” with the golden words: “Visa”, “Immigration”.
The IELTS or the International English Language Testing System (for ease of pronunciation, everyone here calls it “eyelets”), is necessary for students who want to go abroad for study, migration or work. By all accounts, the IELTS industry is burgeoning daily, feeding on the desperation to leave, of those who no longer see a future in the state.
For the Amarinder Singh government, on government schools, it may have been a matter of too little too late. But in Amritsar, his is a wan and besieged presence in other conversations about other crises, too.
Here, most conversation is about crisis.
About the farmers’ aandolan (movement) that goes on, over a year after it began in Punjab in June. There seems to be a palpable agreement, straddling young and old, men and women, Hindus and Sikhs, believers in the farmers’ cause and even those who are dry-eyed about it, that the onus is on the Central government, not the farmers. And the trust deficit with the Modi government only grows wider.
About joblessness and the decline of industry — it has already fled from Amritsar to places like Baddi in Himachal which offered special incentives even as Punjab became inhospitable for business, because of deepening corruption, rising electricity costs, and the “gangster culture” built on the easy availability of drugs and political patronage.
About the overweening power given to favoured bureaucrats in Chandigarh in the Congress regime; about the continuation of the system of patronage in districts – entrenched during the Akali years – under which MLAs and even defeated leaders of the ruling party pull strings to bypass due process.
In Amritsar district, for instance, as in other districts, the DSP designations are telling: They now take their cue from the nomenclature of MLA constituencies — so DSP Sadar, DSP Kotwali, DSP Civil Lines, have been formally replaced by DSP East, DSP North, DSP West.
In the eyes of the people, Amarinder Singh became identified with the corruptions and collusions of a discredited political class — the farmers’ movement’s pointed refusal to allow any party banner on their stage has only brought the seething cynicism to the fore. Nothing he did in government was enough to help Singh climb out of a very deep, dark box.
One of the most persistent charges, or conspiracy theories, levelled against him is that he has a secret pact with the BJP, and far more damagingly, with his main political opponent, the Badals. In the last Assembly election in 2017, the Congress fielded him from the Badal bastion of Lambi (apart from his traditional constituency of Patiala), ostensibly to counter this perception of a nexus but even that could not make the political bad odour go away.
The closure report filed by the Central Bureau of Investigation in three cases of sacrilege, in 2015, was also seen to put political rivals — Shiromani Akali Dal and Congress -– on the same page.
In a state so on edge, something had to give. The exit of Amarinder Singh from Chief Ministership may or may not help the Congress’s prospects in the polls due early next year, but for now it does break the freefall, opens up a space.
Much of the appeal of the MP from Amritsar East, Navjot Singh Sidhu, who has emerged as the Captain’s main challenger in the party, and who is also the recently anointed Punjab Congress president, rests on his positioning as a relative outsider — as someone who is honest and outspoken.
Sidhu is seen to talk back to the Badals in a manner that Captain hasn’t been seen to do since he became CM for the second time in 2017. But Sidhu’s challenge now will be to prove that he can lead a team, and conduct the give and take of politics, while keeping the sheen of difference, with no one else to blame.
The AAP, which like Sidhu, also rides, somewhat uneasily so far, the appeal of the Outsider, must also navigate a difficult road. In the last Assembly election, its surge bumped up against hurdles in its path borne of a seeming contradiction in terms. Even though Punjabis are cynical about politics as usual, and are looking for a way out, the search for something new must contend with their keen consciousness of — and fierce protectiveness about – their older identity and exceptionalism.
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