Over the last few days, a noticeable change has come over Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh. He is being seen and heard more often. Until a couple of weeks ago, his public appearances were rare. The reason usually given was that he was under the weather and resting. An impression had gained ground that Amarinder had left the running of the state to the bureaucracy. He stayed away from his office a lot and kept his interactions with party colleagues to a minimum and within a tight circle, triggering complaints that he had become inaccessible. Scheduled meetings with them were either postponed or cancelled.
The issue came under the spotlight earlier this month when the High Court began hearing a petition challenging the appointment of a retired bureaucrat as the Principal Secretary to the CM, describing him as the “de facto” Chief Minister.
But last week, in an ostensibly off-the-cuff remark to a newspaper, Amarinder said that “for the sake of Punjab”, he was seriously reconsidering his earlier resolve to hang up his boots after this term in office. In fact, at every election rally, this used to be his punch line: This is my last term before I retire from politics, please vote for me.
Since that seemingly nonchalant expression of a change of mind, Amarinder has been seen and heard much more than before. On Tuesday, he visited Ludhiana to commiserate with the families of the victims of a fire in an illegal plastic factory. Soon after, his media office released photos and a video of him swinging a badminton racquet at an indoor court – the other player was not visible.
So what forced the change of optics? It may not have been one reason, but a confluence of several. At the end of August, 40 MLAs wrote a letter to the Chief Minister demanding that the government take action against Bikram Singh Majithia – a minister in the previous SAD-BJP government, and brother-in-law of Akali Dal leader and former deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal – for his alleged involvement in a drug racket. Punjab minister Navjot Singh Sidhu backed the demand openly. Matters came to a head last month when MLAs began publicly accusing the government of “not listening to the voice of the people”.
Even within the Congress, people began to echo AAP’s allegations that Amarinder Singh had “done a deal” with the Badals. There has been little appreciation of Amarinder’s perfectly valid stand that the government cannot act against anyone without evidence. Even before the elections, he had made it clear that there would be no more vendetta politics under him in Punjab. But it’s been more difficult than he imagined to wean his partymen off the practice, which has been handed down over generations of politicians.
Plus, they cannot be blamed for thinking that Majithia would be clapped into jail soon as the Congress came to power. This was the way the campaign went, although Amarinder had steered clear of making such extreme statements even at the time – one reason why he has since been accused of being hand in glove with the Badals.
But this storm in a teacup may be a manifestation of something deeper, perhaps a positioning by those who saw themselves as successors to Amarinder for the next election. Among those who were being talked of as possible candidates were Finance Minister Manpreet Singh Badal and Sidhu. Since being publicly defanged in the Budget session, when Amarinder announced most of the provisions a day prior to the speech, Badal has been extraordinarily quiet. Sidhu, considered close to the soon-to-be AICC president Rahul Gandhi, has been more vocal about what needs to be done and his impatience at how everything has been moving too slowly for him.
With two “outsiders” perceived to be vying for the top post in the state Congress – Badal left the Akali Dal to form his own party which he merged with the Congress before the election, while Sidhu was with the BJP until last year — former PPCC president Partap Singh Bajwa could not be far behind. He has already started to make his presence felt with statements smacking of revolt.
While the concerted attempts by Amarinder to demonstrate that he is in charge will disappoint those in the Punjab Congress’s Gen Next, his supporters must be relieved at the strong message that it is not yet time to search for a successor. The badminton photographs have sent out the message that he is perfectly healthy. That’s one excuse he cannot make anymore to avoid meeting people.
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