“You can be old at 18 and young at 80.’’ This was Capt Amarinder Singh’s comeback to an interviewer who pointed to his age, when he was talking about floating his own party last year. “I am a soldier… I want to go out on a winning note,” the former Congress chief minister of Punjab had told The Indian Express soon after he was shown the door, in August 2021, by a party and its first family, the Gandhis, he had been loyal to for over five decades.
Many thought that the scion of the erstwhile Patiala princely state, who was notorious for being inaccessible during his tenure as the CM, would retire to his farmhouse near Chandigarh and devote himself to writing military history — he has seven books on the subject to his credit — but he had other plans. Though deserted by his former Congress colleagues, Amarinder formed his own party, Punjab Lok Congress (PLC), and tied up with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for the Punjab Assembly elections held in February 2022.
Although a debilitating back injury made it difficult for him to undertake the Assembly poll campaign for long hours, Amarinder soldiered on. It was an uphill battle and his party fared poorly, failing to even open its account. Amarinder himself lost his Patiala stronghold to a candidate fielded by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which swept the elections.
Days after his return to Punjab after having undergone a surgery in London, Amarinder has now launched a new innings as he joined the BJP on Monday.
An ex-soldier, military historian, chef, avid gardener, Amarinder wears many hats. His first introduction to politics took place while he was studying with Rajiv Gandhi in Doon School, and would then often be invited during their holidays to spend time with him at the residence of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in Delhi. It came as no surprise when Rajiv persuaded him to join the Congress and contest from Patiala in the 1977 Lok Sabha polls held after the Emergency. But he lost his debut election to Akali stalwart Gurcharan Singh Tohra. Bouncing back, he however won the seat in the 1980 polls.
Soon after Operation Bluestar, Amarinder quit the Congress to join the Shiromani Akali Dal in 1984. He often recounts how he was playing golf at Naldhera in Himachal Pradesh when he heard the news on radio. At an Idea Exchange with The Indian Express, Amarinder said he would write a book on the events that had unfolded in Punjab during the dark decade of militancy.
It was during his stint with the Akali Dal that Amarinder was first elected to the Punjab Assembly from Talwandi Sabo, home to one of the five holy seats (takhts) of the Sikhs, and became a minister for agriculture, forest, development and panchayats in the party-led state government. But he was said to be “temperamentally ill-suited” to the Akali Dal, and so he quit the party to form his own outfit, Shiromani Akali Dal (Panthic), in 1992. Six years later, he returned to the grand old party, merging his party with the Congress after it was decimated in the 1998 Assembly elections in which he himself garnered just 856 votes.
An alumnus of the National Defence Academy and the Indian Military Academy, Amarinder was commissioned into the Sikh Regiment in 1963. Though he served in the Army for only three years, a notable part of it as an ADC to Lt Gen Harbaksh Singh during the 1965 Indo-Pak war, the Army service defined his life in politics as well. In his first term as the CM of the Congress-led Punjab government during 2002-2007, he was known for taking important decisions in minutes. A senior bureaucrat, comparing him to his predecessor Parkash Singh Badal, recalled how Amarinder would decide on voluminous files “in a trice” as compared to “Badal’s months”.
Amarinder was a major proponent of ties between East and West Punjab during his first chief ministerial stint, when he hosted the CM of Pakistan Punjab. He had then said, “I want to have breakfast in Amritsar and lunch in Lahore.” He, however, always drew a line in this regard when it came to the issue of India’s integrity.
The BJP has often acknowledged Amarinder as a “nationalist”, who was enraged over the Pulwama terror attack. Addressing the Punjab Assembly then, he had said, “I want to tell this to General Bajwa (then Pakistan Army chief) that if you are a Punjabi, we too are Punjabis and you dare try to enter our territory, we will set you right.”
In a state that has always seen the politicisation of religion, Amarinder has remained steadfastly secular. Many attribute the Congress’s landslide Punjab victory in 2017 to the shift of Hindu votes to the party after the Maur blast in the run-up to the Assembly polls, following which Amarinder took over as the CM for the second term.
It was Amarinder himself who first floated the possibility of a Hindu CM in Punjab in 2019, when campaigning for former state Congress chief Sunil Jakhar in the Gurdaspur parliamentary seat he said Jakhar could also be the next CM.
Everything seemed to be going his way in March 2017, when Amarinder spearheaded the Congress’s campaign in the Assembly polls, resulting in the party’s triumph with over two-third majority. In the months that followed, his government was successful in neutralising many gangsters who were causing mayhem in the state.
But Amarinder, who had often made virtue of his disinclination to keep an open house unlike his predecessor Parkash Singh Badal who had started the practice of “sangat darshan”, seemed to have put a foot wrong in distancing himself from his party leaders and legislators. Working out of his farmhouse outside Chandigarh, he grew distant from the Congress cadre, losing sight of the rebellion that was brewing against him.
Although Amarinder could successfully sideline Navjot Singh Sidhu, his arch rival in the Congress, during his first year in power, the latter came out of political hibernation to lead disgruntled party MLAs and ministers against him. On the ground too, there was growing public resentment over the lack of effective governance. But surrounded by his advisers in his farmhouse, Amarinder failed to see this, even as a banner of revolt was being raised against him from within the party. Finally, a letter to the Congress high command from a large chunk of MLAs and ministers did him in. The Congress replaced Amarinder with Charanjit Singh Channi as the CM in August 2021, paving the way for the AAP juggernaut in the elections held six months later.
As Amarinder opens a new chapter in his political career by joining the BJP, which rules the Centre, and merging his PLC with the saffron party, it is to be seen whether he will be able to galvanise his new party in a state whose people had once given him a decisive mandate.