Last week, when the Time magazine featured Prime Minister Narendra Modi on its cover as the ‘Divider in Chief’, no leader made as much political hay out of the situation as Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh. Addressing a rally at Bhoa in Pathankot, he said the PM had “lowered India’s prestige” in the international arena.
Once known for his warm vibes with Modi — soon after the Assembly elections in 2017, he had gone on record to say that the PM was “cooperative” — Singh’s poll pitch now focuses largely on Modi, besides incidents of ‘sacrilege’ under the previous Akali Dal government. In speech after speech, the CM, who is leading the Congress’s ambitious Mission 13 to win all the Lok Sabha seats against the four it bagged in 2014, makes it a point to attack Modi and talk of why he should be voted out.
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Of the 13 seats in Punjab, the Akali Dal is contesting 10 seats and the BJP three.
Yet, the CM largely spares the Badals — attacking them when he is in Ferozepur, where Sukhbir Badal is contesting, and Bathinda, where Sukhbir’s wife and Union minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal is in the fray —and directing a large part of his speech at Modi.
Hours before Modi’s maiden poll rally in the state on May 9, Singh addressed a rally in Patiala, saying the PM has no right to seek votes in a state for which “he has done nothing”. “My government was left to fend for itself despite the massive debt left behind by the SAD-BJP government,’’ he said.
With the Akali Dal on the backfoot in Punjab and the party relying heavily on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity, as is evident in Parkash Singh Badal’s speeches, Amarinder Singh, who is leading the Congress campaign, realises he has to hit his rivals where it hurts most.
When Modi brought up Sam Pitroda’s statement “jo hua so hua (so what if it happened)” on the 1984 riots at his rally in Punjab, Singh responded by raking up the Godhra riots. “What if someone links you to Godhra? The PM is unnecessarily dragging Rajiv’s (Gandhi) name to divert attention from his lies. In 50 years in politics, I have never seen a PM stoop to such levels,” he told media persons while travelling from Patiala to Jalandhar.
If the Badals thrive on reminding the audience about the alleged “injustices meted out” to them by the Nehru-Gandhi family, Singh often compares Modi unfavourably with Indira Gandhi and former PM Manmohan Singh.
Modi, he reiterates, is a self-obsessed man. “‘Look at the way he tried to steal the credit for Balakot and the way Indira Gandhi handled her achievement in splitting Pakistan to create Bangladesh in the 1971 war… Balakot was a victory of the armed forces, not Modi.’’
Among voters, the CM’s rhetoric has got a mixed response. At Ropar in the Doaba belt, Shamsher Singh, a former PWD union leader, says, “The Congress won because of the Captain… he is a straight-shooter, speaks his mind.’’
But in Hoshiarpur, a reserved constituency, Dr Anita Kumari, principal of Sri Guru Har Rai Sahib College for Women, Chhabewal, makes no bones about her distaste for the present poll discourse of the leading parties. “Why don’t they focus on real issues? There is no let-up in the supply of drugs. We have stopped wearing gold ornaments because snatchers have a free run.’’
Outside the college, Darshan Singh Saini, an ex-serviceman who retired from the Army’s 16 Punjab regiment, says he doesn’t like the CM’s diatribe against Modi. “The PM gave us one rank, one pension. Despite being a soldier, the Captain doesn’t think of the Army.’’
Jagroop Singh Sekhon, a professor of political science at Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, says people in Punjab don’t buy the Modi brand of nationalism. Yet, he says, Singh’s focus on Modi is equally distasteful. “It is an admission of his government’s failure to fulfill most of its promises.’’
Amarjit Kaur, whose family tills two acres near Bhang Rajaurrian village, says, “We will vote for whoever the sarpanch tells us, but please write that our children are not getting any jobs, only promises.’’