Captain’s weakening grip: Congress’ strongest regional leader faces trouble

Congress has something to celebrate in Maharashtra and in Jharkhand, but the grand old party’s strongest regional leader of these times seems to be losing ground after ducking the Modi wave thrice in the last five years. Captain Amarinder Singh emerged as a strong Congress leader nationally in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections by defeating BJP’s big gun Arun Jaitley from Amritsar despite the strong Modi wave. Some two years later, when Congress had been kicked out of power from most of the states, Amarinder led the party to a decent victory in February 2017 Punjab assembly elections by winning 77 of 117 seats. Even in the 2019 parliamentary elections, Congress won eight of 13 seats in Punjab.

What was palpable just after parliamentary poll results is quite obvious now — with Amarinder completing half of his five-year term voices of discontentment within the Congress Legislature Party are becoming public now. Frustration is palpable at ground level among voters and the party’s cadre in Punjab. After the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, this is the third time that Amarinder is facing discontentment, but this time it is out in open. The earlier two attempts of dissension were managed behind closed doors. Some Congress MLAs from his home district of Patiala, who are believed to be part of his own camp, have been venting out their discontentment openly. Even as Punjab Congress president Sunil Jakhhar has made efforts to placate these MLAs after meeting them, things have not been sorted out.

The real danger for Congress is not the MLAs’ discontentment but frustration among the party cadre and voters. Punjab Congress leaders are aware of this problem. “It is written on the wall,” remarked a senior Congress leader. Congress workers expressed their frustration with the state government’s working in a feedback meeting held by Jakhar in Jalandhar. If comments on the CM’s Facebook wall can be a parameter, then the scale is turning towards unpopularity. To Amarinder’s credit, adverse comments are neither removed nor is there a dedicated IT cell to troll those who speak out against him.

The only solace for Congress and the Punjab CM is that opposition is still unpopular and incoherent. If AAP is battling to stay relevant after failing to keep its flock together as evident from the LS polls and four assembly byelection results, Shiromani Akali Dal is battling to regain its lost ground.

The first manifestation of discontent erupted within two months of the LS polls when Amarinder faced unprecedented questions and complaints from his ministers and MLAs during two CLP meetings, including a dinner. In contrast to their complete deference earlier, a few Congress ministers and MLAs pointed fingers at their own government and no one came to the CM’s defence. This was unprecedented. The biggest issue they pointed out was the failure in delivering justice in Bargari sacrilege case which Congress had promised and projected in a big way before the 2017 assembly polls. In this context, a minister even reportedly said the CM was being ‘misguided’ by the national security adviser and top police officers. Neither the CM’s camp nor the minister to whom this comment was attributed ever contradicted this. The issues of drug menace, sand mafia, precarious financial health of the state, and unemployment were also flagged.

Notably, sacrilege cases and police firing had turned the tables against then CM Parkash Singh Badal and SAD gave its worst electoral performance in 2017 after reorganization of Punjab in 1966. These issues neutralized distaste for Congress prevailing among a large section of Sikhs post-1984 tumultuous events. In 2017, Congress managed to win 40 rural and Panthic seats in 77 seats it won in the assembly polls. In 2019 LS polls, the Modi wave worked in two Hindu-majority seats of Gurdaspur and Hoshiarpur. Sikh and Dalit voters played a crucial role in the Congress victory of eight LS seats.

Though reasons for Punjab results were demographic and the factor of ‘more dislike’ was at work, some ‘expert’ commentators rushed to give credit to Amarinder for blocking the Modi wave ‘once again’ even as the Punjab CM’s charisma failed to work on the seats where the Modi wave had an impact. Results were more a loss for the SAD than a victory of Congress or Amarinder. The CM’s magic failed to deliver a favourable result in Dakha, the most prestigious seat for him with his adviser being a candidate, during the byelections to four assembly seats.

A month after this episode, another indication of Amarinder’s weakening grip came when in the second week of September he appointed six MLAs as advisers with cabinet rank, aiming to end growing discontentment among the MLAs and to stop them from ganging up against him. Congress MLA and Olympian Pargat Singh had refused to board this bus of advisers.

Amarinder has enjoyed acceptance across different communities. His decreasing popularity is neither good for his party nor for the Union government. CBI’s failure in taking the sacrilege probe to a logical conclusion and now insisting on keeping the probe with it despite Punjab Assembly’s unanimous resolution on August 28 and the Punjab government on September 6, 2018 issuing a notification to withdraw the probe from it, is leading to more questions. People are drawing their own conclusions by juxtaposing the failure of the CM to get the case back from CBI upon the common impression — shared by his minister in the CLP meeting — about his proximity to the internal security and intelligence set up of the country.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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