BJP & Captain Have the Same Mission: Make Polls About Pakistan, Not Farmers
Through Captain Amarinder, BJP wants to kill two birds with one stone: Congress and the farmers' protest.
Former Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh met Union Home Minister Amit Shah in Delhi on the evening of 29 September. A day later, on Thursday 30 September, he met national security advisor Ajit Doval.
These meetings came barely days after Captain told the media that his visit to the national capital was to "meet friends" and clear his belongings from Kapurthala House.
Now, whether meeting Amit Shah and Ajit Doval comes within the scope of "meeting friends" is something only Captain can answer.
On the record, however, Captain said that he discussed the farm laws and the need for crop diversification in Punjab during his meeting with Amit Shah and with Doval he claims to have discussed the security threat to Punjab.
The meetings came a few weeks after Captain was made to resign as the chief minister of Punjab and, in his own words, "humiliated". Therefore, they have sparked speculation whether Captain could possibly join the BJP or arrive at some sort of an understand with it.
Is such a deal possible? If yes, what could this deal be?
There are three possible arrangements between Captain and the BJP.
First a little background.
COMMON GROUND BETWEEN BJP AND CAPTAIN
There's a great deal of common ground between BJP and Captain Amarinder Singh. Within the Congress, Captain has been a right of Centre element – be it his constant invocation of the "Pakistan threat" in Punjab, his support for an Indian Army Major in Kashmir using a civilian as a human shield or the high number of UAPA arrests during his tenure in Punjab.
There is another aspect to this.
Within Punjab, Captain's main base now is among Upper Caste Hindu voters, which is also the BJP's main target group. Captain's popularity among other groups has all but vanished. A survey conducted by Prashnam also reveals that Upper Caste Hindu voters are the only demographic category among whom Captain is more popular compared to his rivals within the Congress. He lags behind among Jatt Sikh, Dalit Sikh and Dalit Hindu voters.
In Punjab, it is not uncommon to find RSS cadres who have a very high opinion of Captain.
"Captain is the only leader who can maintain peace in Punjab," an RSS worker in his 60s told The Quint in Mukerian in Hoshiarpur district.
In the 2017 Assembly election, this correspondent even came across RSS functionaries actively canvassing for Captain, despite the fact that the BJP was then in alliance with the Shiromani Akali Dal.
This common base in addition to the ideological points of convergence can be the foundation of a possible deal between Captain and BJP, besides of course the fact that they have common enemies: the present Congress leadership, Aam Aadmi Party and to some extent, the Akali Dal.
POSSIBILITY 1: JOINING THE BJP
Having been made to resign in an unceremonious manner, Captain does have a point to prove to the Congress high command and joining the BJP would be an appropriate revenge for him.
However, joining the BJP formally may be politically counterproductive for him at least in Punjab.
As it is the BJP has been unpopular in Punjab, particularly among Sikh voters for the past seven years. But the farm laws took to this dislike to an entirely different level, making BJP is political pariah in Punjab.
The party has lost its over two decades old alliance with the Akali Dal and its leaders are finding it difficult to even hold political events in the state.
Therefore, formally joining the BJP as of now, would be of little use to Captain. In future, this can't be ruled out.
A more viable alternative is to form his own regional party.
POSSIBILITY 2: CAPTAIN SPLITS CONGRESS, FORMS HIS OWN PARTY
Soon after meeting Doval, Captain said in an interview that he would leave the Congress but not join the BJP.
This isn't an easy option for Captain either because he doesn't have much of a base left, due to his alleged non-performance as CM. Even Upper Caste Hindu voters who may like Captain, are unlikely to back a party that has no chance of coming to power in the state. This would hold true of the BJP as well at least in the 2022 election.
One must remember that this is essentially a conservative vote bank that desires stability in Punjab. It is unlikely to prop up a party on its own and ruin their chances of influencing who does come to power.
Therefore, it is quite likely that this vote bank hedges its bets till the end and then backs whoever seems a better or least undesirable option among the Congress, AAP and Akali Dal.
Captain's earlier experience of forming his own party hasn't been great. He was leading the Shiromani Akali Dal (Kabul) in the 1992 Assembly election, which was boycotted by other Panthic outfits. His was the only Akali faction in the fray and yet he performed poorly. He lost from one of the two seats he contested and won from the second only because no one else was contesting!
The other problem for Captain is the support he gets from his colleagues within the Congress if he does choose to leave.
Just before his resignation, Captain had the support of less than a dozen among the 80 Congress MLAs and that of a few MPs like Manish Tewari and Ravneet Bittu.
But it is unlikely that all of them would leave and join him, especially if he appears to have an understanding with the BJP.
Being on the same side as the BJP would mean a certain backlash at least in this election.
However, leaders who are already sure that they don't have a future in the Congress could join the party.
At the heart of the Captain-BJP negotiations are the farm laws.
Captain discussing the farm laws with Amit Shah is important. It gave rise to speculation that the Centre could give some kind of concession to the farmers, though a repeal of the laws may have been ruled out.
It is essential for Captain to gain a big concession from the Centre on the farm laws if he has to revive his political career in Punjab.
What that offer would be remains to be seen. But what one can say is that the farm unions are unlikely to accept any half-hearted measure.
POSSIBILITY 3: IT'S MUCH BIGGER THAN THE PUNJAB POLLS
Captain's meeting with Shah and Doval and his subsequent statements point to a far bigger possibility. This is an option Captain can pursue while joining BJP, forming his own party or even while moving out of electoral politics.
It appears that the Centre and Captain want to make the upcoming elections – not just in Punjab but the other poll bound states as well – about Pakistan and Taliban and not farmers or the sacrilege case.
It is no coincidence that one of the first leaders to speak of a Taliban threat to India after their capture of Kabul, was Captain.
Bringing Pakistan to the centre of the political discourse helps the BJP kill two birds with one stone.
The first is the Congress. Captain is an important pawn for the BJP to give the impression that the Congress has been compromised by pro-Pakistan elements and that it sacked a former soldier as CM because he was flagging the "Pakistan threat."
The second is the farmers' protest. The Centre would use Captain's constant statements about the "Pakistan threat" to delegitimise the protesting farmers and accusing them of "creating instability in a border state".
It would also create the basis for a crackdown on a section of the protesters, while offering a half-way deal to some others.
Remember, the "Punjab problem" and "Pakistan threat" was used by the earlier Congress government at the Centre to ban all farmers' protests from 1984 to 1992. It won't be surprising if the BJP also adopts a similar approach.
However, electorally this approach may not yield much in Punjab except maybe in a few pockets. The Pakistan bogey doesn't really work in Punjab. In fact many of the voters want better ties with India's western neighbour as it affects access to Sikh places of worship on the other side.
The Pakistan bogey is aimed more at the national audience than Punjab.
Where the Pakistan issue will make an impact is Uttar Pradesh where the farmers stir is harming the BJP in Western UP. It may also work in Uttarakhand, especially among voters who were in the armed forces or have family in the forces. This is a state where the BJP had to change two CMs due to anti-incumbency.
This is a role Captain has been playing even when he was firmly in the Congress. It may only intensify now that he may be on his way out.
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