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Amarinder 2.0: It’s a Different Captain Running Punjab This Time

The vibe of the campaign was about getting people to sign up for a debt waiver, free phones, jobs.

Updated
Opinion
5 min read
File photo of Captain Amarinder Singh. (Photo: IANS)

“I sent him a whole lot of Diet Coke,” said Punjab Congress leader Capt Amarinder Singh while sharing a stage in Delhi last December with Sukhbir Singh Badal, the then deputy chief minister of Punjab and president of Shiromani Akali Dal.

Amarinder, who defeated the Badals to become CM for the second time in March, was talking about his first term (2002-07) when his government had got Sukhbir and his father, former CM Parkash Singh Badal, sent to jail for a corruption case.

Sukhbir too flaunted his humility, saying that he’d touched Amarinder’s feet when he’d visited them.

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“How long were you in jail?” Amarinder asked Sukhbir. The SAD boss guffawed easily to the audience, “You can judge the seriousness!”

The Badals had spent about a week in the Patiala jail in December of 2003. They have long been acquitted, as witnesses turned hostile.

Amarinder acknowledged in that talk, and later, how the jail stint had given the Badals a political lifeline. He had learnt his lesson when he lost the 2012 election, having run a campaign solely around using the “khoonda” (a wooden staff) and “hanging [the Badals] upside down”.

This time, he postponed talk of “not sparing” even the Badals to the end of his run, insisting instead on a “positive” campaign.

New arrival Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) sought to ride the anti-Badal wave and ended up being seen as an opportunistic outsider, while the Captain appropriated the agenda of good governance, focused only on tough decisions to improve Punjab’s lot.

Amarinder 2.0 had arrived.

A state beset with a farm crisis and a drug menace wants sincere solutions, not rowdy revenge; that was Amarinder’s successful reading of the pulse. The ego of the ex-royal was gone, and an Amarinder infamous for being inaccessible tried to be ‘Lokaan da Captain’, of the people.

The extent of star strategist Prashant Kishor’s role will be clear only by looking at Amarinder’s actions now, when Kishor is not in the picture or even the background. Even during the campaign, Amarinder had clarified that Kishor was only the executioner of his plan.

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Positive Move Forward

The vibe of the campaign was about getting people to sign up for a debt waiver, free phones, jobs or joblessness allowance, and other things. Most of all, it was in the messaging.

So far in its first budget presented on Tuesday, 20 June, his government has carried out a partial crop debt waiver and put some money aside for the phones. But no talk of putting anyone in jail even though the state voted overwhelmingly anti-Badal, reducing the SAD to third behind the AAP.

We have been handed a state in dire straits, and it will take some work and time to set things right. But we are working sincerely.
Amarinder Singh

He had set out on a different path this time when he made the rule of ‘one family, one ticket’ in the Congress. It showed him as different from a party that is known for nepotism. An ex-royal angling for the state and not his son was the image he sold.

Unlike the beginning of his last term, when Punjab Public Service Commission chairman Ravi Sidhu was arrested for a cash-for-job scam going right up to the Badals within days of his coming to power, the Captain has kept the pace slow.

So far, in the name of headlining action, a police inspector has been arrested by a special task force for being mixed up with drug smugglers. At least one SSP has been quizzed, and more are under the lens, but no big talk of action against ex-revenue minister Bikram Singh Majithia, who’d been dubbed the kingpin of the drug trade by AAP.

Staying On Track

Amarinder has, instead, talked passionately of introducing English medium in government schools, and tying up with Uber, Ola and the like to encourage taxi-based self-employment.

On free power supply to the farm sector across the board – for which the state has set aside more than Rs 10,000 crore this fiscal, a 14% hike from SAD-BJP’s last budget – Amarinder tweeted urge big farmers to give up their free supply, and volunteered to do so himself too.

AAP’s chief whip Sukhpal Khaira followed suit. FM Manpreet Badal echoed this sentiment inside the House – Amarinder wasn’t present on budget day as he’d made most of the big-ticket announcement a day before – when he talked of working for the “99%”!

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Amarinder had set the tone for austerity early on, avoiding a mega show at his oath-taking, keeping in mind the financial health of the state that is under a debt of over Rs 2 lakh crore, almost double the size of its latest budget of Rs 1.18 lakh crore. Symbolism is key.

In his maiden cabinet meet, he declared to remove red, amber and blue beacons from official vehicles of all ministers, MLAs, bureaucrats and political appointees. This was weeks before Prime Minister Narendra Modi made political capital out of a similar move. He also gave up extra security, and cut down police deployment on VIP duties.

After a minister misbehaved with a teacher at a function, he declared to do away with plaques carrying names of junior ministers and MLAs at laying of foundation stones and inaugurations. Such plaques would read ‘project inaugurated with taxpayers’ money’.

No foreign travel for ministers and MLAs for two years, minimising state banquets, and no fancy visits to district headquarters were other measures announced to send a message directly to the people.

Own Skeletons, Old Habits

On the Badal front, slowly and steadily, the government has said it’s working on ending all monopolies in the bus transport trade. After all, the Badals are everywhere in the state, literally, with their buses running on key routes, many allegedly without permit.

But Amarinder also knows that many in the Congress are in the trade of buses and liquor and other such lucrative businesses; so, moving too fast may end up exposing his own side.

Already, he has had to order a judicial probe against minister Rana Gurjit Singh, who was the richest candidate in the assembly polls, over allocation of a sand mining contract to his “former employees”, including one who reportedly worked as his cook.

Also, many of his old aides are back. Chief among them is Bharat Inder Sigh Chahal, who was jailed and allegedly tortured when the Badals returned to power.

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Yet, rather than showing him in bad light per se, his positive outlook has given this too a new interpretation, that Captain does not desert those who battle and suffer for him.

To boot, he’s already announced that Congress should blood his successor – a position for which Manpreet Badal and Navjot Sidhu are in tough contest – underlining that he’s here to do a job and walk gracefully into the sunset.

He is getting a long rope, too, as the people of Punjab are now far from how they are portrayed in Bollywood. They are not waiting for someone to come and avenge them. They’re fine if someone sent Diet Coke to someone else. They don’t just want to probe the past to prove how “sab miley huey hain”.

They want to trust, need a balm, and are willing to wait for the pain to subside. The fighting spirit is there, but they don’t want just fighting. The Captain gets it.

(The author Harish C is a Chandigarh-based journalist. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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