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How Amarinder taught Rahul a lesson

March 16, 2017 08:44 IST

'Feeling claustrophobic and humiliated by the manner in which the Congress vice-president was treating him, he started toying with the idea of floating his own party.'
In the recent five-state election, Punjab was the one bright spot for the Congress.
As this fascinating excerpt from The People's Maharaja reveals, how shabbily Rahul Gandhi treated Amarinder Singh before the 2017 election!

Captain Amarinder Singh with Rahul Gandhi

IMAGE: A photograph tweeted by Rahul Gandhi soon after he met Captain Amarinder Singh on March 14, 2017. Punjab was the only bright spot in the five-state election that left the Congress floundering. Photograph: Kind courtesy OfficeOfRG/Twitter

Come 2014 and it wasn't only Amarinder who was strategising his future moves. His detractors within the Congress too had a smart plan up their sleeve to 'exile' him from Punjab's political scene forever.

With the run-up to the 2014 general elections indicating a distinct wave in favour of Narendra Modi (the BJP's prime ministerial candidate), a scheme was devised to push for Amarinder Singh's candidature as a Lok Sabha candidate from a constituency that was an Akali Dal and a BJP stronghold.

The thinking was that another electoral loss, especially of the magnitude of a parliamentary seat, would be enough to script Amarinder's political obituary.

To put this scheme into action, the state Congress recommended to the high command that it would be appropriate to field Punjab Congress stalwarts as candidates for the Lok Sabha elections.

It recommended Amarinder Singh's name from Amritsar, a constituency known to be the stronghold of former cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu.

It was argued that since the BJP had replaced Sidhu with one of its top guns, Arun Jaitley (a former central minister), it was only Amarinder Singh who could pose a challenge to the new candidate.

Amarinder Singh saw through the move, expressed reluctance to contest from Amritsar and explained his reasons why he ought not to be fielded from there.

Going public with his view in a candid statement to the media on March 20, 2014, he said: 'I don't know anything about Amritsar. A local candidate of the party would be able to do more justice to the constituency. I will also not be able to spend the required period of time.'

In his statement, he also shared details about his very recent meeting with Congress President Sonia Gandhi, in which she had offered him a choice to contest from either Bathinda or Amritsar.

But he told the media, he had informed her about his inability to contest since his wife Preneet Kaur had decided to enter the electoral fray from Patiala and added: 'Moreover, my presence was required across the state and contesting from Amritsar would just confine me to one single constituency as I already had a long list of requests from the sitting and prospective candidates from all the parliamentary constituencies (in Punjab) seeking my time for campaigning.'

Interestingly, it wasn't only a section in the Congress but also a faction within the BJP was eager to see that Amarinder contested from Amritsar.

This faction wanted that Jaitley to lose the election. Such political subterfuge across party lines were building up and leading to circumstances beyond Amarinder's control.

* * * *

Sonia Gandhi and Captain Amarinder Singh

IMAGE: Captain Amarinder Singh, Punjab's new chief minister, was a close friend of the late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, Congress President Sonia Gandhi's husband. Photograph: PTI Photo

The last straw was when Sonia Gandhi spoke to him over the phone again when he was in Panipat (in Haryana), while returning from Delhi to Chandigarh. 'Will you fight for me Amarinder?' is what she emphatically asked.

Apart from Sonia Gandhi, her daughter Priyanka Gandhi also spoke to Amarinder Singh. 'Uncle, I want you to fight from Amritsar,' she requested him, evoking the old time family bond between him and her father (the late Rajiv Gandhi).

This prod was enough to inspire the soldier in Amarinder, who reached Amritsar on March 28, 2014, where he was given a rousing reception.

He had decided to accept the challenge and take the fight to the Opposition camp because he also saw an opportunity to resuscitate his moribund political career.

A win against a bigwig like Arun Jaitley would at once resurrect his presence in Punjab politics.

His arrival on the scene marked the unfolding of one of the most watched 2014 Lok Sabha election battles.

* * * *

The victory in the 2014 Amritsar Lok Sabha poll infused Amarinder Singh's declining political fortunes with a fresh lease of life. It also gave the Congress, otherwise decimated in the rest of the country, some reason to smile.

The party could sniff chances of a revival in Punjab provided Amarinder Singh was brought to the helm again.

* * * *

Captain Amarinder Singh's family votes in the 2107 election

IMAGE: Captain Amarinder Singh and his family cast their vote in the 2017 election; the result was resoundingly in the captain's favour. Photograph: Kind courtesy capt_amarinder/Twitter

The Congress high command's turning a deaf ear to Amarinder Singh's claims to the PPCC (Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee) top post pushed the Punjab unit of the party towards factionalism; Amarinder Singh and Partap Singh Bajwa (the MP from Gurdaspur, north-western Punjab) were openly flaying each other in the media.

While Amarinder Singh and his loyalists claimed that he was the 'greatest leader' the Congress had in Punjab, Partap Singh Bajwa and his supporters accused Amarinder of not being capable or reliable, as the party had lost two electoral battles in a row, in 2007 and 2012, under his watch.

This infighting also triggered a constant movement of Congress legislators and other Congress members to New Delhi, each one pleading his or her respective leader's cause in front of the high command.

Such a state of affairs would also put to test his relations with the top Congress leadership, which was unwilling to consider his claim.

Amarinder Singh, who had enjoyed a very cordial relationship with Sonia Gandhi, suddenly felt cold-shouldered by the Gandhi family.

Rahul Gandhi, the Congress vice-president, whom Amarinder Singh would frequently take out for outings whenever he visited Doon School to meet his son Raninder, was adamant that he would not consider the case of his father's friend.

Even though Sonia Gandhi was open to bringing back Amarinder Singh at the helm in Punjab, Rahul Gandhi was in no mood to take away the baton from Partap Singh Bajwa's hand.

* * * *

Captain Amarinder Singh with Navjot Singh Sidhu

IMAGE: Tweeting this picture on January 18, 2017, Captain Araminder said, 'Addressing our first press conference together. is like my son, and I'm glad we're together in our #BattleForPunjab'. Photograph: Kind courtesy capt_amarinder/Twitter

As 2014 went by, one meeting (between Amarinder Singh and the Congress top brass) followed another with no hope in sight.

To everyone's surprise, he suddenly became amenable to lending his charisma (plus experience) to a different political entity.

His loyalists and advisers also suggested that he keep his options open, for their own political survival depended on him.

During this period of uncertainty, his team also flirted with the idea of him becoming part of the Bharatiya Janata Party, already reviewing its tie-up with its senior partner in Punjab, the Akali Dal.

The drubbing by the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party in the February 2015 Delhi assembly elections, however, forced the BJP to reconsider its options (AAP had won 67 of the 70 seats in Delhi, with the remaining three going to the BJP).

When news of Amarinder Singh's flirting with the BJP did not make the Congress high command budge, he flexed his muscles further.

He subtly questioned the leadership ability of Rahul Gandhi time and again. His first outburst was in November 2014.

In late April 2015, reacting to the much-touted demand for the generational change that the Congress vice-president wanted to make, he said that Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi should listen to other senior leaders.

Spoken with the intention of letting the high command know that veterans like him still mattered, the statement distanced him further from the Gandhi family.

Rahul Gandhi, who had just returned after a sabbatical from an undisclosed destination and seemed energised, did not take this kindly as he saw it as an act of coercion.

After hitting rock bottom, the Amarinder Singh‒Gandhi family relationship went into deep freeze.

With no indication of any thaw, the main topic in the Amarinder Singh drawing room was: What next?

Given his charisma, stature, experience and popularity in Punjab, there was no way that he would not be a part of the 2017 assembly elections.

The Congress high command seemed to be shutting its eyes, the ground reality notwithstanding.

* * * *

The People's Maharaja

The fact that he never was and will never be a flatterer was established yet again.

Feeling claustrophobic and humiliated by the manner in which the Congress vice-president was treating him, he started toying with the idea of floating his own party, something which he had done in 1992.

The restraint snapped when, in one of the meetings at 10, Janpath, New Delhi, in late September 2015, to try and end the existing stand-off in the Punjab Congress, the Congress vice-president did not bestow the respect a senior leader like Amarinder Singh deserved.

It was at this meeting that Sonia Gandhi had to remind Rahul Gandhi that he was talking to his late father's friend, after which he calmed down.

Deeply hurt by this behaviour, Amarinder Singh remarked in an interview to the well-known journalist Sagarika Ghosh, reported in The Times Of India (September 21, 2015) that Rahul Gandhi needed 'a reality check.'

He made it amply clear through the interview that he may be forming his own front soon.

To a question that there were some reports that he was leaving the Congress, Amarinder Singh replied: 'People are saying this to me. If this is the way Congress is going to act, just go on your own. However, it's not as easy thing to do; you have to think it over. However, the leadership has to think: Do they want to face the challenges in Punjab? If not, I may have to look at (other) options.'

These remarks expectedly caused a stir in the Congress and led to an enormous political manoeuvring within the party.

Sensing dissidence from the erstwhile royal scion, the Congress president immediately dispatched emissaries to Amarinder Singh's residence in Patiala with a reconciliatory note. He, however, refused to meet them.

Rana Gurmeet Singh Sodhi (Amarinder's close aide), one of the few who were against Amarinder's idea of forming his own front (Punjab Vikas Party), was to face his ire when he pleaded that he should meet Sonia Gandhi's representatives.

"It is you who keep planning these things. I am meeting no one," declared a livid Amarinder.

Sodhi, however, has a way with Amarinder Singh and pestered him to meet the delegation. The meeting (end September 2015) lasted for over an hour.

"I have heard Captain Sahab that you are forming your own party?" asked Rahul Gandhi in yet another meeting set up in October 2015 in New Delhi.

The Congress high command had finally resolved to end the leadership stalemate and put in place the process of meeting all the senior leaders and MLAs from Punjab for seeking their final verdict.

"What you have heard is absolutely correct," replied Amarinder Singh not mincing his words. "If I don't fit in your scheme of things, I will need to find an alternative. I live in Punjab; the Akalis have ruined Punjab and I have to look for my own path if you don't have a plan for me."

"Both of us will lose if you take this step," said Rahul, to which Amarinder's response was: "So be it."

Excerpted from Amarinder Singh: The People's Maharaja, An Authorised Biography, by Khushwant Singh, with the permission of the publishers, Hay House India.

Khushwant Singh