BJP gets a Sikh face, Capt a chance to stay relevant in Punjab

The induction of Capt Amarinder Singh into the BJP opens up new political vistas for both the former Congress stalwart as well as the saffron party in Punjab. While the BJP gets a Sikh face it needed, the erstwhile royal a chance to survive in politics. A report by Rajesh Moudgil

In former Congress veteran Capt Amarinder Singh – who joined the BJP merging his nascent  Punjab Lok Congress (PLC) with it – on September 19, the BJP has found a Sikh face, the saffron party needed. He suits the party as he is acceptable among Hindu electorate in Punjab especially for being a staunch opponent of Khalistanis and their sympathisers.

Moreover, the BJP in Punjab was also desperately on the lookout to strengthen its base in the state since 2020 after its long-time ally Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) dumped it over now-repealed farm laws.

Also, a scion of the erstwhile Patiala royal family, Capt Amarinder, 80, on the other hand, appeared politically weak, also desperate to stay politically relevant. He had remained chief minister of Punjab for two terms – from 2002-2007 and from 2017-2021 but was unceremoniously removed from the post in September 2021 – just four months ahead of his second tenure’s completion – because of the bitter bickering in the party. Following this, Singh floated the PLC after resigning from the party as well soon after last year, ending his over 40 years of association with the Congress.

Though his detractor, Charanjit Singh Channi replaced him and remained chief minister briefly, the February 2022 assembly elections gave the Congress a brutal drubbing. Both Capt Amarinder and Channi lost the elections while the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) swept the polls winning 92 out of total 117 seats in Punjab.

Congress could win only 18 seats. The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) won three, its ally BSP one, the BJP two while only one independent candidate could win.

However, the PLC which had also contested the elections in alliance with the BJP, not only failed to win even a single seat but also got fewer votes than NOTA (none of the above) ones. Shockingly, Capt Amarinder also lost his home turf of Patiala (urban) to AAP candidate by a margin of over 19,000 votes and Channi, both his seats he was fielded from.

Even though Capt Amarinder’s joining and PLC’s merger into the BJP was anticipated as it gives him a chance to remain politically relevant, his political rivals believe that the joining is also his attempt to save his family from Enforcement Directorate (ED) cases; Capt Amarinder’s son Raninder Singh, who also joined the BJP, faces a case under foreign exchange management Act (FEMA).

However, Capt Amarinder’s wife Preneet Kaur, is still the sitting Congress MP from Patiala as the Congress has not sought her resignation nor has she offered to quit the party.

It may be recalled that some of his former colleagues and Cabinet ministers have also joined the BJP. They include Raj Kumar Verka, Gurpreet Kangar and Balbir Sidhu, Rana Gurmeet Sodhi and Sundar Sham Arora, besides former Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee (PPCC) chief Sunil Jakhar, who had once worked closely with him, but had later parted ways.

Others who also joined BJP with him included former deputy speaker Ajaib Singh Bhatti, who had been expelled by the Congress as his wife had contested 2022 assembly polls from Bhadaur segment against official party nominee and then Chief minister Charanjeet Channi, two-time MLA Harchand Kaur, who had already canvassed for the BJP candidate Kewal Singh Dhillon, during Sangrur by-poll, former MP from Ludhiana, Amrik Singh Aliwal and Kewal Singh, who had represented Bathinda Lok Sabha seat when it was reserved segment and  former MLAs Prem Mittal and Harjinder Thekedar also joined the party.

Speaking on the occasion, Capt Amarinder, however, said that he was sure his party (PLC) would be useful for BJP in the upcoming elections in Himachal Pradesh and Haryana.

Political scientists including Dr Ronki Ram, Shaheed Bhagat Singh Chair Professor in political science, Panjab University, however, opine that Capt Amarinder Singh’s joining could favour the BJP in plural ways. “Capt Amarinder, who himself is a former Army officer, has a say and sway in Punjab, and his political narrative also gels with that of BJP thesis on national integrity’’, Dr Ronki Ram says.

He goes on to say that while Capt Amarinder has been a tall leader in the state in the past, the electorate in the state can now also see the difference between his approach and functioning and the former Congress chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi and current AAP chief minister Bhagwant Mann.

It is also pertinent to mention here that Capt Amarinder had said on the occasion of joining BJP that his and BJP’s ideology was the same. He said that Punjab faced threats from across the border in Pakistan and Punjab was hemmed in by two borders, two hostile nations and that it was necessary to protect the country. He lauded BJP for its commitment to national security and termed it as one of the reasons for his joining it. The BJP also acknowledged him as a “nationalist’’.

Meanwhile, Punjab BJP unit president Ashwani Sharma has also met Capt Amarinder along with other senior BJP leaders including Srininvas, Dr Subhash Sharma, Jiwan Gupta and Rajesh Bagga. It was the first meeting between senior Punjab BJP leaders with Capt Amarinder Singh after he joined the party in Delhi. They discussed the prevailing political scenario in Punjab and future course of action of the party. Capt Amarinder later tweeted: “Pleased to host the state BJP president Ashwani Sharma ji and other senior leaders of the party at my residence today. Together we will work hard for a better and secure future of our state and our country.”

Capt’s journey so far

Born on March 11, 1942, Amarinder joined the Indian Army in 1963 through Indian Military Academy (IMA), served for three years till 1966; he also took part in the 1965 India-Pakistan War.

He joined Congress and became MP in 1980 though left the party in protest against the Operation Blue Star in 1984 despite being a close friend of former prime minister late Rajiv Gandhi. Capt Amarinder joined Akali Dal and was the agriculture minister in the then Surjit Singh Barnala government in 1985.

He, however, returned to Congress  in 1998 when he was denied a ticket for election in 1997 by Akali Dal. Led by Capt Amarinder, the five-time MLA and two-time MP, the party had also won nine of the total Lok Sabha seats in 2019. However, Capt Amarinder was unceremoniously removed as chief minister in September 2021 due to rumblings in the party following which he also quit from the party.

For record, it was an ugly power tussle in the Congress that created ugly divisions within the party because of the feud between Capt Amarinder and other senior leaders including Navjot Singh Sidhu which raged with Sidhu and several other Congress legislators flaying Capt Amarinder Singh’s functioning and holding multiple rounds of meetings with the central leadership and that led to its his exit and subsequently Congress’ debacle in 2022 polls.