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The highest political office that any individual can occupy in any state in India’s federal system is that of chief minister (CM). For the last 25 years – since the assassination of Punjab’s Congress party CM Beant Singh in August 1995 – that office was held in Punjab by Parkash Singh Badal (for 15 years) and Amarinder Singh (for 9.5 years).
Badal appears to have withdrawn from politics due to old age and the debacle suffered by the Akali Dal in the 2017 Punjab assembly elections. He was the most astute bourgeois politician in Punjab, with a clear understanding of the state’s public mood, to which he often referred as the ‘Sikh pyche’. He understood that a major reason for the electoral debacle suffered by the Akali Dal was the widely-held suspicion that his party was hobnobbing with the now discredited Sacha Sauda sect for petty electoral gains, and that his government had mishandled the investigation into the sacrilege of the holy Sikh scripture because of the suspected involvement of the sect.
Amarinder Singh (of the Patiala royal family) seems to be following a different trajectory. The Badal and Patiala families are among the wealthiest families and largest landowners in Punjab, though most of the wealthiest families are located in the industrial belt of Ludhiana and the steel town of Gobindgarh. Due to the religious demographics of Punjab’s population, the wealthy industrial bourgeoisie of these towns mainly belonging to the minority Khatri Hindu community, tend to lie low in political competition but use access to state power to expand their business empires. This business-politics nexus may change in the future; a subject that will repay attention and analysis.
Individuals assume importance in socio-political life when they become signifiers of the undercurrents in the social-political community they belong to, or they provide a lead in articulating socio-political trends in the community. Conversely, individuals become irrelevant when they misread what the Italian Marxist philosopher and revolutionary Antonio Gramsci called the ‘common sense’ of the socio-political community.
Using this Gramscian analytical framework of ‘common sense’, we examine here the rise, fall and what is appearing to be the further fall of Amarinder Singh.
First the rise. Before 1984, Amarinder was known mainly to the residents of Patiala city who had elected him as a member of the Indian parliament. He won on a Congress ticket, but it was not his association with the Congress party that led to his victory; rather, it was because he was descended from the royal family of Patiala for whom many residents of the city still cherished a feudalistic reverence.
Outside Patiala and some areas around the family’s ancestral town of Mehraj, he had no political influence. The Operation Bluestar assault on the Golden Temple in June 1984 thrust him into the limelight not only in Punjab and Indian politics, but also internationally. He took the bold step of resigning from the Congress party and from parliament to protest the Bluestar action. He was one of only two Congress MPs who resigned; the other, Devinder Singh Garcha, stepped down primarily, as became widely known then, because of family pressure – Garcha’s father had rung him up to say that he could only return to the family home if he resigned.
Amarinder resigned on principle due to his family’s claimed association with the sixth Sikh guru Hargobind (who had built the Akal Takhat which was destroyed during Operation Bluestar) and explained his decision in forceful terms in his letter of resignation. Although he did not outline any political vision beyond his decision to resign, he suddenly found himself the unofficial spokesman of the beleaguered and traumatised global Sikh community, which was feeling leaderless at this critical juncture, not least because the entire Akali leadership, even the second rung, had been arrested. In a similar manner, Khushwant Singh temporarily became the voice of the community after he returned the Padma Shri award and made a devastating speech in the Rajya Sabha criticising the Bluestar action. Both Amarinder and Khushwant at that time articulated the collective views – the ‘common sense’ – of the Sikh community.
Amarinder joined the Akali Dal, and during that phase of his political life he attracted respect in the Sikh academic community for one contribution which is not commonly known. The late Professor Harbans Singh who compiled the monumental four-volume Encyclopaedia of the Sikhs, invited Amarinder to write the chapter on the historic Anandpur Sahib Resolution. He did a good job of writing the introduction to the Resolution and provided a very competent English translation of the Resolution itself. Every entry in the Encyclopaedia is a document of lasting importance, and it is a sign of the intellectual, political and moral weakness of most Punjabi politicians that Amarinder has lately criticised the Resolution without reflecting on the contribution he himself made to its wider circulation among the academic community as a document of great significance.
He later rejoined the Congress party, and while his political profile was on the rise, his other major act was when, during his first term as Punjab’s CM, he achieved the abrogation of the River Acts (which were injurious to Punjab’s river water rights) in the Punjab state assembly. This was a hugely bold action that embarrassed the central leadership of his party and drew wrath from the Delhi-based nationalist media, but he stood his ground.
A further moment of glory came when in 2014 he decisively defeated Arun Jaitley, a prominent Bharatiya Janata Party leader, from the prestigious Amritsar parliamentary constituency. This was partly the result of luck; his party had decided to field him against Jaitley in Amritsar. Had he contested from his traditional Patiala seat, he would have been defeated by the leftwing AAP leader Dharamvir Gandhi, who in fact defeated Preneet Kaur, Amarinder’s wife, by a massive margin during the AAP surge in the Malwa region. However, Singh’s victory in Amritsar contributed to his leading the Congress party to victory in the Punjab assembly elections in 2017 and led to his becoming the CM of Punjab for the second time.
Then his fall began. During his rise, he represented the dominant views of the community, so unsurprisingly his fall began when he went against them.
The most dramatic blow to his reputation came when he criticised the opening of the corridor to Kartarpur Sahib during the celebration of the 550th anniversary of Guru Nanak’s birth. He appeared petty when he belittled the initiative of his political rival, Navjot Sidhu, in getting the corridor ready for the anniversary celebrations. He misread the mood in Punjab and in the global Sikh community. The Punjabis did not want confrontation with Pakistan, they did not want a war with Pakistan, and they enthusiastically welcomed the Pakistani government’s action in facilitating access to the sacred place where the guru had spent the last 18 years of his life.
Contrary to Punjabi and Sikh sentiments, Amarinder started indulging in ‘security-speak’ that resembled the BJP’s anti-Pakistan and anti-Muslim propaganda. Newly resurgent mutual affection between the Punjabis on either side of the border was being expressed both culturally and in literature, and there was a pronounced dislike of the security establishments in both countries who were undermining this trend. Amarinder was swimming against the tide. His growing political unpopularity led to his replacement as the state’s CM by the central leadership of his party.
And now came the further fall. After losing his chief ministership, if Amarinder had simply left the political field (as Parkash Singh Badal did), he would have retained the honour he had earlier earned for his actions on Bluestar and the river water disputes, and for his contribution to the Encyclopaedia. Instead, in offering a hand of friendship to the BJP (currently the most hated political organisation in Punjab due to the introduction of the new farm laws) through his newly-formed Punjab Lok Congress Party, he has not only dug his political grave, but also runs the risk of tarnishing his previous achievements. The farmers’ movement against the BJP government has overwhelming support among the population of Punjab and now represents the state’s ‘common sense’. He is out of tune with general opinion in Punjab and is unlikely to find any political allies within the state.
He has further damaged himself by supporting the BJP government’s recent move to extend the reach of the Border Security Force from the existing 15 km from the international border to 50 km from the border, which covers the area around the Golden Temple in Amritsar. His self-inflicted damage is so severe that any dissident Akali faction offering alliance with him will damage itself. The fact that Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa of Akali Dal (United) publicly refuted Amarinder’s claims of a possible alliance with the Dhindsa led Akali Dal has only heaped further humiliation on Amarinder.
Future political analysts and historians will use Amarinder as an example of how once-prominent individuals can be relegated to irrelevance if they lose touch with the views – the ‘common sense’ – of their socio-political community.
Pritam Singh is Professor Emeritus at the Oxford Brookes Business School, Oxford, UK, and the author of Economy, Culture and Human Rights: Turbulence in Punjab, India and Beyond.